Blowing Their Horn

The organizers of the North Beach Jazz Festival take pride in revitalizing their musical neighborhood and in not being like that other local jazz fest

The rich jazz history of San Francisco was written largely in North Beach. From the 1950s through the mid-'70s, clubs like the Keystone Corner and the Jazz Workshop were regular stopovers for everyone from Miles Davis to Charles Mingus; greats like Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, and others all released stellar live albums recorded at some of the neighborhood's many jazz haunts.

But it's a history that today largely exists in memory only. Although a few jazz clubs have opened in North Beach in the last few years (most notably the Black Cat), venues that attract the kind of touring talent that once graced the neighborhood are mostly absent, and the current performance diet of the local jazz musician consists largely of background dinner music and neo-swing/rockabilly gigs.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Jazz Festival has grown into an internationally recognized event, but it does little to nurture local talent. Last year's festival, for example, showcased almost no local artists (unless one counts Charlie Hunter, who now lives in New York).

Enter the North Beach Jazz Festival, a decidedly more grass-roots and local-talent-oriented event that began five years ago with a single concert in Washington Square Park and has now grown enough to spread out over eight nights this year, from July 25 to Aug. 1. In 1995, Alistair Monroe, then 24 years old, and Herve Ernest, then 25, organized a one-day concert in Washington Square Park that featured a lineup of local jazz musicians Monroe knew mostly from booking jazz at the nearby North End Cafe on Grant. Despite a rainout that postponed the original event for a month-and-a-half, the concert was a success, one that Monroe says made him and Ernest "fall in love with the project."

The festival grew into a larger concert in the park the following year, and by the next year spread over five days and multiple locales. Last year, the festival added events at Coit Tower and several other venues, and this year it will cut its highest profile yet: The stellar opening night event at Coit Tower features legendary vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, vocalist Ann Dyer, Marcus Shelby's tribute to Duke Ellington, and vocalist Paula West, all against a multimedia backdrop provided by lighting design company Lunatech that promises to push the evening beyond the bounds of the ordinary.

It's quite a leap for a festival with such low-key and casual beginnings. Monroe, who says he only started booking jazz at the North End because "working there was boring," says the idea of putting a show on in nearby Washington Square Park snowballed when he met Ernest. "I met Herve through his brother, and I kind of said, 'Hey, if you're not doing anything, we could put this thing together,' " he recalls. Apart from the obvious hook provided by the history of jazz in North Beach, a more immediate spark seems to have been the sorry state of North Beach's -- and the city's -- jazz scene. "There was no jazz scene in North Beach," says Monroe. "At that time, I think the Jazz Workshop closed in '90 or '91, and the only place to go hear jazz in North Beach was Jazz at Pearl's. So I was like, 'Why isn't there more music around here?' "

Ernest was disappointed after moving to San Francisco from New York City, where he had been introduced to jazz largely through "Giant Steps," a popular roving nightclub of the mid-'80s to early '90s that featured a collective of acid jazz DJs and musicians. "When I moved out here, I realized that there was not a lot of young kids that get into jazz in a traditional way," he says. "I felt that there wasn't really an entry point to get into jazz like there was for me with 'Giant Steps.' "

Ernest and Monroe's desire to introduce a new generation to jazz ("If we don't find a way to get young people into jazz music, it will die," Ernest proclaims) explains a lot about the character of their festival, from the types of music featured to the low ticket prices (or nonexistent ones -- of seven events this year, four are free). It's most evident in the lineup for the July 27 "Jazz Forward" show at the 7th Note Showclub, the festival's most genre-straddling bill. A showcase last year called "The Other Side of Jazz" featured legendary techno DJ Carl Craig and drew a diverse crowd that Ernest estimates at 1,100 people; this year's version continues the trend, with acts ranging from the futuristic electronica of Spacetime Continuum to the hip hop/spoken word of Ursula Rucker and several local DJs spinning "dance floor jazz" on two floors.

It's not the only evening that will push the envelope as far as the definition of jazz is concerned, but it is one aspect of the festival that more traditional jazz fans may disagree with. Ernest says he is well aware that an evening like "Jazz Forward" may be a bit much for some. "But what those people have to realize is that this music has been integral in opening the eyes and ears of a whole new batch of listeners to jazz," he says. "It's not that we're saying that this is what jazz is all about, but there are a lot of people who are being introduced to jazz through this new stuff.

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