The birth of the cool: the SFJAZZ Center
The liner notes to Miles Davis’ classic album “Birth of the Cool” begin like this:
“In jazz, as in other musics, some things are of their time, some ahead of it, while others simply know no time at all.”
Those words, written by longtime Downbeat Magazine editor Pete Welding bring to mind the most important events in the music’s history. The UK’S Guardian newspaper once listed them:
- The day in 1916 when a young Louis Armstrong walked into a pawn shop and bought his first cornet.
- The night in 1939 when Billie Holliday ended her set with the song “Strange Fruit.”
- The summer in 1958 when Esquire photographer Art Kane gathered 57 jazz greats for a photo shoot in front of some Harlem brownstones.
- The spring of 1987 when Wynton Marsalis founded the jazz program at New York’s Lincoln Center.
And now, according to many jazz critics around the country, we’ve arrived at what could be the next great moment.
“San Francisco has had a great history of all kinds of music, but this is the big experiment here,” says SFJAZZ Executive Director Randall Kline. “What this place’s position will be in the community, this is about how we all work together. We can play a more important role in jazz in this country.”
Kline founded SFJAZZ in 1983, under the name “Jazz in the City.” He programmed concerts with artists including percussionist John Santos, a San Francisco native, who will serve, this year, as an artistic director.
“At the birth of this incredible institution,” says Santos, “which is putting for San Francisco, for our state, for our country for the world, helping with a giant step towards the respect that our national art form deserves.”
The 35,000 square foot SFJAZZ Center will host more than 200 shows in the coming year. Some will take place in an intimate rehearsal and performance space named after tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. But the primary venue is a convertible concert hall named for early SFJAZZ supporter Robert N. Miner, who founded the Oracle Corporation. The Miner Auditorium can seat up to 700 patrons, but the floor can also be cleared of seats, making room for a dance floor … or even a skateboarding half-pipe. Seriously, it’s part of an upcoming performance by pianist Jason Moran. For the builders, jazz innovators, and enthusiasts, this room is a canvas for the imagination.
“I started talking to Randall about this, scheming and dreaming, almost ten years ago,” says Mark Cavagnero is the SFJAZZ Center’s lead architect. “It’s amazing how many people it takes to work really hard and think through all the issues, particularly something as unique as this, that attempted to do things that I’m not sure many of us had seen quite this way before.”
Two of those people are theater designer Len Auerbach and acoustician Sam Berkow, whose task was to make music sound equally good from every seat in the Miner Auditorium.
“When you design a room and you think about how it’s going to be used, you often use car analogies,” he says. “Are you designing a Camry, something that’s safe and comfortable, are you designing a Ferrari, are you designing a Rolls Royce or a bus? And when you ask Randall which one he wants the answer is always, ‘All of them.’”
Actually, Kline says, he just wanted the Ferrari. But he wanted it to be versatile. To that end, Berkow used a collection of speakers from Berkeley-based Meyer Sound Labs, and aimed them in all directions from high above the stage. That stated goal of giving every seat the same audio experience? It works.
After the press conference, during a live performance by a quartet led by John Santos, I wandered all around the room, from the highest-priced seats on down, while recording. It sounded the same everywhere I went.
The $63 million building was paid for through a capital campaign, anchored by a $25 million anonymous donation. Stylish details pervade the space, from the custom-designed seats in the main hall, to the large-scale tile murals stretching across the second floor of the Center, depicting famous jazz venues from around the world. There’s even a buzz-worthy new restaurant, called “South at SFJAZZ,” headed up by The Slanted Door chef/owner Charles Phan.
But it’ll take more than shiny digs and good food to make SFJAZZ a success. Yoshi’s SF, a jazz and sushi club that opened just five years ago, may go into bankruptcy if its owners can’t restructure a debt to the city’s now-defunct redevelopment agency. Another club, Savanna Jazz, underwent a loan modification late last year to fend off foreclosure. The future of viable jazz venues is uncertain, as it has been for generations. That’s not news to Randall Kline. His ability to grow SFJAZZ from nothing 30 years ago to international acclaim today gives the industry hope. Not to mention a pretty darn sweet destination in the heart of San Francisco.
“Well, as my wife aptly puts it,” says Kline, “it’s not a point of arrival – it’s a point of departure. So in five years, one hopes there’s a real scene happening here. That there’s people on the sidewalks, and this lobby is buzzing, and people are talking. And there’s a greater conversation happening about gathering around the art form.”
“This music, which breathes the spirit and dedication of all involved in its creation, has touched and transfigured all who have heard it and will continue to do so long into the future.”
The words of Pete Welding lining Birth of the Cool still apply.
SF Jazz will celebrate the opening of the new SF Jazz Center with an opening night concert on Wednesday, January 23, hosted by Bill Cosby, and featuring performances by McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Joshua Redman, Bobby Hutcherson, Esperanza Spalding, Mary Stallings, John Handy, Pete Escovedo, the SFJAZZ Collective, and many more. The event is sold out, but you can hear NPR's live broadcast from the SFJAZZ Center from 8 to 11pm on Wednesday night on KALW or watch the video live webcast here on kalw.org.