First off: “Jazz” is a bad word. It’s not jazz’s fault — it’s ours.
Jazz is America’s best gift to the world, our greatest cultural export—a prize we have managed to grant in spite of ourselves. But “jazz” as a descriptor, a blanket term, is just too broad and too all-inclusive, too vague to mean anything. Let me demonstrate. Do you “love jazz,” do you “listen to jazz,” are you “into jazz”? If you say these things, without irony, without a self-conscious smirk, you probably are not. (It is like strutting around Off the Grid, declaiming to everyone and no one, that you like food.) If you were, you would say you are into late Miles or Mercury-era Rashaan Roland Kirk or some other impossibly obscure record cut by this or that session musician who never got his due, because damn—jazz is massive and unwieldy and mysterious and fucking intimidating.
You must live it to say these things. It must be earned.
I can’t tell you what that means exactly, but I can tell you it is a feat. Here, in this place at this time, it’s a labor of Hercules. In San Francisco, we don’t get too much jazz, a deficit that’s also our fault, inasmuch as we inherit the sins of our parents or the people who inhabited our apartments five decades before we did. Because if you can commit a crime against an art form, San Francisco desecrated jazz.
A lifetime ago, we had jazz—that is, we had a functional, viable (some may say vibrant) black community, a black middle class. We had something resembling the origins of a multicultural city, not the segregated prelude to class war we delicately and uncomfortably attempt to enjoy today. We had this, and we threw it away. We tore it down, sending in first dogwhistles and then bulldozers to decimate the Fillmore District, the “Harlem of the West,” to make way for a bigger Geary Boulevard and incongruous Cold War apartment blocks that, if presented to the average San Francisco neighborhood today, would be greeted with armed rebellion.
We sinned against jazz. We violated music. We did a bad thing — or at least our predecessors did.
So are we atoning, or are we piling shame upon shame?
Before I mislead, let me assure you: This isn’t a treatise “on jazz” any more than it is a musing on the city or systemic racism or the American experience. What preceded was exposition, to provide context for when Randall Kline, SFJAZZ Center’s executive director, was onstage at his organization’s sparkling $63 million jazz temple on Franklin Street on Thursday, handing an award to New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band and talking about “authenticity.”
“Integrity, grit,” Kline is saying, listing the Pres Hall band’s attributes as if rattling stats off of the back of a baseball card. “Authenticity.”
He does this in praise of Pres Hall, that French Quarter institution with the carefully preserved patina, the walls and ceilings and facade that, if you took away the musicians and the portraits of jazz legends and the sweating tourists with Bourbon Street effluvia still stuck to their shoes, resembles a condemned building minutes away from being flipped.
Consciously or not, Kline lists all the qualities that cannot be bought, which SFJAZZ covets. SFJAZZ Center, with its hard angles of smooth concrete and high-rise condo-worthy glass still not quite six years old, looks nothing like Pres Hall, the science experiments on its warped and seasoned walls comparable to the layers of carbon on a well-used Le Creuset. They are in many ways opposites.
Yet the two venues do have something in common beyond “jazz.” They’re both artifice.
Pres Hall was created in 1961 — right around the time when San Francisco was clearing what jazz heritage we had out— so that New Orleans jazz could be protected, guarded and passed down like a shibboleth. This had to be done by outsiders — Sandra and Allan Jaffe, the latter a product of the Wharton School of Business just a few years ahead of Donald Trump — as holding onto its heritage isn’t something New Orleans has always been very good at.
That isn’t all the city’s fault — not directly. Hurricane Katrina consumed more than a few New Orleans institutions. It flooded Fats Domino’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward. It destroyed the irreplaceable record collections of WWOZ Djs. It drove WWOZ itself from Louis Armstrong Park, an urban National Historical Park in Treme just outside the Quarter, now a fenced-off dead zone.
More than 12 years after Katrina, the storm-damaged civic auditorium there is still empty, meaning Congo Square, the location where slaves on their off day, Sundays — the French way of enslaving humans granting them at least this — would gather to drum and dance and plant the flag, forever, of African music in America, is eerily quiet. Everything good and soulful and approachable and ineffable about American music comes from here. And yet it could be anywhere, so to find the ineffable in New Orleans, to find music rather than saudade, you have to go somewhere else. Going somewhere else is how Pres Hall lived to accept awards. It survived by export, going on tour to remind the rest of the country what was at stake.
Tennessee Williams, the great playwright who in New Orleans found his muse and the setting for his greatest enduring success, is guilty of a great crime himself, an affront that endures and resonates across the country. He has made us smug. “America has only three cities,” he is said to have said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans.” We hear something like this and we declare ourselves cool. We’re not like the others. It’s this kind of attitude that leads to blithe declarations like “I listen to jazz,” and helps fool us into thinking that we’re the solution and not part of the problem.
Kline plays up this Frisco-NOLA nexus to his audience, some of whom are boasting beads and gold and purple and green on their ensembles. (I, guilty, have accessorized my thrift-store chic with a cheap black-and-gold fleur-de-lys scarf I bought from a Quarter chain drugstore.) He has no choice: This is the opening gala, and these are his donors. These are the well-wishing jazz lovers with bursting portfolios who built this jazz palace with the sterling sound, who coughed up $1.2 million this very night to put jazz in every middle school in Oakland and San Francisco, the schools their children will in all likelihood never attend.
Most us here, we’re told — by either Kline or by Donald Derheim, SFJAZZ’s CEO, I cannot remember which and my notes are no help but the speaker is trivial compared to the message — get it. We consider New Orleans a “second home.” The allusion is unfortunate. Some of us here are in the tax bracket where having a second home — or a third one, or several pieds-a-terre — is a literal act, a possession and not a feature of the soul. To hear this in the context of honoring New Orleans, a cultural institution besieged by the same vultures tearing at San Francisco’s flesh, is too on the nose.
These are the people who contribute to our own storm. San Francisco is in the midst of our own Katrina. The difference is that our storm and flood is drawn out and targeted, a selective Chinese water torture with class consciousness.
Well after it was physically removed, jazz was priced out. Like our water, piped in from a national park, we must now import our culture, like the second line and the Mardi Gras Indians, resplendent and defiant in their hand-sewn suits, brought from New Orleans to perform for an audience of second-home holders.
“We raise ourselves from the dead from your entertainment,” Saul Williams, the musician and slam poet, intones over a beatnik’s bass line. He provides what constitutes the evening’s lone direct challenge. “I hope you’re trembling in your seats.”
No, that doesn’t happen—we’re all too comfortable in our plush places, in our lovely cocoon with the awesome sound.
Yet ecce homo. To listen to jazz, to soak in a show at SFJAZZ Center, requires a measure of denial, a suspension of disbelief, some cognitive dissonance. So does living in San Francisco in 2018. It’s what we have—it’s our heritage, and it’s one we don’t have to preserve. For it is one we cannot escape.