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On The Corner Masthead


June 20, 2017 | by Richard Scheinin

Terence Blanchard, Joshua Redman, Matt Penman and Eric Harland at SFJAZZ

When drummer Zakir Hussain was growing up in Mumbai, India, he often played in settings where the audience was close enough to touch. He and the other musicians would sit cross-legged on a riser, surrounded by their listeners—the knees of those in front practically knocking against the players, who could hear them whisper and feel their breath.

The atmosphere was sensuous and combustive.


It was almost like the riser was an atoll in the sea of people around it, and you can imagine the kind of energy and empathy and vibration that comes at you from all directions.

Zakir Hussain

“It was almost like the riser was an atoll in the sea of people around it, and you can imagine the kind of energy and empathy and vibration that comes at you from all directions,” says Hussain, who likens that experience to playing in jazz clubs where front-row listeners practically hang over the pianist and drummer—and to playing at the SFJAZZ Center, where he sits cross-legged in front of his tabla, with the audience surrounding the stage on all four sides. He can see into the sea of faces. He and his fellow musicians can hear whispered responses to the music from the front rows, and in this intimate setting the audience is like air to a flame. The music becomes a conversation that includes the listeners, a conversation that can be “as tender as lovers holding hands under the table,” he says. Or it can be so super-charged that peak moments feel like “500 people arriving as one at the top of Mount Everest, and everybody in the room is aware that they were involved in this journey, in this arrival.”

Zakir Hussain at the 2017 SFJAZZ Gala, which honored the tabla master with a Lifetime Achievement Award

As the upcoming season at SFJAZZ approaches (Sep. 7, 2017–May 27, 2018), consider that its 320 concerts are likely to include a few that might change your life—rearrange your brain cells or take you to the top of Mount Everest. If you are a music lover, you understand this notion of the “transcendent moment.” That’s what Randall Kline, the Executive Artistic Director of SFJAZZ, calls the kind of peak musical experience that Hussain describes.

If music is a form of dialogue—firstly among musicians, but also between musicians and the audience—then the peak experience happens when performers and listeners form a feedback loop, a virtuous circle, as they say in Silicon Valley, where the energy gets volleyed back and forth and finally starts to accelerate toward the transcendent moment.

But what does it take to make that happen? And can a venue be designed to enhance the chance of transcendent moments occurring?

Miner Auditorium, SFJAZZ Center

That’s what Kline wondered a decade or so ago when he began raising funds to build the SFJAZZ Center. It was the question he asked San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero, an avid admirer of two of the 20th century’s mystic geniuses: John Coltrane, the saxophonist, and Louis Kahn, the architect.

The question got Cavagnero reflecting on Coltrane’s “lifelong pursuit of beauty,” as he puts it, and the saxophonist’s search for “the underlying structures that are universal, in order to bring that beauty forth.” Cavagnero liked to think of architecture in a similar light—that through dogged experimentation (and intuition), one might discover the mysterious combination of proportions, dimensions and design elements that bring forth beauty. Kahn had written about such things: “wonder,” he once said, is “the motivator of knowledge,” and knowledge leads to “a sense of the harmony of systems.”

Looking back, Cavagnero remembers thinking, “A guy like Coltrane wants to be in this pure simple space.” It’s just not right, he says, that musicians must grow “inured to making beautiful music in not beautiful spaces. They’re trying to find something beautiful in every note—in this temporal thing, this note that lasts only for an instant. So shouldn’t it be possible,” he asks, to create a space, a concert hall, where the musician, by virtue of the surroundings, feels “more sensitized to find something more beautiful? Where there’s a confluence between finding beauty in the space and finding beauty in the temporal moment? It’s like putting an artist, a painter, in a beautiful gallery or studio where there’s just the right balance of light,” he goes on. “As an architect you would like your best work to help people feel some form of enhancement or inspiration, where they can get to a place where they might not have otherwise gotten.”

As an architect you would like your best work to help people feel some form of enhancement or inspiration, where they can get to a place where they might not have otherwise gotten.

Mark Cavagnero


And so the design process began with the idea that the SFJAZZ Center would be something more than a concert hall.

Cavagnero and Kline both had grown up in New England and they found inspiration in Boston’s Old South Meeting House, which was built in 1729 and later became the organizing spot for the Boston Tea Party. Its design is simple: Seating surrounds the dais on three sides, allowing visitors to make eye contact with one another across the room. Likewise, Cavagnero studied 20th century churches designed by Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright in Rochester, N.Y., and suburban Chicago, respectively—monumental but uncluttered gathering places, where congregants feel physically connected and purely focused.

Cavagnero also toured some of the “scratchy clubs” that Kline loved in New York, including the Village Vanguard. Musicians were polled on their favorite venues: a church basement in Montreal, incredibly intimate; an amphitheater in France, where you can look up and out, connecting with faces in the crowd.

You can see where all this was headed.

At the SFJAZZ Center, Cavagnero, working closely with Kline, would design a hybrid of club and amphitheater with adaptable seating for between 350 and 700 listeners. It would be a communal space with raked seating surrounding a thrust stage, allowing performers to look up and out into the crowd. Audience members—none of them more than 55 feet from the stage—would be able to look clear across the hall and observe how other listeners respond to the music.

From the start, the hall’s design seemed to resonate with performers. In February 2013, less than a month after the center opened, bassist Dave Holland gave a solo recital. As he cradled his instrument, his warm and sturdy sound filled the auditorium and Holland told his audience that he felt as if he were performing for family in his living room.

Now as SFJAZZ prepares for its sixth season in its $64 million home—after something on the order of 1,500 concerts—Holland is returning for another solo show, as well as for a night of duets with pianist Kenny Barron (both during the bassist’s weeklong residency, March 22–25, 2018).

The new season – the organization’s 35th since its founding—promises a high degree of intimacy, including many nights of duets. Those will include tap dancer Savion Glover performing with drummers Marcus Gilmore (Jan. 4 and 5, 2018) and Jack DeJohnette (Jan. 6 & 7, 2018); pianist Hiromi with harpist Edmar Castaneda (Nov. 16-19, 2017); bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer (part of McBride’s residency, Oct. 5-8, 2017); as well as a solid week of duets with an array of artists (Sept. 14-17, 2017). The September shows will include one that pairs mandolinist Chris Thile and pianist Brad Mehldau, and another between Zakir Hussain and saxophonist Joshua Redman, who grew up in Berkeley and has been involved with SFJAZZ since he was a high school student in the 1980s.

Joshua Redman plays with The Bad Plus

Redman draws a connection between the conversational nature of jazz and the intimate design of the hall. Onstage, he feels nestled amid the audience: “It’s encircling and enveloping,” he says. Artificial barriers that exist in a formal concert hall—where performers look down at the audience from a remote stage—are gone, and listeners seem to respond differently as a result: “There’s something about the energy. I feel like the responsiveness of the audience and the focus of the audience and the engagement of the audience—it felt different immediately in that space.”

He likes to turn around and have a look at the people watching him from behind: “It’s just cool to look up and see some folks,” he says, laughing, adding that the organization “really nailed it” with the new hall.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter how beautiful a space is or how great the lighting is or how close you are to the audience—if the acoustics aren’t conducive to intimacy and interaction, none of that matters. 

joshua redman

“But ultimately it doesn’t matter how beautiful a space is or how great the lighting is or how close you are to the audience—if the acoustics aren’t conducive to intimacy and interaction, none of that matters. First and foremost there has to be a great dialogue among the musicians, and one of the reasons that jazz tends to work best in clubs, and feel best in clubs, is because the fundamental wavelength on which jazz musicians relate—their ground zero—is rhythm. While you’re improvising and creating these brand new melodies and harmonic structures—can you still groove? In jazz, that’s the base on which everything is built.”

Redman connects his “ground zero” experience in the hall to the clarity of its sound system, designed by LA acoustician Sam Berkow. In larger halls, the rhythm often “starts to feel diffuse,” but SFJAZZ created its system “first and foremost with small-group jazz in mind, so you can hear the rhythm clearly, but you also can kind of feel the rhythm in your body and your bones. And I think the audience can feel that, too. I’ve sat in the hall, and you can feel the pulse, and that really helps the audience relate on that fundamental level.”

Dianne Reeves

Singer Dianne Reeves (who performsNov. 30–Dec. 3) picks up on Redman’s thread: “If I sing at a whisper, everybody can hear what I’m saying. The room allows you to have many colors and many dynamics, even when I’m singing off the mic, which I love to do. And there’s a beautiful intimate relationship that happens between the musicians in my band, and the way that the place is constructed, it allows the audience to be privy to this kind of intimacy. You can feel them feeling it, and if a note or a sound or a word sends them, they let you know. It’s kind of what you get in church.”

She also likens it to a small club she attended while growing up in Denver, known as Ebbets Field. Her cousin George Duke, the pianist, performed there, as did singer Donny Hathaway: “They’d get up on that stage and the audience would be ignited, and every little thing, every subtlety of sound—the audience would be right there with it. You could feel the tingle, and that’s what I feel at SFJAZZ. They’ve done their homework in really creating a place where you can feel the life of the music.”

That might be because architect Cavagnero went out of his way to minimize distractions. The air-cooling system is tucked away, silent, beneath the seats. (Engineers groused when that feature was first proposed.) And the hall seems almost to be clothed in a neutral-toned suit: gray oak panels rise up the walls and across the ceiling, the grain of the wood rotating in one direction. It’s handsome, uniform and a little bit cool, not calling attention to itself. The only warm materials are on the stage, which is made of white oak and intended to “draw the eye down,” says Cavagnero, “almost as if the stage is a domestic place and the musicians should be living there.”

Singer Mary Stallings (who performs Mar 29–Apr 1, 2018) grew up just a mile or two from the SFJAZZ Center and likens performing on its stage to “standing in a cloud, where I’m surrounded by peaceful energy that resonates from my toes to the top of my head. When you’re in an environment like that—that’s it for me. Every note I sing feels warmer than the one before; I’m sending out the vibes.”

SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Mary Stallings

She did just that one recent evening, performing with a quartet of simpatico players, who gave Stallings a silky rhythm ride. The house lights were low, casting soft shades of blue, purple and gold as a backdrop to the music, which was slinky, swinging, sexy—and often very quiet. Stallings is a less-is-more singer: elegant, heating up each note, underlining the meaning of a lyric.

“Don’t tell me, ‘cause I want to talk about you,” she sang.

Her listeners were stone silent, captured by Stallings, who might have been singing at San Francisco’s old Black Hawk nightclub, where Dizzy Gillespie discovered her in the early ‘60s. She sang Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections,” the music fading out to silence. She told a story about sitting in an empty club with Monk at the piano—“just Monk, the bartender and me, being elevated to another dimension,” she said with a knowing laugh.

Now she was doing the elevating: Mary Stallings, standing in her cloud, inviting her listeners to join her.