For 50 years, the Blue Bear Music School has been spreading the joy of rock’n’roll

Krista Lotto (top), Mitzi Torres and Laith Frangoul during Spencer Layne’s Guitar Lesson 1 at the Blue Bear School of Music in Fort Mason. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Blue Bear Music School, San Francisco’s original “School of Rock” topped off its 50th anniversary celebration this year with a unique gift from Jack Black.

The actor, who starred in the 2003 fictional film “School of Rock,” recently joined members of the non-profit organization’s youth program on Zoom to record an effusive version of “Suffragette City” from David Bowie.

“A good friend of mine told me about Blue Bear and the amazing job they’ve done,” Black said in a statement. “I jumped at the chance to celebrate their 50th anniversary by jamming the Bowie with their teenage all-star group. So much fun. What an honor.”

As part of its celebrations, Blue Bear is also holding a fundraising auction until Tuesday, November 30, giving supporters the opportunity to bid on items including original Fillmore posters from the 1960s, tickets to Metallica’s upcoming 40th anniversary fan club shows at Chase Center in San Francisco in December.

Fundraising posters hang on the wall as Stephen Rosenfield sings during Kevin Mullane’s Everything Rock Band workshop at the Blue Bear School of Music. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Founded in 1971 with the mission of welcoming students of all ages and all levels, Blue bear taught tens of thousands of city residents how to play a riff, wear a melody, and navigate the choppy waters of the music industry.

The school is guided by Executive Director Steve Savage’s philosophy of letting its educators “teach as they want to teach.” The school’s 40 or so teachers include drummer Jay Lane, who performs regularly with Bob Weir and Les Claypool; Jasmin Moosavi, singer of the group Azar; and local singer-songwriter Francesca Lee.

Steve Savage (left) and Steve Strauss, founders of the Blue Bear Music School, pictured in 1996, founded the school in 1971 to help fund their rock band. The group only lasted two years, but the Fort Mason nonprofit school continues. Photo: Russell Yip / The Chronicle 1996

“It’s really driven by the people rather than any sort of doctrine or preconceived idea about what music should be,” said Savage, who also co-founded the school. “We want to empower people to play the music they love. “

On its campus inside the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, along the city’s northern waterfront, budding rock stars can sign up for private lessons, group classes, group workshops. or music camps, or – if they are under 4 – learn to shake a tambourine in a nearby park as part of the school’s Little Bears program.

Liana Holmberg, whose son attended Blue Bear’s Get Ready to Rock summer camp, happily reports that “it was the best camp he had ever attended, and his love for music was absolutely illuminated.”

The kids who jammed with Black are members of the Blue Bear teen all-star groups, Dietary Supplements and Hellaments, both of whom were educated in school. They are the last of the countless groups that have gathered there over the years.

“Blue Bear is an amazing organization and I love any group of people who spread the absolute joy of music,” said Matthew Cava, a longtime student. “It’s the only thing that has carried me for many years.”

Blue Bear educates approximately 850 students per term. It also offers free music education classes to thousands of other San Francisco kids through public schools and community organizations.

Not bad for an idea that was conceived as a hobby by a few members of the band who anticipated a completely different career path.

“The plan was to have a little music school and teach music until we got our big break,” said Savage, recalling his brief stint with the psychedelic era band Wolfgang & Strauss. “School was just a fun way to make money for us.”

His group broke up two years later. But for five decades, the school continued to serve San Francisco.

A 1971 photograph of the original location of the Blue Bear School of Music hangs at the long-standing current location at Fort Mason. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Blue Bear Waltzes School of Music toured several small storefronts across town – including the space on Ocean Avenue currently occupied by Zanze’s Cheesecakes – before shortening its name and becoming a staple of the Fort Mason Center in 1978.

But even this move seemed risky at first.

“For many years we thought we were going to be kicked out,” Savage said. “But we hung on.”

Over the years, Blue Bear has brought together several artists and groups who have performed at local venues like the Fillmore, Chapel, and Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. It has also hosted a series of benefit concerts featuring Mavis Staples, Los Lobos and Elvin Bishop.

“I was a classical pianist, but I didn’t even know what the chords were,” said San Francisco musician Bonnie Hayes, who signed a contract with a major record company and wrote songs for Cher and Bette. Midler. “My teacher taught me the chords and opened up the whole world of music to me. I was there as much as I could.

Mitzi Torres (left), Elizabeth Kidd and Laith Frangoul await the start of Spencer Layne’s Guitar Class 1 at the Blue Bear School of Music. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a new set of challenges for Blue Bear. When the city’s non-essential businesses were forced to shut down in March 2020, the school had to cancel all of its in-person programs. In less than a week, the school switched to an online model, offering courses with its 40 music teachers.

“We learned to use Zoom very quickly,” said Savage. “We discovered that for private lessons, it was not a bad alternative. But our group program disappeared and classes hobbled. We fell to about 60% of our normal income, which was a struggle. “

The school was able to survive, operating at a limited capacity, thanks to a pair of loans from the Paycheck Protection Program and help from local benefactors including the Hellman Foundation, which produces the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park.

Blue Bear reopened for in-person classes in the fall, but still operates with a hybrid model and is once again working to scale up its outreach program, which offers free classes and music education classes in underserved areas of the city such as Bayview and Tenderloin.

“It’s a fight,” Savage said. “Nonprofits are always limited, but we have a great staff and it’s gratifying to be able to do this work. “

Savage is already looking ahead to the next 50 years.

“I had no idea how crucial Blue Bear would be in my life and become what it has become, which I think is an important cultural institution in San Francisco,” said Savage. “I feel lucky and privileged.”

Ida Belisle leaves the Blue Bear School of Music in Fort Mason. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Blue Bear Music School: 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, SF 415-673-3600.

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