Randall Kline founded SFJAZZ 30 years ago, so he's had lots of time to consider how the perfect space for the organization would look. This week, with SFJAZZ opening the first standalone center for jazz on the West Coast, Kline's vision has become a reality that anyone can see into.
Wearing his hard hat and construction vest to tour the 35,000-square-foot, $65 million space on the corner of Franklin and Fell in Hayes Valley, Kline avoids exposed pipe and extension cords as he shows off the features of the center. There are rehearsal spaces, an 80-seat ensemble room, a digital learning lab, murals by Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet, and the site for a café by Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame. At the center of the building lies its heart: the gorgeous, steeply banked Robert Miner Auditorium, which can seat 700, collapse down to 350, and even open up into a dancefloor.
The modern building's glass exterior walls contrast sharply with the monolithic exteriors of the nearby War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. Rather than being imposing, Kline says, the organization wanted an airy building that would draw people in off the street. "This is our chance for people to come to the center and see what we do," he says. "Having this openness is about energy and connection — you see the energy of what's happening musically."
Trustee Robert Mailer Anderson wasn't originally concerned with the look of the building. He wanted to showcase the music, and ensure the center would host a larger conversation about how jazz has influenced politics, history, and the arts. But after seeing San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero's nearly transparent design, he changed his mind.
"The goddamn building is starting to sing," Anderson says. "The street level view gives you the full context. You can make no mistake about what's going on in there. Someone out on the street can look in and see the SFJAZZ Collective playing and realize they are one thick pane of glass away from eight of the greatest jazz musicians of our time."
Kline and Anderson envision people of all ages in the neighborhood hanging out at the café on the center's ground floor. They say its robust education programs will help develop an audience, now and in the future, for jazz. As a nonprofit, with roughly half the money coming from ticket sales and the other half from donors, the SFJAZZ Center isn't under the same pressure to fill seats every night that a commercial club is. That means it can experiment with bookings and let artists put on unusual performances.
"Joshua Redman, he's got some hits, but he may not want to play the hits every night," says Anderson about the local saxophonist, whose relationship with SFJAZZ goes back to his days at Berkeley High School. "We can give him three nights to move the music forward. At a place like Yoshi's, if you don't fill the house one night, you don't get asked back. It's kind of brutal out there."
The SFJAZZ Center's sold-out opening gala on Wednesday, Jan. 23, which has raised about $1.6 million, features performances by legends McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Bobby Hutcherson, with Bill Cosby as emcee. Anderson, the chair of the event, acknowledges this VIP-only gala may seem far from jazz's working class roots, but he says the money raised will be used to reach out to those communities. "Some people think it's elitist bullshit," he says. "But at the same time, that takes care of most of the financial burden for the year, and that means we can have some $12 seats for concerts and an educational program that will come to your school for free."
SFJAZZ has five resident artistic directors: guitarist Bill Frisell, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, violinist Regina Carter, pianist Jason Moran, and percussionist John Santos. It's another example of the organization's desire to try something new. The directors will perform together opening week, and each will have a series of performances later in the year. In April, Frisell will present multimedia projects inspired by Hunter S. Thompson's influential magazine story "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," and Allen Ginsberg's landmark poem "Kaddish." In May, Moran will perform solo for the first night, turn the auditorium into a dance hall with the Fats Waller Dance Project on the second, and set up a half-pipe at the front of the stage to improvise with skateboarders on the third.
The adaptability of the Robert Miner Auditorium allows the artists to try innovative performances like this, Kline says, obviously excited to show off the room's details. Back in 2004, he and Cavagnero, a jazz lover, started talking about how to create the best space for the music. They wanted to combine the intimacy of a club with the pristine acoustics of Carnegie Hall, so they looked at churches and meeting halls in the U.S. and Europe to find the feel they wanted. "We looked at places where people come together and try and find consensus, and it's non-hierarchical," Cavagnero said. "It's people being in a space where it's all about other people."
A center designed specifically for jazz sounds pretty good to local musician Adam Theis, founder of Jazz Mafia. Theis will perform with one of his groups, Realistic Orchestra, in the second week of the opening celebrations. He particularly likes the idea of a permanent space for the music, recalling how Jazz Mafia's Tuesday night residency changed venues four times in 10 years because its host venues kept closing. "It's exciting to know that it's going to be a place more for art as opposed to a commercial space that's driven like a club," Theis says. "There are people who are passionate about it and love it, and they will put in thousands to see the art form preserved."
But questions remain about whether contemporary audiences will still pay to go see jazz. San Francisco clubs focused exclusively on the genre have struggled. Yoshi's, for example, discovered that its Fillmore location could not turn a profit by booking only jazz, so it has branched out into R&B, world music, and even hip-hop. The SFJAZZ Center plans to take a different approach: preservation instead of profit. "The negative is some people call it the 'museumification' of jazz," Theis says. "But the upside is it becomes something that's credible, and people want to fund it to keep it alive."
Indeed, the hope among both musicians and the organization's founders is that the SFJAZZ Center becomes nothing less than a local landmark. "It will be a crown jewel up there with the Golden Gate Bridge or Twin Peaks," says Santos. "It's going to be gold on a cultural level for the city."