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Originally published Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 5:32 AM

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SF Jazz Center a West Coast oasis for the genre

More than a decade in the making, the SFJazz Center opened last week, bringing hope and excitement to music fans.

Seattle Times Jazz Critic

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SAN FRANCISCO — In what is arguably the most important milestone in West Coast jazz since the advent of the Monterey Jazz Festival in1958, the unveiling of the SFJazz Center here on Jan. 23 inspired jazz fans, a notoriously fatalistic lot.

“There’s a slogan for a jazz radio station — ‘Keep Jazz Alive’ — every time I hear that I want to turn the radio off,” says SF Jazz Founder and Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline, as he generously conducts a one-on-one tour of his new hall during sound check.

As the scintillating saxophones of Joshua Redman and Joe Lovano waft up to the second balcony, Kline says, “That’s exciting, vibrant music. If you can build a place that shows how vibrant it can be, maybe more people might be interested.”

Kline makes it sound so simple. But he, of all people, knows it isn’t. Kline has been presenting the San Francisco Jazz Festival in other peoples’ houses all over the city since 1983. Until 12 years ago, the idea that the festival might have a home of its own wasn’t even on the agenda.

But in 2004, when he started meeting with architect Mark Cavagnero and the SFJazz board agreed to raise $60 million for a new hall, things got real, fast. Despite the Great Recession, the board found the money — ultimately, $64 million — and made this subtly elegant, three-story, 35,000 square foot, 700-seat hall in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, right next door to Davies Symphony Hall, a reality.

The SFJazz Center is the second theater in America designed specifically for jazz, the first being Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, in New York.

A feeling of giddy excitement and civic pride flooded Robert N. Miner Auditorium at the gala, as emcee Bill Cosby introduced a cavalcade of stars: pianists McCoy Tyner, Jason Moran and Chick Corea; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding; saxophonists Lovano, Redman and John Handy; and Seattle guitarist Bill Frisell.

Kline choked up as he introduced the first act, sizzling San Francisco vocalist Mary Stallings, whose inaugural song, “I Love Being Here With You” took on special meaning.

Much like the gourmet small plates served at the black-tie, red-carpet reception beforehand, the concert was a tasting menu of short, savory tidbits.

Highlights included Moran’s jangling deconstruction of Fats Waller’s “Yacht Club Swing,” a rollicking, two-tenor cascade by Lovano and Redman; Spalding’s spontaneous scat explosion; Corea’s mischievous electric piano on the SFJazz Collective’s version of the pianist’s famous tune, “Spain”; and Frisell and Corea’s subtle, exploratory pas de deux on the ballad, “It Could Happen to You.”

Frisell is one of five Resident Artistic Directors at SFJazz who will mount original projects for the organization over the next two years. In keeping with the West’s more casual attitude toward hierarchy and structure, SFJazz ensembles and programs are decentralized and diffuse, a philosophy reflected in the modular architecture of the new building.

The hall can be cut down to 350 seats, and with its steeply-raked setup, bar-stool like chairs in the balcony and cup-holders by every seat, it offers club-like intimacy. The acoustics are exquisite — clear and crisp, with a slightly dry, “natural” feel.

“The idea was to have the focus and amenities of a concert hall and the immediacy and relaxed nature of a club,” says Kline.

The Center also has an unusual, 90-seat, flat-floor rehearsal and concert space, the Joe Henderson Lab, which passers-by can see through a glass wall, another hallmark of Kline’s tilt toward the accessible and casual. (The hall’s restaurant will be open all day, not just when there are performances.)

Handy made a point of saying he was certain there would be music here “long after I’m gone.” As a closer, San Francisco writer and gala chair Robert Mailer Anderson (“Boonville”) nodded in the other direction, to the past, ritualistically cranking up a furniture-sized Victrola and playing a Billie Holiday 78 rpm record of her singing “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

The hall went dead quiet. For a moment it really felt like Billie was there.

Jazz felt very much alive, with a promising future.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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