On its 30th anniversary, SFJazz gambles on a 700-seat, $63 million concert hall and HQ. Can it re-energize a San Francisco scene?
Because of this, I ask Bokar if other jazz club owners in the city see the center as a contentious new rival. He categorically denies that assertion.
"Jazz is an art form and it has no competition, every club and club owner adds to the fabric of our community and SFJazz is the big brother. I know how hard it is to promote jazz and [Kline] has been working at it for several decades," he says. "He deserves tremendous credit for bringing this to San Francisco. SFJazz is a very powerful organization and I think that there is an opportunity for [it] to partner with the smaller venues like Savanna Jazz. The smaller venues are the incubators of local talent and I think that they would benefit from a closer relationship, which in turn would solidify community commitment."
It may be the older sibling to smaller clubs, but given the economy, and the tough climate for all music venues in San Francisco really, the SF Jazz Center does also feel like a gamble itself. But to extend and belabor the metaphor, Kline's got a good hand.
Santos describes the center to me as a "bold experiment."
"The amount of money that it has taken to build that place and keep the doors open is phenomenal, and in a lot of ways, it's a step out into the darkness," he says. "But I see the potential of it as just limitless. It can be such an incredible thing, if the community supports it. That's what I'm hoping will happen."
NATIONAL ART FORM
Santos points out that the jazz center is unique in its fans and patrons differing from the typical performing arts donor, and will have specific obstacles because of that.
"In a way, it's abstract, when you think of it like, OK, there it is, next door to the symphony hall, to the ballet, to the opera, within one block of those institutions. It's wonderful to have jazz there, and standing toe-to-toe with those institutions, and getting the respect it deserves. Getting public support from the city and the country and the state, as it should be, because jazz is our national art form. The symphony and the ballet and the opera are not."
"The difficult part is that the opera and the symphony and the ballet have traditional well-heeled audiences of supporters. Jazz does not. Jazz is grassroots; it's working class. The audience for jazz and the community from where jazz comes out of is not a deep-pocket kind of community. And that's where the challenge lies."
If anyone can face that, it's Kline. It's part of his whole bootstrapping essence, how he's kept SFJazz up, running, and prominent for the better part of three decades. From its humble beginnings as the three-day Jazz in the City festival, promoted solely by Kline, to the Summerfest, the SFJazz High School All-Stars group, the monthly Hotplate series, and finally, the SFJazz Center.
Leaning against the guardrail on the second floor of the building, gazing out through the wall of glass to the greater Hayes Valley neighborhood, Kline smiles as he talks of the city's history with jazz, his own life mirroring it for quite some time. "I've been here since 1976, and I've seen a lot of patterns in the scene; it ebbs and flows, the economy changes. This building is a reflection of the sociology; we're trying to be relevant, so we've chosen a different model, we've chosen institution."
It's one of a few times that will come up in my conversations with those involved with the center.
"Could we apply that older model for culture to a younger, vibrant art form that's relevant to the city?" he asks, rhetorically. "That's the aim here, to try something that's of our time."
Jazz hands: Some SFJazz season highlights
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