They wrote the world's first hip-hop symphony (Brass, Bows, and Beats) and performed it at the Monterey Jazz Festival. They held a regular Tuesday night gig at an S.F. club for a decade. They formed a live hip-hop group (Shotgun Wedding Quintet) that rhymed about Bay Area history. They've performed alongside artists like Beck, Carlos Santana, Digital Underground, and Lyrics Born. And this Saturday, Nov. 17, founder Adam Theis and the collective of San Francisco musicians known as the Jazz Mafia will celebrate their 12 years of existence with a blowout at the Fillmore featuring all of the group's spinoffs and artists, and with a special contribution from noted local DJ Qbert. Ahead of the show, we spoke with Theis about the origins of Jazz Mafia, how things have changed in 12 years, and what to expect at Saturday's show.
You started this 12 years ago. Did you have any idea what it would turn into?
We didn't really start it like, let's launch this big thing. Even when we started Jazz Mafia Tuesdays... it wasn't for five years or so that I felt like it really turned into something. And at that point, definitely not. It just seemed like such a little underground thing. Like, how would this ever catch on, an orchestra playing a bunch of Van Halen songs and then playing a bunch of really weird original music?
The catalyzing element was that Tuesday night show you did for 10 years, then.
Yeah. It started to hit me when I'd run into people in New York or musicians online and they'd be like, 'Yeah man, we saw you guys at your Tuesday thing'. It became this thing where, because we were consistent with it... people all over the city would refer people to it. There's not that many things that are regular, where you can say, 'Oh, you're coming into town and you like good live music, go here.' I wasn't doing it for marketing, I was doing it because I wanted to keep our musicians together. Having something consistent is a lot easier because you don't have to schedule -- it just happens.
When did you realize that Jazz Mafia had taken on its own identity?
I remember at a certain point, the Tuesday show started doing pretty well. I'd be playing with groups on weekends... and noticed our shows on Tuesdays were doing better than a lot of people's weekend shows were, especially when the economy started getting really weird. It was like, damn: if we're getting all these people to come out on a Tuesday night for some pretty unusual music, not very commercial at all, that's hard. That definitely means something. We're cultivating an audience of people who are really dedicated. And that's one of the hardest things to do in music.
How has touring been?
Until the grant happened in 2009, it was definitely a lot of struggling, like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. Trying to tour with these groups, even Shotgun Wedding Quintet, is tough. 'Cause we'd go to Long Beach to play a show, and we're playing with a total gangsta rap group, or we're playing with an Oingo Boingo cover band, or we're playing with a band that sounds like a Sublime. And we don't really fit well with any of those, we fit better in a jazz club. Last year Shotgun did the Grouch/Zion I tour, it was like a U.S. tour a month and a half long. And after that I kind of just decided that's not what I want to do. I wouldn't rule out anything, but I was doing so much work at home -- really good production, recording with all these people that I wanted to be working with. I very rarely meet anyone who gets anything done on the road. It's like you think you're going to, you might read a book or something, but it's just really tough. It was a good tour, too. We lost money, but we did get paid each night. I was like man, if this is a good tour, there's no way I can sacrifice all that I have back home to do a typical tour, where you're doing it for love, losing money every night, just playing for free to get your name out there. There's other opportunities out there.
Tell me about the grant you revived to write the first hip-hop symphony.
It totally locked me down from doing all the other stuff. My calendar changed from working 33 gigs a month to five, which is a big difference. What it made me realize is how much time working musicians spend on just a typical job. I think it's great that there's work out there for musicians, but people who are trying to be artists and write music and put their own stuff out there, it really is tough. You're running to rehearsal for this little gig, and you're running to rehearsal for this other one. You look at the big guys, they get together, they rehearse for a week, they learn their new set, and then they tour for two or three months. The working musicians are on the complete other end of that spectrum. It's very inefficient.
You've been supporting yourself through music for 15 years now. Are you doing okay?
I think by most people's standards I'm struggling financially big-time, and I've been through some really tough times over the years. People see me post on Facebook, 'Oh my god I'm selling my instruments, I can't make rent.' So I'm in that category. But in the past year or two I've just gotten a little more smart about it. It's been more consistent for the pat two years, as far as not anything tragic happening. But I live really simply. I've been in the same place for 14 years, rent control, and don't have a car really. My girlfriend and I share a car. We just live really simply. But I enjoy it that way, because it allows me to have the freedom that I do.
How has the situation changed for working musicians in San Francisco? Is it harder now?
Yeah, big time. It kind of ebbs and flows, it seems like. For work it's incredibly tricky. for everyone I know there's kind of like a huge divide -- there's the kind of party stuff and then there's the really really artsy stuff, and there's not as much in between. When I first started coming to San Francisco, especially once the acid jazz thing hit, there were a lot more people going out to actually listen to music. It wasn't like the music had to have a function of loud party stuff all the time. It was a little bit more a mix of the art with the good/upbeat stuff. That's one thing that's tricky for musicians, especially for ones who want to have some artistic value in their music. It seems like -- I don't know if it's a venue thing or a generation that's coming up or what, but everybody seems to be pressured to alter their music in a way that's kind of -- I don't want to say dumbing it down, because I know a lot of people who play straight up just like club/party music and that's what they want to make -- but if you're coming from a type of music that doesn't necessarily fit within that....
People want more background/party music now?
I don't know. I just feel like the one thing for sure is there aren't places to really go listen to music as much. There's places where there is music, and yeah, it's in the background, or it's party stuff. There's not like those listening venues, places where the venue is set up for 'Hey, let's check out music and let's have a program.' And as far as jazz venues go, it's really sad, but it's not just jazz.
What can we expect at the anniversary show this Saturday?
It's going to be nonstop music from when it starts at nine 'til prety darn late. We're going to have sets by Shotgun, and Joe Bagale's going to do a set, and Subharmonic -- that new group I have -- is going to do a set. And Qbert is going to do a solo set while we switch over to the orchestra. Then we all come together for the last two-thirds or last half of it with the whole symphony orchestra doing a little bit of Brass, Bows, and Beats stuff, a little bit of Norton stuff, and a bunch of other things. Really it's kind of like all the best of what that group has done.
Qbert will be up there with you guys?
Yeah, we have a few pieces I've arranged for him that are like some of his favorite breakbeats and I threw them into this crazy medley and orchestrated it out. Stuff that's special that we've never done with anyone else.
How many musicians will be in the house?
Probably 40-50. It'll also just depend on who decides to join us.
Can you drop any hints about possible special guests?
No, I'll get in trouble!