Jazz But Not Least

As you've been flipping through the pages of your Listen Up guide, perhaps you've noticed the precious little space devoted to jazz. But something tells me you haven't — it's just not on your radar this year. And so a word on the subject might not be amiss, I think.

First, let me tell you quickly what I'm not here to do. I'm not here to try to tell you that jazz is superior to any other music. People who try to tell you that the music they listen to is “better” than the music you listen to deserve all the scorn you can muster. This, aggressively, is not that.

But it pisses me off mightily when I hear the music denigrated as boring or incomprehensible by people who have never stepped inside a jazz club. Especially since we are living in a city full of steaming, imaginative jazz players. There is a gold mine of jazz in this town, and if you're ignoring it, you're missing a huge blast of musical power that's surging all around you.

Why should you care? Let's say you're interested in edgy, latest-thing, blow-me-out-of-the-box music. And your perception of jazz is that it is out-of-date and soft, with nothing new to offer and, anyway, who can understand it? If you're thinking that, maybe think about this:

Jazz players are artists consumed by a form of music that they know is going to relegate them to an outsider's status as long as they play. They're going to be ignored by the press, shown no respect by record companies, shunted aside as fringe artists, and misunderstood by their contemporaries. Even the mainstream “alternative” culture (“mainstream alternative”: I made it up) is going to cold-shoulder them. That's not a career choice you make just for grins.

So why do it? Almost all jazz players will tell you that, early on, the music got into them and took over. Maybe it was a saxophone soloist breathing fire, urging sorrow, joy, or mystery with a bending, twisting cascade of soulful, fiery notes. Or perhaps it was some crackling, rhythm-shifting drum beat, the searing blare of a trumpet careening to the top of a scale, or a gentle-as-the-dew guitar run that in just a few notes re-created the feel of a winter sunrise or a lover's caress. For jazz players, the inspiration to create and to find new forms of expression through jazz, to passionately assert what is current and what is timeless in the world and in their own lives through the music, is a constant. If you pay attention to an articulate jazz musician even for a minute, you will catch that urgency.

The improvisational element in jazz shoots another jolt through the wiring. At crucial points during each number, the players take turns launching themselves into the unknown; this can be breathtaking when it works and cause some serious train wrecks when it doesn't. Because they are improvising, the musicians have to be listening fiercely and communicating almost telepathically. If the drummer switches tempos, or the piano player decides to explore something new in the changes, everyone onstage has to react midstride. It's not for wimps and it's not for poseurs.

But as a listener, you don't need to be able to identify any of this as it's happening to get completely blown away by the music and by the interplay between the musicians.

I think that's why some people go cold at the mention of jazz. They've formed the notion that it's some intellectual exercise, like you have to know the rules or the code or jazz will just sound like 16 cars honking at you. Forget that. Jazz is gut music at its soul. You don't need to “understand” it. You just need to let it grab you.

Man, I just don't like it. When I say “jazz” to you, what do you hear? If you get just one picture in your head, hear just one sound, then you need to know (since you've read this far) that there is a whole world waiting for you, because there are a million ways into jazz. Bebop and post-bop, Latin jazz, “free” jazz — those are just some of the places you can go. And especially now, funk, soul, blues, African, rock, hip hop, dance — just about everything your favorite club DJ can spin — is being tossed into the jazz mix.

The days when “purists” sat around debating what was or wasn't “really” jazz have been swept away by a current generation of jazz players anxious to incorporate into their art every sound and style that moves them. These people have grown up listening to the same music, dancing to the same grooves, that you have. Starting with the acid jazz heroes like Charlie Hunter and continuing with incredible modern players like Nicholas Payton, Russell Gunn, and Joshua Redman, a host of great young musicians are producing jazz on the national level that is definitely not old-fashioned or dry.

The masters — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sara Vaughan, and a hundred others — will rock your world if you let them. But if you're interested in opening up new territory for yourself and you want to start current, you've got options.

So where do you go in S.F.? If you're looking for newer sounds, head over to Bruno's on Mission Street, where jazz, funk, and hip hop get creatively shaken and stirred by veteran S.F. ensembles like Alphabet Soup, Mingus Amungus, and the Realistic Orchestra. Inventive acoustic players like Todd Sickafoose and Scott Amendola, many of whom also date back to the acid jazz heyday, also play at Bruno's, as does Marcus Shelby, with his hip Ellington-ian big band. Fiery trombonist Adam Theis, who leads the Realistic Orchestra and a slew of other groups in the hip hop/jazz genre, can also be found leading an ensemble at Pearl's in North Beach on a regular basis. For funk and rock-based jazz grooves, keep an eye out for the Post Junk Trio, the Broun Fellinis, and the Supplicants, who show up often at the Beat Lounge and Enrico's, both in North Beach. The funk and jam band groups are also to be found at the Boom Boom Room at Fillmore and Geary.

If you want to catch some more traditional jazz (by “traditional” I'm covering about 200 styles, from blues to big band to Latin to straight bebop and “post bop”), check back in on Pearl's, a sharp room with a stylish jazz club vibe. Other good spots in S.F. for mostly straight-ahead jazz are Savanna Jazz, a relatively new club on Mission Street — dark and cool — that's slowly gaining momentum, and Shanghai 1930 (yes, inside the Chinese restaurant), on Steuart Street down by the Embarcadero. For a great, old-fashioned bebop jam session, check out the Dogpatch Saloon (Third Street at 22nd, near Potrero Hill) Sundays from 4-8 p.m. Twice a month, the nonprofit Intersection for the Arts on Valencia in the Mission offers a fascinating range of jazz programs in a terrific intimate setting. Also on Valencia, great young sax player Mitch Marcus has started a Wednesday night jam session at Amnesia that is already attracting some of the best young jazz players in the city.

As I said up top, we are blessed with a horde of great local players in this town, so any list has got to be ridiculously incomplete. Just for starters, look for sax players like Andrew Speight, Howard Wiley, Dayna Stephens, Charles McNeal, and Mitch Marcus and for pianists like Matt Clark, Mark Levine (who just copped a Grammy nomination), and Glen Pearson. Check out contrasting drum styles: the multirhythmic power and wizardry of Darryl Green and the elegant, infectious swinging of Vince Lateano. Get a kick out of bluesy, righteous singers like Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, and Madeline Eastman. Again, that's the short list.

Many of the clubs now have Web sites with interactive calendar listings featuring descriptive links for every band scheduled, so you can find out not only where people are playing, but who they are and what they sound like.

I just want to make sure you know that jazz is alive, that it's accessible, and that it's killer music. Just go find out. Yeah, it can be challenging stuff sometimes, but you, you're up to a challenge.

One More Reason to Get Excited About Local Jazz …

Diehard jazz fans will no longer have to skip town to Oakland to hear great jazz at Yoshi's. The venue, known for its jazz, sushi, and elegant ambience, is hauling its multimillion dollar operation to San Francisco. A new Yoshi's will soon appear at the corner of Fillmore and Eddy streets in the historic Fillmore district. The bummer, however, is that fans chomping at the bit to visit the joint will have to wait a while to do so. Workers break ground this summer, and the venue will then open in 12-16 months. “We're excited about the new club,” Yoshi's artistic director Peter Williams says. “It has always been the owner's dream to open a San Francisco Yoshi's.”

Alongside the upcoming 405-seat club, fans will find a French West-Indo fusion restaurant called Blue Mirror, a Jazz Heritage Center, a retail store, and a commercial parking garage. So what will become of the current Yoshi's? “There will definitely be jazz in Oakland at Yoshi's until at least 2007,” the club's publicity director Marshall Lamm says. “Beyond that, we can't say. As far as the S.F. Yoshi's goes, all engines are go.”
— Daniel King

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