Established 1978

New SFJAZZ Center Opens

by Pamela Troy

Randall Kline, executive director of SFJAZZ, talks about the January 23 grand opening celebration of the new SFJAZZ Center as if it’s a consecration. “We have a 30-year history, but we don’t have a 30-year history in our own place. We want to present the best music possible on that stage, and have it soak up the past, while consecrating the stage of the theater with an immediate artistic patina.”

Given the talent scheduled to perform on opening night, the “patina” will be a rich varnish. Comedian Bill Cosby will serve as master of ceremonies for a program that will include McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. “All the resident artistic directors will be there,” says Kline, “and our band, the SF Collective, plus Mary Stallings, plus John Handy, plus Pete Escovedo.”

Kline’s enthusiasm is contagious.  He has been excited from the very beginning, in 1983, when SFJAZZ was called Jazz in the City, and the concerts were held at the Herbst Theater. This small promoter has grown into an important San Francisco arts organization that, as of January, will finally have its own permanent home at Franklin and Fell Streets, a three-story building designed by San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero, with a scalable performance space. “The Robert N. Miner auditorium has been built to provide the highest technical values,” says Kline. “Beautiful hall, great sound, and great stage lighting.”

The first season at SFJAZZ Center will consist of Thursday through Sunday spotlights, each programmed by a resident artist. One of these resident artistic directors is John Santos, who performed at Herbst Theatre back in 1983, with his band, Orquesta Batachanga. Now, three decades later, he looks forward to the new series that he’s put together for March 2013.


“For Thursday, March 21, I have a group coming in that’s called De Akokán, with Pavel Urkiza and Ricardo Pons. On Friday, March 22, making their first appearance in the Bay Area, a very unique Latin jazz group from New York, Papo Vazquez Mighty Pirates Troubadours, will perform.  On Saturday, March 23, I’m going to be presenting my project, Filosofía Caribeña, with some wonderful pioneering guest musicians, including Jerry Media and Orestes Vilató. We’ll debut material from the band’s unreleased CD. The final day, Sunday, March 24, will showcase Uncommon Time, a trio of percussionists—Kenny Endo, a great Taiko drummer, the Indian master percussionist Abhijit Banerjee, and the third percussionist is me. I’m going to be playing Afro-musical instruments. Our guest is Omar Sosa, a phenomenal piano player from Cuba.”

For Santos, however, putting on great performances is only part of the SFJAZZ Center’s mission. “Some in the jazz community can’t afford to pay the big prices, and that’s the challenge we face—to make it accessible to everybody. I’m going to do my best to help. The first step has been taken, which is getting the place built. That’s a minor miracle in itself.”

Executive operating director Felice Swapp sees opportunities for fostering a new generation of jazz musicians.  “We have a high school All Stars program—audition only—for aspiring musicians. We’ll take them on tours and bring in professional musicians to give them instruction. There will also be classes for adults, instructing them how to get into the fusion side of jazz, as well as digital classes, which will explain how to mix recordings.” People who just want to learn about jazz can also find a place. “You can come into a class not knowing a thing, and learn ‘oh, that’s what they were doing,’” says Swap.

The SFJAZZ Center, home to all performances and classes, will be launched with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on January 21, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In addition to the auditorium, rehearsal spaces, and digital learning labs, the center will boast three spectacular murals by Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet. Two of the murals, installed on the second floor of the center, depict the history of jazz in the United States and in San Francisco. The third mural, in the auditorium’s Lester Young Green Room, depicts a fanciful jazz afterlife, a club-goer’s version of heaven.

“How to depict the history of jazz was the tougher question,” says Birk.  “We thought we’d depict the venues, such as The Fillmore in San Francisco or the Cotton Club in New York, or the Aragon in Chicago.” The result is an imaginary cityscape featuring all the great jazz venues across the country and beyond. “It goes through the history, left to right, starting in early New Orleans and then into the sixties, in the recording era. Paris is even included, off in the distance.

“The San Francisco mural shows great moments in the history of jazz in the city, the venues that shaped San Francisco. There’s the Fillmore District, which used to be the hotbed of jazz and bebop in the 1970s. Bimbo’s is one of the current venues included. And there are other places and events—City Lights Bookstore, the dock riots in the 1930s, U.S. Navy ships from WWII and sailors, the Melrose Record Store.”

Perhaps the touch that makes this historical mural a grand commemoration of such an important new jazz venue appears near its right edge.

“In the corner, you can see the SFJazz Center,” concludes Birk.

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