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Jazz began as a live soundtrack for East St. Louis brothels and accompaniment for New Orleans funerals. Along the way it has engendered jive-talking hep cats, bongo-drumming beatniks, freeform fusionists, soulful mood-setters, and global groovemeisters. As a 20th-century creation, it still isn't an "old" form of music; young lions have always been part of the jazz scene. And yet, somewhere in the process of becoming "America's classical music," jazz somehow became identified with snooty purists, uptight sit-down shows, and audiences of a certain age.
"Jazz is a genre really built around a hip insider scene," says Randall Kline, the artistic and executive director of SFJAZZ, the nonprofit that runs the San Francisco Jazz Festival. But, he admits, "It can seem retro. People hear the word 'jazz' and they automatically have an opinion. Jazz has never been purely intellectual. It's always been about young energy."
While some annual jazzy shindigs make little or no attempt to break the genre's stodgy stereotypes, the same thankfully can't be said of the SF Jazz Fest. Kline says this year he intentionally tried to make a statement — "this is not your parents' jazz," he jokes — with the New Grooves series, which trades the traditionally staid concert hall experience for the colorfully artistic environs of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. And he hopes the Bay Area Sax Summit at the Great American Music Hall will similarly appeal to jazz' younger, progressive wing.
Still, Kline acknowledges he isn't sure whether the same crowd that will sit down for Dave Brubeck will stand up for DJ Spooky, the Afro-futurist who plays Halloween night alongside Forro in the Dark at Yerba Buena Gardens. However, because of what he calls "the San Francisco sensibility," Kline thinks SFJAZZ will be able to get away with perhaps more innovative bookings than other cities: "There aren't that many festivals with this kind of breadth."
Bridging the generation gap, this year's program pairs old and new acts such as Peter Apfelbaum's NY Hieroglyphics Ensemble with West African griot Abdoulaye Diabate, as well as veteran Jimmy Scott with relative newcomer Melody Gardot. Similarly, the Soul Jazz Summit brings together some of the funkiest players on the planet (Dr. Lonnie Smith, Bernard Purdie, Reuben Wilson, Grant Green Jr.) with the future of jazz, the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars.
Kline compares the process of curating the festival (of which 2008's is the 26th) to concocting an eclectic, tasty gumbo. Each year has its own distinct flavor, he says. One specific theme he's noticed running through this year's lineup — aside from its appeal to a younger demographic — is a sociopolitical sensibility.
The theme encompasses concerts by Mavis Staples (whose "I'll Take You There" made a strong statement for equal rights), Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor (whose moody instrumentals were frequently inspired by the black liberation movement), and Randy Newman, whose "Louisiana, 1927" became the "unofficial anthem of Hurricane Katrina," Kline says. Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra (with Carla Bley) — which has frequently used music as a platform to address issues such as Cuban socialism, South African apartheid, and the U.S. government's Latin American policy — will also be on hand. "Jazz is rooted in social statements," Kline says. "That's a good spirit in an election year ... this is a year that's really celebrating change."
The current SFJAZZ season doesn't just promise a political vibe or a youth movement; it also pushes the jazz envelope in multiple directions. Equal attention is given to such disparate instruments as the ukulele, the B-3, and the oud; West Coast pioneers and civil-rights–era soul divas; and music with origins in Cuba, Russia, India, and Mali. In addition to legends like Arturo Sandoval and Maceo Parker, locals like Rebeca Mauleón, Dave Ellis, Dayna Stephens, and Mitch Marcus offer Bay Area–bred flavor.
"My goal as an artist has always been to embrace musical diversity, and it's clear that SFJAZZ not only echoes this belief but also expands it even further," says Mauleón, 2008's Beacon Award winner. Stephens adds that by presenting such a broad spectrum of variations on the jazz theme, the festival "is staying true to the fact that jazz isn't just a style, it is a music saturated with individuality from around the world."
A current example of jazz' global pulse is Miles from India, which blends elements of Indian classical music with the music of Miles Davis. "Jazz musicians have always listened to Indian music and Indian musicians know jazz," says Miles from India producer Yusuf Gandhi. But while Southeast Asian virtuosos like Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussein are familiar to American audiences, "you don't hear about the younger musicians who are out there doing innovative things," he says.
"What we want to do is music that influences jazz and music that jazz has influenced," Kline explains. The beauty of programming a festival in San Francisco, he says, is that "the Bay Area has all these really intense special interests ... there's an audience interested in the avant-garde here."
Kline is thankful that Yoshi's recently opened up a S.F. location — "any jazz activity is great for the scene," he says — but adds, "What we really need is three or four Pearl's."
That may be so; still, SFJAZZ deserves credit for keeping the genre's visibility high. Without its efforts, the Bay Area in general and San Francisco in particular would be a much less jazzier place.
Fall Arts Guide
Classical and Opera events