For many people, the melancholy wail of a saxophone or the brassy bop of a swing band evokes images of dimly lit jazz clubs in Chicago, humid juke joints in New Orleans, or even the elegant Cotton Club in New York. So it may seem strange that one of the world's premier odes to all that jazz takes place here, in a city where "fusion" now refers to cuisine and "acid" to ... well, you know. But long before San Francisco shed its saddle shoes for sandals and its Fillmore for Haight-Ashbury, it was a mecca for jazz masters from around the world -- and for three weeks each fall, it transforms itself back into a great bastion of boogie for the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
This 22nd annual celebration of everything brass, bebop, and blues offers more than 30 concerts featuring nearly every kind of jazz-inspired, jazz-infused, or jazz-influenced music, from traditional swing and big band to Latin, fusion, and punk. It graces Grace Cathedral when 11-time Grammy winner Michael Brecker and Jane Ira Bloom fill the usually staid stone vault with their woodwind laments in back-to-back saxophone concerts. Venues across the city then host performances by an eclectic mix of the genre's most revered names and promising stars, including modern-day Billie Holiday Dianne Reeves; guitar master Al Di Meola; our own local siren of swing, Lavay Smith (with her Red Hot Skillet Lickers); and the queen of the blues diva pantheon herself, Etta James. The festival culminates in an all-star tribute to legendary Harlem pianist Fats Waller in what would have been his 100th year.
But if you don't know Fats Waller from Fats Domino -- or if you think the "Bird" is something you give to rude Muni drivers -- there are plenty of events designed to get you caught up on your Count, Coltrane, and Cannonball. Several include local musicians leading free, pre-concert discussions about everything from classic stride piano to contemporary Japanese jazz. A new series this year, "Jazz+Art," gives the visually oriented a chance to explore the nexus between modern jazz and modern art, at SFMOMA most Thursday evenings during the festival. And for those who prefer their licks with cheese, there are two screenings of the 1950s epitome of sci-fi schlock, Creature From the Black Lagoon, set to a live score (and sarcastic dialogue) from the eccentric Jazz Passengers.
Tickets are $15-80
This may sound like a strange brew, but it's actually a perfect blend for a city that has played host to Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker as well as Jerry Garcia and Grace Slick, and where every note played, whether you call it jazz or gospel or rock, is ultimately fusion.