SFJAZZ Centre Opening

John Fenton

John Fenton is a Jazz Blogger covering the Auckland, New Zealand and South Pacific beat.  He has listened to more jazz than is healthy for any human being and he started writing, supporting local artists and Jazz in general to give something back.  He loves poetry, the creative arts and is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association.  His Blog is JazzLocal32.com  


January 21st 2013 signalled a seismic event in the Jazz world.  The opening of the 35,000 sq. ft. purpose-built San Francisco Jazz Centre.  The New York Times proclaimed, ” We get the feeling that this will approximate how Jazz will look in 2013“.  This is the only free-standing Jazz facility of its kind in America and it is a tribute to all who have worked towards its completion.  The idea for this  centre was conceived 30 years ago by a few prescient dreamers who visualised a future home for the Jazz community.  At the heart of this group was Randall Kline who founded ‘SF Jazz’ out of an earlier incarnation ‘Jazz in the City'(the acclaimed SF Jazz Festivals followed).   Randall Kline is now the Executive Artistic Director of SF Jazz but he will quickly acknowledge that the project would have been impossible without widespread community involvement.


At first glance the SF Jazz Centre appears modest in design as it is not an ornate building.   It is however a fine example of SF modernism, which sits happily in its surroundings, inviting deeper inspection.  As the detail’s revealed you begin to see it with different eyes.  The well-known Californian architect Mark Cavagnero designed the building and part of his remit was to integrate the activities with the community.  He succeeded in this.  Artists in residence (and others) will rehearse in the Joe Henderson Lab, which is at street level, has glass on two sides and is open to public gaze.  The public will also be able to glimpse the performances in the main auditorium as they pass by.

Herman Leonard pics This exchange between onlookers and musicians is at the heart of the design concept.  The main performance auditorium is build in the shape of an amphitheatre which allows eye contact between audience and performers (and obviously making for unimpeded sight lines from every seat).  The acoustics are state of the art and the sound can also be dampened.

Situated in Hayes Valley, the SF Jazz Centre is only a few blocks from the from the famous Fillmore Music District.   More importantly it shares the precinct with the SF Ballet, Davis Auditorium (SF Symphony) and SF Opera.  Immediately opposite is an imposing brick building being renovated to house the School of the Arts.  Huge Herman Leonard pictures emblazon the side of that building, causing Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday and other greats to smile across at the Jazz centre.  This tells passers-by in unequivocal terms that the Corner of Franklin & Fell is where Jazz lives.

I collected my press pass and was given a tour of the building, suddenly aware of the welcoming friendliness of the interior.  Bearing witness were thousands of musicians names – etched into the glass.  I would assume that all are associated with ‘Jazz in the City’ and ‘SF Jazz’ in some way.

tile mural 2 039Upstairs a large tiled mural gave the history of the Bay area Jazz scene.  Names like Hampton Hawes and clubs like the Black Hawk will resonate strongly with Jazz lovers.  This town has a commendable history of producing fine musicians and with SF Jazz’s focus on education we can expect this to continue.

The day unfolded like most San Francisco winter days with sunshine streaming out of an azure blue sky.  Everyone was smiling and back slapping and then out of nowhere came a joyous blast of music.  It was hardly as if the collective mood needed further elevation, but just in case, the ‘Bourbon Kings’ came marching up the street New Orleans style.  At their forefront were mesmerising dancers twirling colourful ribbon-trimmed umbrellas, who swayed and whirled like dervishes in a trance.  Just how many musicians were playing it was impossible to discern, as the scene quickly became a melee of musicians, crowd and excited dogs.   It was the first time that I had witnessed a Second Line style marching band and I will not forget it in a hurry.   It was like watching the history of Jazz marching into the present.

Just before the ceremony a work by Jacob Garchik (The Heavens: Atheist Gospel Choir) was performed – titled ‘Creations Creation’.   This was call and response and when the street musicians called, those on the various balconies responded.  At one point a small terrier dog joined in (two calls on trombone elicited two happy barks, three calls three barks).   This was not planned for, but entirely appropriate in a city that has so many cheerful dogs.

The speeches that followed acknowledged all of those who had worked toward this end and congratulatory messages from the likes of Nancy Pelosi the Democratic Leader gave the proceedings a sense of moment.   The audience overflowed with local dignitaries, among them Jazz legend Bobby Hutcherson and the much respected former Mayor Hon Willie Brown Jr. (also a former member of the State Legislature). His commitment to SF Jazz goes back a long way.  I spoke to Bobby Huthcherson briefly after the ceremony.   He is not in good health but will be performing with McCoy Tyner and others this week at his SF Jazz Centre birthday celebration.  Before we parted company he looked at me with a smile and said.  “When you return to New Zealand, don’t let them put you on a plane to Oakland”.  San Franciscans love the story about the man who purchased an air ticket for Oakland and ended up in Auckland much to his surprise.  SFJC 033

John Santos (Resident Musical Director) said with emotion, “San Francisco you got your soul back”.  Randall Kline also spoke powerfully. “They told us that this couldn’t be done, that the market was not geared toward assisting the arts at this time.  We involved the community and they said go ahead and we succeeded.  This is a powerful message to the markets – markets need to follow the community not the other way round”.  Inside there was a short film and live music performed by the SF Jazz High School All Stars.   If this performance sets the standard then Jazz is in very good shape.  Education, performance, and community involvement are at the heart of this establishment.   With rotating Resident Artistic Directors like Regina Carter, Jason Moran, John Santos, Bill Frisell and others the centre can only do well.

A poet laureate and a photography laureate have also been appointed and this impresses me no end.   Jazz, poetry and photography belong together and especially in San Francisco.

In the coming months the following musicians will have residencies:  Bill Frisell, Dave Holland, Hiromi, Zakir Hussain,Brad Melhdau, Bela Fleck and John Santos.  This is interspersed with a program of visiting and local artists.

The opening was on Martin Luther King Jr day and that was no accident.  Martin Luther King understood very well the importance of Jazz and he spoke movingly of its importance.

“Much of our power in the Freedom Movement has come from this music.  It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail.  It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world, for in the struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man”.

I urge Jazz lovers everywhere to visit San Francisco (and the SF Jazz Centre).  It is certainly an ideal destination for New Zealanders.  The eleven hour flight is not that onerous and the fact that you can bypass the hell of LAX is the icing on the cake.  Do it people and don’t forget to support the artists in the Jazz clubs and other venues.

The opening night is streamed below by NPR (KQED) and you can listen by following the link.  Grab a beer and nibbles and enjoy – I sure did.


IMG_1648drummer Bourbon Kings 037dancing girl