SFJAZZ.org | SFJAZZ Center at 10

On The Corner Masthead

SFJAZZ Center at 10:
Looking Back, Pushing Ahead

June 27, 2022 | by Richard Scheinin

SFJAZZ Center opening night concert, 1/23/13

The SFJAZZ 2022-23 Season is now on sale to the public, and we're looking forward to celebrating our 10th Season in the SFJAZZ Center with all of you. Here is a special piece by SFJAZZ staff writer Richard Scheinin that marks this historic occasion and appears in the 2022-23 Season catalog.

Ten years. How did that happen?

John Santos, the San Francisco-reared percussionist and bandleader, can scarcely believe it — that nearly a decade has passed since the SFJAZZ Center opened its doors. He has crystal-clear memories of opening night: Jan. 23, 2013. The full house. The sense of anticipation from the audience; you could feel it, like a vibration through the hall. And then there was the astonishing array of musicians — legends — who gathered on stage to perform a kind of benediction for the venue: pianists McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, saxophonists John Handy, Joe Lovano, and Joshua Redman. Santos was one of five Resident Artistic Directors during that first season in the hall. He and the other four — violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Jason Moran, and saxophonist Miguel Zenón — were on stage for opening night, too.

It was miraculous. The national jazz landscape was shrinking; clubs were folding or struggling all over the place. Yet here was this gleaming new venue: “We knew from the beginning that that room was a special place,” says Santos, who was born six blocks from where the hall stands. He compares its design to a church or basilica, with the stage at its center — like an altar, with the musicians as high priests, and the audience encircling them, a jazz congregation. “And the sound was so amazing. There was no doubt. It wasn’t like it had to go through much of a trial. We just went in there and played. And I remember there was a point when they just turned the sound off so you could hear the room — its natural sound, without any amplification. And it was no big deal. It was almost like you couldn’t tell. We could hear each other. I was playing conga. I was playing light as a feather. And I could be heard. And I could hear the piano from across the stage. It was amazing. We were all starting to see how magical that room is.”

It doesn’t seem so very long ago that Randall Kline, the founder and Executive Artistic Director of SFJAZZ, had only begun to talk about his dream — that after decades of roaming San Francisco, from rented space to rented space, his organization should have its own home, and that it should have the energy of a great little jazz club along with the comforts and sound quality of a fine concert hall. It took years of planning and fundraising (to the tune of $64 million) to fulfill the vision: that SFJAZZ would plant a flag for jazz. It would produce hundreds of concerts each year, and — most importantly — it would create a community gathering place. The SFJAZZ Center was to be more than just a building. It would be a home for artists and audiences, a place where everyone felt comfortable: nice dressing rooms, unobstructed sight lines, excellent sound, a sense of intimacy. The music would be celebrated. Artists and listeners would connect, and that connection — such was the hope — would lead to peak experiences for everyone in the 700-seat hall.

McCoy Tyner and an all-star band perform during the opening night concert, 1/23/13

Has it worked? Over the years, some prominent musicians have answered with a resounding “yes.”

The sound is so clear, the audience so wrapped up in the intimacy of the situation, singer Dianne Reeves once remarked, that “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.” Pianist Ahmad Jamal, among the most revered instrumentalists in the history of this art form, has called the hall “a jewel… a tribute to the monumental power of this music.”

As the venue’s tenth anniversary approaches, SFJAZZ has announced its 2022-23 season: more than 400 concerts featuring the usual array of talents. They include saxophonists Charles Lloyd, Lovano, and Redman; pianists Kenny Barron, Vijay Iyer, and Moran; singers Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Mariza. Santos will bring his sextet to the hall (on Oct. 30), and a new documentary film about him will be shown. In the season’s second half, each of the current Resident Artistic Directors — trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, clarinetist Anat Cohen, and saxophonists Chris Potter and Soweto Kinch — will present a week’s worth of programs, including premieres and multi-media projects.

Kline can’t wait.

The hall is his baby: “Strictly as a fan, sitting there with a little bourbon in my glass, I’m comfortable in my seat — any seat,” he says, alluding to the fact that there’s a beverage holder next to every seat in the house. “I like to move around, get all the different perspectives. And I often close my eyes and have that visceral experience of being wrapped inside this music, and I can experience this under the best conditions. And when I open my eyes, I see a lot of other people, a whole community that’s zeroed in on this thing — they’re experiencing this excellence, this mastery on stage. And I hear the sound, the beautiful acoustics, and I think, like, “Wow, where else can I do this?”

Then Kline switches gears: “But that’s just me,” he says.

Abruptly, he invites a more objective assessment: “Ten years into this, how are we doing? How do other people perceive it?”

Certainly, SFJAZZ has weathered the pandemic. When the hall went dark in March 2020, it made a hard pivot, establishing a digital programming wing that’s become a permanent part of the organization. Responding to events of the past two years — the police killing of George Floyd; the Black Lives Matter protests — the SFJAZZ Collective created an evening-length program of original compositions that address themes of social justice. Terri Lyne Carrington pushed back at jazz’s macho bias — its jazz patriarchy — by introducing San Francisco audiences to an entire canon of “new jazz standards” composed by women. Now that the hall has re-opened, SFJAZZ is looking inward, examining itself. Are its audiences — that all-important jazz community — diverse enough? And from a technical standpoint, is the hall being pushed to its limit?

“You should find out what people think,” Kline says. “Call some of the artists.”

Chick Corea and Bill Frisell performing at the opening night concert, 1/23/13.

I called Bill Frisell, who remembered the instructions he was given for his 2013 residency: “It was just this wide-open, do whatever’s in your imagination kind of thing. Amazing! Where else does that happen?” He opted for a multi-media enactment of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, with recitation by actor Tim Robbins, visuals by political cartoonist Ralph Steadman, and original music by Frisell. “There were no limits,” he said. “I felt so lucky. And the other thing is that — in so many places, you’re just immersed in some kind of backstage chaos and then you try to get on stage and play. But at SFJAZZ, they put you in this big dressing room, and they feed you a good meal, and you just get to hang out.” He recalled sitting around backstage with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, talking about family. “You can just be with folks, and that’s really important. It has something to do with what happens when you go on stage — the impact on the music.”

I also called pianist Jason Moran, who likened SFJAZZ to “a support system. You’re walking into a neighborhood when you walk in there, or into any institution. You feel it from the person who greets you at the airport and drops you at the hotel, and you feel it with the people who say hello when you arrive at the hall and when you do the sound check.” If they’re all doing their jobs with sensitivity, there is a payoff: “When you get to play your music, you get to your dream — that’s what all those people are helping you do,” Moran explained. “And so, when that happens, that’s why you come back — believe me, no one would be going back there if it felt lame! And for us, the musicians who travel around, we love it when we get to SFJAZZ, because of the way it feels in the room and the openness that the institution seems to want to investigate musically and experientially — look, I proposed a f*cking skateboard ramp in the concert hall!”

He was referring to his 2013 and 2014 residencies when SFJAZZ facilitated his dream by installing a half-pipe in front of the stage. A skateboard fanatic since childhood, Moran invited nine of the Bay Area’s best skaters to the hall for a unique interaction — a “joint jam session,” as he put it, between the skaters and his trio, the Bandwagon. It was a wild and wonderful event, creating a unity of music and motion. All four performances sold out, and the audience — which responded to the show as if it were at a Fourth of July fireworks display — was filled with families and young people. Moran, who is the Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., believes that program demonstrated something fundamental about SFJAZZ. It is a proponent of what he calls “the idea economy” — an economy based on “big ideas” and musical risk-taking that helps expand jazz as an art form, while hopefully expanding its audience, too.

Moran recalled that the first commission he ever received — 22 years ago — came from SFJAZZ, which encourages artists by planting seeds that can grow into those big ideas. He gave one more example of the idea economy and how it functions in the arts community: through engagement with the political conversation of the times. As an African-American art form, jazz has been, and continues to be, a reflection of social struggles and deep cultural currents. By definition, organizations that celebrate jazz must assess their role in the struggles of the times: “You have to keep trying to figure out what are our blind spots,” he said. “You have to figure out, well, what else can we do?”

Angela Davis, the activist and author who sits on the SFJAZZ board of trustees, is a blues scholar and lifelong jazz lover who has attended the organization’s concerts since the 1980s. “In so many ways,” she said in an email, SFJAZZ has “over-delivered” on its original promise: “San Francisco is now home to an internationally renowned jazz venue that attracts the world’s best musicians and a growing audience for jazz and its kindred genres.” Yet the organization has work to do: “The promises that remain to be fulfilled have to do with the communities that produced this music and its historical legacies.” She hopes the organization’s educational programs in San Francisco and East Bay public schools will help generate a more diverse audience in the hall: “We want the venue to become accessible to many more of the descendants of those who created this music as a gift of struggle and a vision of freedom.”

Randall Kline and Angela Davis during the Jazz and Social Justice Listening Party, 4/18/18

Santos, also a board member, agreed: “You come into the hall for a concert and it’s 95 percent full, but you look around and there are only a handful of people of color. That’s not right, especially when the music we’re talking about is jazz, which comes out of that community, the Black community.” He said that SFJAZZ has “been called on the carpet. Those issues are particularly sensitive and important for us to tackle so that we can try to be a leading voice and show a light to other organizations.” He performed at the very first SFJAZZ festival in 1983 — when it was known as Jazz in the City — and has served on umpteen advisory boards through the years. At long last, he said, the organization is developing strategies that can lead to greater diversity and access: “I feel proud that we haven’t pushed it under the rug. It can be a little bit like turning an ocean liner — you turn the wheel 50 times. But we’re moving in a more positive direction.”

Kline, who recently announced that he will retire in November 2023, agreed that SFJAZZ must keep expanding its connections to the community: more access to the hall; new partnerships with nearby arts organizations like the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the San Francisco Symphony, and the San Francisco Opera. “We created this great thing ten years ago,” he said. “But our goal is to be here for decades. We’re constantly evolving, and the question becomes: How do we keep leveraging this asset? How can this building make San Francisco a better place? How can that little 700-seat hall do that?”

He offered a bit of history:

San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero, who designed the SFJAZZ Center, lined its interior with neutral gray wood services to create a cool industrial-chic persona. At the same time, he designed those surfaces to double as projection screens — that’s right, projection screens. Over the past decade, SFJAZZ has taken baby steps toward creating an immersive media system that will merge the musical performances onstage with a 21st-century light show that wallpapers the hall with visual imagery. Ultimately, the goal is to marry the architecture to real-time generated visuals that happen in response to real-time improvised music.

When this system is fully up and running, Kline predicts, it will have the impact of “a Bill Graham light show on steroids” — a 360-degree, multi-sensory, wrap-around experience for the audience.

Last September, when the lights went back on at the SFJAZZ Center, Kline invited Omar Sosa, the technology-savvy Cuban pianist, to give the system a trial run.

“I was the guinea pig,” Sosa said, laughing.

Ten years ago, Jason Moran united musicians and skateboarders in a new kind of sound-plus-motion choreography. Now Sosa — performing his piece “Motherland Journey” — merged his band’s improvisations with the visual images that danced across the walls, enclosing the audience in a multi-media bubble. “It was like a movie,” Sosa said. He wants to come back and do it again: “This is the temple of jazz. And this is one more step, one more tool for the artist. When you combine music with all these colors, with all this visual stuff, it takes you to another dimension. It opens your senses. It’s like you opened a new window in the house of art.”

Tickets for SFJAZZ's 2022-23 Season are on sale now and available here

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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