The Community Music Center is busting out of its Mission District home, and not just because of the long-planned expansion of its Victorian campus on Capp Street that’s about to break ground.
In celebrating 100 years of offering tuition-free music classes to students of all ages and skill levels, the organization reached across the Bay to bring a beloved musician, educator and artist into the CMC fold. A founding faculty member of the Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), pianist/composer Cava Menzies spent the past two decades nurturing gifted young East Bay artists, and she’s at the center of an ambitious series celebrating the CMC’s centennial year.
Building on a video project that Menzies started independently as an antidote to isolation in the early days of the pandemic lockdown, CMC commissioned “(Re)Imagine: 100 New Works from Cava Menzies & Community Music Center.” The series begins this week on the CMC website, and will premiere two new videos per day through May 23.
Menzies, who’s also a visual artist, vocalist and songwriter, is directly responsible for half of the videos. The other 50 are by CMC’s Young Musicians and Mission District Young Musicians Programs, as well as international and local musicians. Reached by phone last week, she had just turned in the first batch of videos the night before, and was still buzzing from the way a project born out of pandemic-induced torpor expanded into an undertaking with global reach.
She first got the inkling to reach out to a former student in the early weeks of spring, 2020, “when we were all bored and laying on the floor,” Menzies said. As she communicated with drummer and OSA graduate Jayla Hernandez, Menzies figured out they could collaborate via video to create a new piece like they’d often done while working together in the studio.
“She sent me a short video, I responded, put them together and posted it,” Menzies said. “I immediately started getting texts from students. Alumni started noticing and suggesting other musicians it would be cool to feature. One of my philosophies is to create multi-generational bridges whenever I can, and I started thinking, how do we allow collaborations to happen? What are the most unusual pairings that can happen?”
The videos quickly gained notice well beyond OSA circles. Menzies ended up collaborating with musicians from South Africa, French-run Réunion Island, Mexico, and a former student living in Jerusalem. Her former OSA colleague Sylvia Sherman, CMC’s program director, reached out to recruit her for the centennial celebration. Menzies hadn’t been spent any time at the Capp Street campus, and was duly impressed by the building, faculty and students when she started coming by for onsite sessions.
“I came in with such an assumption, picturing a stark, cold San Francisco building,” she said. “So to walk into such a warm, nurturing space, through this gorgeous garden into an old Victorian, to see the transformation of a home space into a place where music lives and breathes, I was blown away.”
CMC’s historic headquarters in the Mission is about to undergo a new transformation. In the works for a decade, the remodel will provide several new large classrooms for ensembles and group classes, a second recital hall, and ADA accessibility, “allowing the CMC to provide 1,000 additional students to study here in our current tuition-free programs,” said CMC Executive Director Julie Rulyak Steinberg. She added that classes will largely be able to continue during construction, as will online classes and programming at the CMC Richmond District campus.
“It’s no secret the CMC has been in want of space for a very long time,” she continued. “It’s a well-loved Victorian, and we’ve been growing in recent years, but not at our main campus. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow in place, to create an accessible space, and more space appropriate for music making.”
The CMC is also expanding its programming with a new Black Music Studies program, developed and taught by long-time faculty member Maestro Curtis. The patriarch of a musical clan that has gained national attention through YouTube posts and appearances on America’s Got Talent, he’s a well-traveled multi-instrumentalist deeply versed in jazz, blues, soul and R&B.
On April 23, Curtis presents “A Song of Triumph: The History of Black Music,” bringing the CMC’s centennial celebration to the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. The new work features the Curtis Family C-Notes and special guests, including Bishop James Adams, James Henry, Pastor Gerald Gordon, Ken Little, Larry Douglas, Ricardo Scales, Tony Bolivar, Neil Stallings, and Dorothy Morrison (the lead vocalist on “Oh Happy Day,” the breakthrough 1967 gospel hit by the Edwin Hawkins Singers).
For Menzies, who recently left OSA after 20 years, the opportunity to reestablish ties in San Francisco came at an opportune moment. The daughter of jazz trumpet great Eddie Henderson, she frequented the city while she was growing up. Her new position as creative director for Kingmakers, an Oakland-based educational program focused on the wellbeing of Black boys, probably won’t leave her with much extra time, “but I’d like to have an ongoing relationship with the faculty, though I don’t know what that looks like,” she said.
“I’ve been doing a lot more work in San Francisco the past year than in 15 years before that. There are some great things happening in the music community there, something that’s resurfacing, and CMC is embodying that.”