On its 30th anniversary, SFJazz gambles on a 700-seat, $63 million concert hall and HQ. Can it re-energize a San Francisco scene?
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.
The Bay Area bred percussionist will also be premiering his own Filosofia Caribena II, which refers to Caribbean philosophies and traditions — those that have informed his entire body of work. "[It] blends all the experiences of Black American music with Caribbean traditions, and it goes into the whole socio-political aspect of how the music really represents resistance and the identity of a whole group of people that identify culturally, even though we don't live in Cuba or Puerto Rico, but we certainly grew up in and maintained those traditions."
Adding, "Jazz was born in that environment, in New Orleans, in the Caribbean community. We're making those connections between jazz and the Caribbean roots."
Frisell's batch of shows, beginning April 18, will include multimedia pieces with projections and orchestras, readings of Allen Ginsber's Kaddish, and Hunter S. Thompson's The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved (the latter of which is rumored to be narrated by Tim Robbins).
Moran's residency likely represents the scope of the auditorium's versatility best: he'll open with a solo acoustic piano night (May 2), followed by a "Fats Waller Dance Party" with Meshell Ndegeocello that utilizes the dance-floor, then break out the inspired, possibly nutty, concept of a skateboarding jazz piece. There will be an actual half-pipe on the lower level of the room — seats pushed back — with professional skateboarders riding back and forth in the curved structure to Moran's musical accompaniment.
It'll be one of many configurations for that striking room. The specifics of the auditorium were big challenges for architect Cavagnero — the acoustics, the balance of sound (such as making sure solo piano and thundering skateboarding dips both fill the space equally), isolating street noise, creating those excellent sight lines from every angle.
"The idea of the building was to make the big concrete room the sacred space for music, the focus space," says Cavagnero, walking up the stairs in the building's glass-encased entryway. "That was going to be the closed, sacred space, [and] everything else would wrap around it and be as open and public as we could make it."
To that end, the rest of the building has floor-to-ceiling glass, and the staircase has no columns supporting it, just thin titanium rods that double as the guardrail. The second floor has bars on either ends and terraces with glass doors that fully open, along with tiled murals representing the history of jazz in the city, with long-gone clubs painted throughout.
It's clear that this building is meant to be more than a standard music venue, the goal is to be an institution.
"So, if the paradigm is: clubs are harder to run and have live music, well, if we could have the same kind of vibrant music in an institution that supported that kind of thing, to build up a community of people that cared about that kind of thing — which is the gamble I guess we're making here in this building — we can build it for the jazz community," says Kline. "[The goal is to have] a great place to hang out and hear live music, where new artists can grow and premiere, and be nurtured."
And it is hard to run live jazz venues in the city. Nearing the end of 2012, the owners of Oakland's Yoshi's filed for involuntary bankruptcy to put its San Francisco location in Chapter 11 if it couldn't meet an agreement with its partners, the Rrazz Room switched venues under a cloud of controversy stemming from an allegedly racist former manager of its then-location, and Savanna Jazz had to fight off foreclosure.
"We have not seen an increased interest for the art form [recently] primarily because the economy is down significantly and the arts are usually the first to suffer," says Savanna Jazz co-owner Pascal Bokar.
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."
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
A rare old school jazz legend in the center's inaugural season — stunning and dapper pianist Tyner will "consecrate" the space by performing with the SFJazz house band.
Jan. 24, 7:30pm, $50–$150
Swing is still huge in SF, and this celebration of the classic big band sound pairs the 17-member Montclair Women with the 20-member Realistic Orchestra (who've big-banded Bjork) for a wall of swingin' sound. The SFJazz High School All-Stars Orchestra opens.
Jan. 31, 7:30pm, $25
Oh heck yes.
Feb. 22-24, 7:30pm, $25–$65
The gorgeous longing of Portuguese fado washes over the Bay in the form of the wonderfully voiced Mariza, a spellbinding star whose repertoire spotlights acoustic melancholy melodies from Brazil, Cape Verde, North Africa, and beyond.
Mar. 14-17, 7:30pm, $25–$65
Beloved Bay Area bandleader and jazz evangelist digs deep in his knowledge of Cuban, Latin, and indigenous Caribbean styles to deliver a heady trip through ancient Iberian influences and contemporary island expressions.
Mar. 23, 7:30pm, $25–$65
San Francisco's Club Foot Orchestra performs its renowned futuristic soundtrack to Fritz Lang's silent sci-fi masterpiece.
Apr. 14, 7:30pm, $20–$40
Überhip guitarist Bill Frissell, an SFJazz resident artistic director, applies his downtown cool pedigree to two überhip literary iconoclasts. He'll be conducting an ace team of musicians for multimedia presentations of Ginsberg's epic poem of mourning and Thompson's notorious, uproarious 1970 article about the grand horse race. With visual design by Ralph Steadman for both programs, classic counterculture will be out in force.
Ginsberg: Apr. 18, 7pm and 9:30pm, $35–$80
Thompson: Apr. 20, 7:30pm and Apr. 21, 4pm and 7pm, $35–$80
"Jazz wild card" and MacArthur Genius pianist Jason Moran gets contemporary with new trio Bandwagon, performing a rolicking set as a who's-who of SF skateboarders shows off the flexibility of the new center.
May 4, 7:30pm, $20–$40