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Jazz Mafia at the 2010 Monterey Jazz Festival ( Craig Lovell )

Jazz Mafia at the 2010 Monterey Jazz Festival ( Craig Lovell )

The long climb is finally over. After nine years of feverish summertime construction, the College of San Mateo is all dressed up and primed to swing again, which means that the resident campus radio station, KCSM (91.1 FM), is relaunching Jazz on the Hill on Saturday.

The free all-day concert long served as a thank-you to listeners but was put on a seemingly endless hiatus by the college’s extensive renovation program. This year the event not only showcases the breadth and depth of the Bay Area scene, it’s also a celebration of the college’s 50th anniversary, complete with public tours of the campus between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to show off the new digs, and opportunities to meet instructors, staff and students.

“We always intended to bring back Jazz on the Hill, but we didn’t know it was going to be quite so long,” says Marilyn Lawrence, KCSM’s general manager since 2000. “With class schedules, there’s only a narrow window when we can put it on to begin with, and every time we were getting set to do a Jazz on the Hill, lack of parking or construction made it impossible. What’s so exciting now is that the campus has been reborn.”

Featuring eight acts drawn almost entirely from the local scene (aside from one set highlighting Bay Area-raised New York jazz stars Taylor Eigsti, Julian Lage and Dayna Stephens), Jazz on the Hill offers something for everyone. Walnut Creek’s award-winning Northgate High School Jazz Band kicks off the event, followed by a band made up of KCSM personalities, including pianist Dick Conte and reed player Richard Hadlock (author of the classic book “Jazz Masters of the Twenties”).

Trombonist/bassist Adam Theis leads the horn-powered, hip-hop-inflected Jazz Mafia, and guitarist Terrence Brewer leads his muscular funk/fusion combo, Citizen Rhythm. Guitarist Paul Mehling’s Hot Club of San Francisco is the state’s leading gypsy jazz standard-bearer, and resurgent blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite is at the top of his game, with a recent release documenting his ongoing collaboration with Ben Harper, “Get Up!” (Stax).

“We put a lot of thought into it,” says “A Morning Cup of Jazz” co-host Alisa Clancy while taking a break from the station’s pledge drive.

“It’s always been our format to reach out to all of those segments, blues, straight-ahead, Latin jazz, students. Just this morning we got a lot of students pledging. They grew up listening to KCSM driving to school. They think of us as a big resource.”

Indeed, it’s hard to overstate the station’s significance in helping maintain a healthy scene in the Bay Area. The prodigious Santa Rosa-raised guitarist Julian Lage, who first performed at Jazz on the Hill at the age of 11, recalls the role that KCSM played as he was immersing himself in jazz.

“They played not only all the great historical figures, but all the people I was studying with or knew about,” says Lage, 25. “I’d hear George Marsh and Randy Vincent, the Bay Area contingent, and I grew up thinking that was the norm. And one of the first times I performed with my own band, a trio with bassist David Ewell and drummer Darrell Green, was Jazz on the Hill. They’ve been tremendously supportive.”

The event closes with the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, a band that provides another reminder of the Bay Area’s ongoing importance as a proving ground for rising talent. The 19-piece Latin dance orchestra co-led by trumpeter Steffen Kuehn and pianist Christian Tumalan just signed with the high-powered agency Columbia Artists Management. The band opens a fall national tour in Carmel on Oct. 23 with percussionist Tito Puente Jr. and two-time Grammy Award-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra vocalist Willy Torres.

While KCSM has faced several financial crises over the past decade, Lawrence says the station’s funding has stabilized, helped in no small part by the Internet. While the digital revolution undermined the financial model for most forms of media, public radio has tended to benefit, as there’s no advertising to lose and millions of listeners to gain.

“People are finding us,” Lawrence says. “We’ve listed ourselves with lots of different services, and now we find in our pledge drives we get calls from Denmark, Sweden and all 50 states.”

That’s something to celebrate, and after almost a decade, Jazz on the Hill provides some of those listeners a chance to meet their favorite musicians and DJs.

Jazz on the Hill

With Charlie Musselwhite, the Jazz Mafia, Terrence Brewer and more!
When: Saturday, June 1, 10 am – 6 pm
Where: College of San Mateo, 1700 W. Hillsdale Blvd., San Mateo
Tickets: Free. For details, go to