Tenor saxophonist Camille Kerani Collins plays a solo at a small band jam session on a Saturday afternoon at the Pillars by Lake Merritt. August 29, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

When the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer reignited Black Lives Matter protests around the country in May, Ben Esposito shared the outrage and was eager to support the movement. But since his freshman year at Chicago’s DePaul University had been cut short by the pandemic, he was cooped up at his parents’ home in Alameda with nothing to do but practice on his drum kit. Playing club gigs to raise money wasn’t an option, but Esposito still wanted to use his musical talent to contribute to social justice organizations. He decided that playing outdoors, where musicians and audiences can safely distance, was the ticket. So he put out a call to other young, East Bay jazz musicians. 

Last Saturday at Lake Merritt, while the farmers’ market was underway and street vendors were selling their wares along Lakeshore, Esposito set his drum kit up on the grass near the Pergola and jammed with Berkeley tenor saxophonist Camille Collins, San Francisco trumpeter Andrew Stephens, and Walnut Creek bassist Aidan Pratte.

Esposito was so pleased with the positive response from players and pedestrians—by the end of the day they’d raised $120 in cash, and others Venmo’d money later on—that he said he plans to return for al fresco Saturday afternoon sessions through the fall. 

“This was the first week that I decided to advertise it as a jam session and a lot more players showed up,” said Esposito, 19. “We got an audience watching us, and we made a lot more as far as busking. We started with a bluesy New Orleans thing, just a groove, and that really took off. And since it was Charlie Parker’s 100th birthday, we played a lot of Bird tunes: ‘Donna Lee,’ ‘Chi Chi,’ ‘Relaxing at Camarillo,’ and some standards, like ‘Naima’ and ‘East of the Sun.’”

For Esposito, playing the gig meant lugging his full kit—with four drums, cymbals, and stands—out to the lake. When he put the call out to other jazz musicians to pick up their instruments in the name of justice, he found they were just as determined.

Drummer Ben Esposito playing at a jam session he organized with other jazz muscians down at the Pillars by Lake Merritt. August 29, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

“The musicians have been very happy and willing to help raise money for these causes without receiving any sort of pay or recognition,” said Esposito, who has donated funds to help arrested protesters bail out of jail in various cities, including in Oakland. Some of the money Esposito and the other players have raised has gone to the Black Organizing Project, which led a campaign that recently succeeded in removing police from Oakland schools, and to programs providing children with supplies and food while schools are shut down during the pandemic. 

“It reminds us of why we started expressing in this art form, to bring about a better world and help others through music,” said Esposito. “I’ve had friends that have come to play tell me that it feels good, and in some ways, makes playing more significant as we are channeling a good cause in our playing.”

A senior at Berkeley High, saxophonist Camille Collins met Esposito when they were in the school’s vaunted jazz band together. At 17, she’s already held her own on some of the region’s most prestigious stages. During her middle school years at the Oakland School for the Arts, she founded an all-girl quartet, Minor F, that started performing regularly at events around the East Bay. When they opened for Pete Escovedo at Yoshi’s in 2018 Collins realized her musical ambitions weren’t out of reach. “I thought, this is actually happening!” she said. 

Playing with Esposito last year in Berkeley High’s Combo A, they performed at the 2019 Charles Mingus High School Competition & Festival in New York City, where she won the outstanding soloist award. This year Collins is playing in the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars. While Collins has been undaunted by the scene’s sometimes insular dynamic, she wants to break down barriers other young people who might be jazz-curious have run into. 

Bassist Aidan Pratt digs into the bass line during a jam session at the Pillars by Lake Merritt on a Saturday afternoon. August 29, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

She recently launched a website for her new Young Musicians Collective, which provides “a way to connect kids from all backgrounds with free lessons with high school students and young adults,” she said. “I am a young woman of color, and I’ve found the jazz scene hasn’t always been the most inclusive. This is a great resource for any kid who wants to learn.” 

In many ways Collins is trying to share the kind of mentorship that’s been essential to her development as an artist. She’s forged a close bond with Oakland saxophone great Howard Wiley, who eschewed music school in favor of a series of rigorous, ego-checking bandstand academies with Berkeley jazz and blues vocalist Faye Carol, and his veteran horn-section mates in Lavay Smith’s Red Hot Skillet Lickers like trumpeter Allen Smith and saxophonist Jules Broussard. 

Wiley’s no-nonsense attitude didn’t immediately ingratiate him with Collins, a conspicuously talented player who was given free rein as an Oakland School for the Arts sixth-grader. When Wiley came in as a substitute teacher for one of her classes she recalls him munching from a big bag of kale chips and eventually sending her out into the hallway because she was being chatty and disruptive. 

“The first time I met Mr. Wiley I didn’t really like him,” she said with a laugh. “I was used to being everyone’s favorite. He didn’t care! I couldn’t get away with talking in class. He sent me out of the room. It was so embarrassing.”

Two years later she’d started gaining a local following with her quartet Minor F. Out of the blue she got a DM from Wiley praising a video of her band she’d posted on Instagram. Wiley offered to help her with her technique. Knowing that he didn’t take on many students, she got back to him and set up a lesson. 

“I assumed he had forgotten about our encounter,” she said. “But when I came over he said, ‘I remember you. You gave me that mean-ass look after I sent you out of the room.’ He keeps it so real.” 

“He’s the baddest dude on his instrument,” said Collins. “And as a teacher and educator he brings something so different. He places an emphasis on really knowing the tradition. How are you going to play Coltrane if you don’t know Lester Young?” 

Esposito has also benefited from the generosity of an older jazz professional who has helped him grow as a musician. Myron Cohen, the Walnut Creek drummer has become a patron saint of sorts for young trap players around the region, supplying equipment, guidance, and gigs to aspiring players. A good friend of drum legends Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins—Cohen leads the Billy Higgins Legacy Band—he was in charge of music for several years at Alameda’s Cinema Grill. Esposito had heard about Cohen from a friend, and when he was at the grill getting dinner with his family one night he saw Cohen playing and made a point of introducing himself. 

“I told him I was a drummer, and he immediately had me sit in,” Esposito said. “He was very friendly. As I was playing he said, ‘You sound alright, can you work Tuesday and Thursday? So that got me started gigging.” 

After that first gig, Cohen started giving Esposito advice about how to grow as a drummer. “He would help me out, tell me what to listen to. Playing there really helped me learn sensitivity, since the managers didn’t want you to play loud.”

Esposito has a bit more leeway these days playing at Lake Merritt. He can play as loud or soft as he wants. Looking to raise pandemic-weary spirits and funds for a good cause, Esposito, Collins and their comrades are bringing real jazz to the people.