Depending On Who You Talk To, Jazz Is Alive And Well In San Francisco – Or It's Dead And Never Coming Back

Pascal Bokar Thiam rests an arm on the table, leans in, and asks me how many jazz club owners I've met.

“You're the first one,” I say.

He's not surprised.

Thiam, a tall and imposing man with a gentle demeanor, is sitting across from me in a brand-new black chair in the performance space at Savanna Jazz Club, the former Mission District music venue he's about to re-open 25 miles to the south in San Carlos.

It's the middle of a warm day in late March, and the spotless, intimate room is quiet, with only the sounds of a sleepy suburban street wafting through the propped-open front door.

Thiam is a living and breathing encyclopedia of music. In a slight French accent — he was born in Paris and raised in West Africa — he expounds on jazz with an expert's confidence. He waxes eloquent about the genre's giants — Dizzy, Charlie, Fletcher, and Duke, whose faces stare back at him from framed pictures on the club's walls.

Meeting a jazz club owner might be easier in San Francisco if there were, say, any jazz clubs here. In the city once known as the “Harlem of the West,” a Jazz Preservation District has thrown public money jazz's way, yet somehow jazz music remains a hard sell.

Yoshi's on Fillmore was a spectacular failure. Nearby Rasselas left years ago. Jazz at Pearl's in North Beach is gone. And San Carlos is Thiam's second try for Savanna; it operated for 12 years in the rapidly changing Mission before closing in 2015.

To understand why there are no jazz clubs left, says Thiam, by day a music professor at the University of San Francisco, it's important to know the history of Africans in North America, the music they brought with them, and how the music they created made the United States a cultural power — and how the country's white intelligentsia rejected this new, native art at every turn.

Thiam is about to launch deeper into this when we're interrupted.

“Hello?” says a voice coming from the front door. Thiam pauses. “Hello?” the voice says again.

A large man lumbers in, armed with a message.

“I'm with the city,” he says. “I was sent over here to close you because you're open without building approval, fire approval, health department approval, or planning approval. You've got no approvals filed.”

Thiam rises from his seat with a resigned shrug. He's upset, in the way a teacher is tried with a lazy pupil. A musician as well as a scholar and the author of the jazz and blues retrospective From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta, he just wants to operate a jazz club. After Savanna's run in the Mission ended, he decided to try San Carlos, closer to the intellectual hubs in Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. There, he thought, people would understand his mission and his music — and want to hear some jazz.

On this particular day, that's not going to happen.

Most San Franciscans can find the Fillmore District on a map. That even goes for the city's tens of thousands of recent well-heeled newcomers. If they haven't been one of the 100,000 people visiting for the annual Fillmore Jazz Festival, the West Coast's preeminent free jazz show, they've likely eaten at the mecca of new California cuisine, State Bird Provisions, or tried the upscale soul food at 1300 on Fillmore. They've probably settled into a plush seat with a glass of wine to see an arthouse movie at the nearby Sundance Kabuki Cinema, or devoured a $15 cream-cheese-and-lox bagel at Wise Sons Bagelry.

Or if they didn't feel like raging to their favorite musicians playing a show at the world-famous Fillmore Auditorium, they've chilled out to the soothing sounds of some of the Bay Area's finest jazz acts at one of the many clubs keeping the Harlem of the West be-bopping into the future.

All of that is possible, except for the last part.

Even with the city promoting jazz and throwing public money its way, the Jazz Preservation District in the Fillmore has been a disaster — although jazz has found a permanent home elsewhere in San Francisco.

“I don't think jazz has been as healthy as it is now in a long time,” says Marshall Lamm, a veteran Bay Area jazz publicist and promoter.

Lamm currently works for SFJAZZ, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood San Francisco is promoting as its “performing arts district” — located not in the Fillmore, but in Hayes Valley, a few blocks away from Herbst Theatre and Davies Symphony Hall.

Open for a little more than three years, SFJAZZ's new $63 million theater is remarkable. The sound in the 700-seat performance space is unmatched, and the seating is arranged to put the patron as close as possible to the performers. The organization's 13,000 current members enjoy a calendar loaded with live shows at what SFJAZZ says is the “first free-standing building in America built for jazz performance.”

But there is a glaring dissonance in placing SFJAZZ so far from the Fillmore after the city tried for so long to revitalize the neighborhood as the center of West Coast jazz. Even if it's not a small-venue incubator of the music, shouldn't it be the anchor of the preservation district where such venues could be concentrated?

No, says Lamm. For one thing, SFJAZZ is near a major public transit hub (BART stops at Civic Center, and Muni Metro is even closer at Van Ness; Fillmore Street is serviced only by bus lines).

More importantly, he says, SFJAZZ wanted to “try to elevate jazz to a bigger member-based organization to where you could rely on members, just like all the other ones, and you could get grants and fundraising and get people to donate money and underwrite concerts and underwrite chairs or pianos.”

In other words, it's anything but a jazz club like the ones on Fillmore Miles and Coltrane would have recognized.

Even if publicly supported jazz in the Fillmore didn't work, or if the country's finest venue for the art is in the wrong place, San Francisco is still a breeding ground for jazz. Take the musician collective Jazz Mafia as evidence.


Multi-instrumentalist Adam Theis, the mafia's don who grew up in Sonoma County, describes it as a sound created by trained jazz musicians that doesn't qualify as jazz for jazz aficionados or marketers.

That's unfortunate, he says, because traditional jazz lovers would probably go wild for the innovations.

Consisting of 20 or more musicians in five subgroups — Jazz Mafia Symphony, Realistic Orchestra, Shotgun Wedding Quintet, Subharmonic, and Brass Mafia — the collective has been a staple of Bay Area clubs since the late 1990s.

“The music scene here is kind of fragmented,” Lamm says. “So you have your jazz guys, your rock guys, your hip hop guys, but there is a lot of back and forth and, I'd say, cultural exchanges going on. And in some ways Adam is kind of at the epicenter of that.”

Growing up, Theis was drawn to experimental sounds, including The Mo'fessionals and Fishbone. Of the former: “Two rappers, three singers, super multicultural, Latin percussionists,” he says. “Really, really awesome mix. It just blew me away.”

Playing clubs in cover bands, Theis quickly met others like him. By the time he moved to the Mission in early 1998 — into a dilapidated “bachelor pad/music hub” — he wasn't playing in cover bands anymore.

“I thought that to get a gig we'd have to be playing the cheesiest music,” Theis says. “It didn't even dawn on me that I could be playing the cool places, playing original music. And somehow it just started happening. I was not dreaming of moving to New York anymore.”

Booking residencies, in which musicians play one or more nights a week at a venue, was the key to success for Theis and Jazz Mafia. It allowed for experimentation, and audiences were drawn to the sounds.

“Jazz Mafia Tuesdays” ran at several Mission venues from 2000 to 2010, the last of which was Coda; that club closed Jan. 1, 2011.

Residencies, Theis says, are “such an amazing opportunity that I think not that many people get these days.” Of course, to get a residency, you need a place to play.

At Savanna Jazz that March afternoon, Thiam watched as closure notices were posted on his club's front and back doors. This did not sit well.

“It's bad, but, you know, it's everywhere,” Thiam says of his line of business. “Cities and towns have made it more and more difficult over time for anyone to open a business, which is a tragedy because the majority of job creation comes from small businesses. There's no reason why we should pay $8,300 for a [music] permit.”

What Savanna Jazz paid $8,221 for was a conditional use permit, the red tape required to have a piano in the performance room (even though the bar that previously occupied the site, hosted live heavy metal shows without such a permit).

Thiam also waited 10 weeks for his business plan to be approved by San Carlos' Planning Department because of an “administrative misunderstanding” involving the club's music permit — which was eventually unanimously approved without complaint by the City Council in February.

Thiam was happy to go through the laborious process, because the light at the end would be shining brightly on Savanna Jazz's rebirth. Instead, the process was shutting him down.

As Thiam pleaded his case with the city employee, things deteriorated fast. Uninterested in the logic of Thiam's defense, the man from the city threatened to call police if Thiam would not “settle down.” Thiam was upset — understandable considering the circumstances, beyond the dynamic of a white city worker invoking the police against an elegant, eloquent black man — but held back. He was not helping himself by continuing to tell the worker the city was in the wrong. Thiam backed off, and the closure signs went up.

After the city worker exited, Thiam tried to brush off the encounter, but was visibly shaken. More than anything, he felt a profound amount of disrespect. Thiam decided to go directly to Mayor Cameron Johnson. In an email as succinct as his Ph.D.-level musings on jazz music, he pleaded for help.

“We are community minded people and we are extremely disheartened at the way in which we have been treated,” he wrote. “I hope that you can be of some help in giving these agencies some boundaries on how they need to interact with citizens. If they need diversity training let's work together to provide it because I am hoping that I am not receiving this special treatment because I am African American. I am not a criminal and some of these employees have really made us feel as such and so far we feel mistreated. This is wrong.”

To his credit, Johnson reacted immediately to clear the red tape preventing Savanna Jazz from being a fully operational music club.

In an emailed response, Johnson expressed remorse over Thiam's treatment.

“I have discussed this matter with our City Manager and our Community Development staff,” the mayor wrote. “The City staff stands ready to assist you in obtaining the necessary permits and inspections to operate your business. While I was not present during your interaction with our staff, I take you at your word that it was not a positive encounter. We appreciate the feedback and we have discussed with our staff to ensure that similar situations are handled more appropriately in the future. I appreciate your desire to invest in the City of San Carlos. I am a fan of Jazz music and I look forward to becoming a patron of your establishment.”

In a few weeks, the permitting issues that had so vexed club and city were cleared up. After starting the process to move Savanna Jazz to San Carlos in July 2015, the club finally hosted its grand opening April 1. It's open seven days a week, and jazz is on the menu at least five of those nights. Now all Thiam needs is what's eluded jazz's false restart in the Fillmore: an audience.


Marshall Lamm came to the Bay Area in 1997 from New York City, where he worked with Verve Records, Astor Place Recordings, and Run DMC, among others. When Yoshi's moved from its Claremont Avenue location in Oakland to Jack London Square, Lamm was hired to be the club's publicist and promoter. He worked there until late 2005, as the Japanese restaurant and jazz club was planning its expansion to San Francisco's Fillmore district to be, along with the Fillmore Heritage Center, the anchor of a city-led neighborhood revitalization centered around the area's music history. The center cost $75 million to build, and Yoshi's $15 million.

Yoshi's opened in the Fillmore in 2007. By mid-2014, it had closed, unable to reach financial viability despite a bailout from the city and a healthy revenue stream.

The Addition relaunched in the space for a short time, but shuttered last year. After nearby Rasselas closed in 2013, owner Agonafer Shiferaw penned a letter to Mayor Ed Lee declaring, “The visionary promise of a revitalized, thriving African American commercial presence along Fillmore Street with a jazz ambiance is fading, and fading fast.”

That vision began in the mid-1990s under then-Mayor Willie Brown. It was supposed to bring back the jazz music that once dominated the neighborhood. It was also a way to atone for the city's sins — specifically, the redevelopment efforts of the 1960s that literally destroyed the Fillmore by replacing Edwardian and Victorian homes with mid-century concrete apartment blocks, displacing thousands of African American residents from the Western Addition and decimating a once-vibrant pocket of San Francisco. Today, the only evidence of the clubs where Miles Davis and John Coltrane played are underfoot: Bricks on the sidewalks along Fillmore Street mark the sites of former jazz clubs.

There is still jazz in the neighborhood. In fact, one could rightly say it's worshipped, in a way.

Just down the block on Fillmore Street from the Heritage Center is the Church of St. John Coltrane, which is not a music club at all but perhaps the last vestige of a time when the neighborhood was blessed with jazz. It too is on life support.

For decades on Sunday mornings, folks have gathered with the Rev. Franzo W. King and his family to revere the virtuoso Coltrane and his music, particularly the seminal “A Love Supreme,” in a meditation session and service. But not for much longer, at least in the Fillmore.

The church, facing eviction, is expected to hold its last service April 24 at its home of 45 years. Though it has no long term plan, through an online funding campaign, the church raised more than the $10,000 it needed to relocate to a temporary location. St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church, on Turk Street near the Fillmore, has agreed to take it in for at least a year.

Coltrane Church's landlord — local pastor Floyd Trammell of West Bay Conference Center, which provides space for community groups, events and churches — has been virtually silent on the eviction. In March, however, he offered a vague four-sentence statement to the Chronicle essentially saying he wishes he could provide space at no cost to neighborhood-serving organizations, but “West Bay operates in the same ruthless economy that has engulfed the entire Fillmore District.” In other words, the invisible hand of the free market appears to not dig jazz music of any kind, in a club or in a church.

“There's a nostalgia for the Fillmore,” says Lamm, who believes the yearning for the past did not survive its encounter with reality. “The city over the years did a horrible job of planning.”

In the case of Yoshi's, “the building wasn't built correctly,” he says. “The business model wasn't done correctly. And you see the result. Yoshi's was the hope for the district.”

It did not help the 420-seat venue or others that the jazz district's beginning coincided with the world sinking into a historic recession.

Another business that opened in the neighborhood in 2007 had better fortunes than most, but also struggled mightily in its first years while watching longtime institutions — jazz clubs, barber shops, shoe stores — around it fade into history.

Gabe Garcia, an East Bay native, brought hip New York clothier The Brooklyn Circus to Fillmore Street specifically because it's a cross section of the rich in Pacific Heights and the poor in the Western Addition.

The shop opened over the July 4 weekend in 2007 to coincide with the Fillmore Jazz Festival. He hosted local DJs outside to help draw attention to the new business — an effort that grew substantially over the years and remains a popular feature of the annual festival.

In the Brooklyn Circus's first few years, however, the neighborhood lacked energy and visitors, which translated to bad business for Garcia. Early on, he eyed the new Yoshi's as a possible partner in bringing people to the neighborhood and, hopefully, helping both businesses gain a foothold. After several pitches, Yoshi's agreed to let Garcia host a happy hour with local DJs. It morphed into the very popular Le Cirque that went on for a few years.

“The potential of what Yoshi's could've been is great,” Garcia says.

Still, Garcia speaks highly of the neighborhood — even his now-neighbor State Bird Provisions, which moved into the space long occupied by the Harputs Adidas store. He says the folks behind the highly regarded restaurant introduced themselves before opening, fresh-baked cookies in hand. A big reason why the feted foodies came to the Fillmore, they told Garcia,” is that we really like your shop.”

“If you don't go out to live music, it will go away,” Lamm says. “Then San Francisco will turn into the city you don't want it to be.”

SFJAZZ has done plenty to avoid the fate of Yoshi's, which may have been too remote or in the wrong place to attract the right crowds. (In addition to jazz, the theater has hosted Dave Chappelle and, just a few months before his career unraveled in scandal, Bill Cosby). And while it brings in top global talent for performances and as resident artistic directors, SFJAZZ is not afraid to experiment.


In 2014 and 2015, it hosted a performance conceived by pianist and composer Jason Moran that blended skateboarding and music — with a mini-ramp built inside Miner Auditorium for the shows. And earlier this year, together with Opera Parallèle, SFJAZZ hosted the universally lauded “Champion: An Opera in Jazz,” trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard's story of gay boxer Emile Griffith.

“SFJAZZ is really based on trying new stuff and just seeing what happens,” Lamm says. “And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. More often than not it works, because the audience is there for it.”

Theis of Jazz Mafia still plays live, but not like before. He spends most of his days at his recording studio in a residential neighborhood near Mills College in Oakland or teaching music at SFJAZZ. His priorities have shifted more into recording and composing than performing.

“Fortunately, this happened with the deterioration of the nightclub scene,” Theis says. He does have an exciting project coming up in which Jazz Mafia would host invite-only performances in the backyard of the property where his studio is located.

But what about a straight-up jazz joint, maybe without a cover charge and open to anyone? One of the best, and last, is undoubtedly Club Deluxe on Haight Street. It's been around since 1989 and still does steady business. Owner Jay Johnson died last year, but some of his friends took over the club and pledged to keep it going as is. Even on a Wednesday night, folks from their mid-20s to late 50s, sipping fresh-pressed Greyhounds, will fill the place to soak up the sounds of three plaid-clad young musicians.

Thiam has a few ideas about why jazz clubs are hard to keep alive. He believes the radius clause is partly to blame — something he called “a dark secret.” It's a common contractual practice in the music industry in which a popular band or performer cannot book any other shows within a certain number of days and distance from the venue that hired them. For a genre like jazz, says Thiam, this means he has trouble bringing in the big acts even if they would play somewhere like SFJAZZ as well as at his Savanna club.

“There are no jazz clubs because we cannot book jazz talent,” he says. “The talent is out there. The agents won't let us have the artists. As a small club owner, I can pay for an artist but I can't fly him [out here]. The small clubs cannot survive. They have to be constantly juggling things in order to make ends meet.”

It's also a matter of politics. Thiam credits former Mayor Willie Brown, just old enough to remember the old Fillmore, with jazzing up San Francisco.

“While he was mayor, there was jazz in the city; musicians could work,” Thiam says. “When he left, that political will was no longer there.”

Thiam met Brown in the 1990s when Thiam was the music director for trumpeter Donald Byrd, who played with Coltrane, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, and many others. Brown wanted to meet the legend.

“He invited us to his office, and he gave Donald Byrd a plaque,” Thiam says of Brown. “That's not only respect, that's knowledge. You need to have the political will, coupled with the actual knowledge and education [to make jazz thrive]. Money's not enough.”


View Comments