Sacred space

On its 30th anniversary, SFJazz gambles on a 700-seat, $63 million concert hall and HQ. Can it re-energize a San Francisco scene?

Jon Santos and Esperanza Spaulding are set to perform

MUSIC There will be no bad seats at the new SFJazz Center in Hayes Valley; or at least, that's the goal.

The brand new jazz venue in the heart of town, a three-story, glass-encased structure with a circular concrete stadium bowl of an auditorium, educational components, rehearsal spaces, a cafe run by the Slanted Door's Charles Phan, and multiple bars opens Mon/21. It's a $63 million, 35,000-square-foot addition to Performing Arts Row, near Van Ness-adjacent locations such as the Davies Symphony Hall, and the War Memorial Opera House. It's the birth of a nonprofit jazz institution.

In the auditorium, 700 seats encircle and hover above a central stage — chairs behind the stage, up in the balcony, and practically up in the artists' faces on the ground level. Because the room so surrounds the stage, there's a direct sight line for every instrument being played, every hand grasping a horn, tickling keys, or plucking strings. There are platforms that can accordion and retract, making that enviable space near the stage open up into a temporary dance floor.

And all the seats have cup-holders. We're a long way from the smoke-filled, underground jazz clubs of the past.



And from those seats in the Robert N. Miner auditorium, patrons will see an impressive first season of SF Jazz at its new home. Fans already have high expectations, given SF Jazz's 30 years of hosting concerts and festivals at other venues like the Paramount in Oakland, and smaller clubs like Amnesia. Now with its own multi-use facility, the nonprofit has taken eclectic routes with its programming and contributions.

"This first season, when you look at some of the things we're doing here, it's just exciting as all hell," says founder and executive artistic director Randall Kline, barely able to contain that excitement, clad in a hardhat and reflective vest on the first level of the still-under-construction building. "[These events] fully take advantage of what we can do with the theater — something we couldn't do when we didn't have our own place."

For starters, there's a sold-out opening night celebration Jan. 23, hosted by Bill Cosby, along with a grand opening week of shows spotlighting McCoy Tyner, the SFJazz Collective, and more, followed by a week of big band with the Realistic Orchestra (Jan. 31), and swing with Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickets (Feb. 3).

In March, virtuoso Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain will perform four nights, and in April there will be a Weimar Germany themed weekend with Ute Lemper, Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, and a screening of the classic Metropolis (1927), with live music by the Clubfoot Orchestra.

But even more to Kline's point: there will be five resident artistic directors for the 2013 through '14 season (along with Kline's overall vision). The five — Jason Moran, Regina Carter, Bill Frisell, John Santos, and Miguel Zenon — are musicians with distinctive backgrounds and viewpoints, programming four days of thematic events.



For his days, Santos hand-picked colleagues and artists working and performing in the Caribbean style. He chose De Akokan, a duo made up of Cuban singer-songwriter-composer Pavel Urkiza and Puerto Rican saxophonist-composer Ricardo Pons, because "they're phenomenal artists...and they rarely come here." He also invited cutting edge trombonist-composer Papo Vazquez, who lives in New York but is steeped in the Afro-Puerto Rican tradition.

During a phone call a few hours before my hard-hatted venue walk-through with Kline, architect Mark Cavagnero, and Marshall Lamm, who does public relations for the center, Santos discusses his anticipation and interest in the upcoming schedule.

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