San Francisco’s only free and democratic Conservatory of Music
To me, Sunday mornings are sacred, but not for any religious reason. It’s when I head out for a weekly bike ride through Golden Gate Park west to Ocean Beach. But one weekend, I decide to go on a Saturday instead. I take my usual route – cruising through the aromatic eucalyptus trees along the Panhandle, hugging the curves of John F Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park. But when I arrive at the white Conservatory of Flowers, something’s different. On my left, a soothing, and out-of-place sound emerges from out of nowhere. It’s jazz.
“We used to call this – this is the Conservatory of Flowers – we used to call this the Conservatory of Music,” says Aaron Cohen.
I find Cohen with three other musicians playing underground. He’s got his hands on a shiny alto saxophone as we talk on the southern end of a tunnel about fifty feet long that runs under JFK Drive. The musicians are perched on one side of the tunnel.
“Some of the stuff I practice, my neighbors wouldn’t want to listen to. So you can work out your stuff here. I use it as a rehearsal space,” explains Cohen.
But you wouldn’t guess that anyone wouldn’t want to listen to this. It sounds like a straight up performance. Paul Carella, with white hair and a tenor sax, says there’s a backstory to this musical gathering.
“I remember coming through the park – this is over ten years ago – and hearing somebody playing guitar and I came out and that’s where I met Sid, who is a fellow who lives near the park and would use this as his practice room down here,” explains Carella. “So I brought my horn down, and we played and then I just started coming down and practicing here if I had some time because I didn’t live that far. And we’d get together on the weekend and play. Then it just seemed to attract players.”
When it’s not raining or freezing, any number of jazz musicians can be found here on Saturday mornings, improvising melodies and wooing passers-by. The musicians say the demand for their music in formal venues has gone down, making the tunnel sessions more significant over the years.
Sitting on the steps, I watch as the musicians sway to the music, making eye contact with each other, nodding their heads in time, revealing subtle smiles. They are clearly enjoying themselves, and it draws people in. Couples approach and share a kiss, young children come and stare. At some point, a family of Spaniards approaches, the father picks up a free guitar and sings a spirited version of Guantanamera that Cohen is happy to accompany on his sax.
Carella says this space is key to the magical quality of what they are creating.
“The acoustic properties are really something,” says Carella. “I mean I, you know, I play different spaces. This has just got a wonderful hang time. It’s not too long, just long enough to make the sound sound very round. Sounds good.”
Petr Tittelbach, an electric guitar player originally from the Czech Republic, agrees.
“This is better than Carnegie Hall or whatever. Or Davies. Symphony Davies it’s got better acoustics than symphony,” he says.
It’s fun to hang with these guys – they seem like old friends. They explain that the environment is one where they can be free to play and improvise, and almost anyone is welcome. So is it really open to anyone who’d be interested?
“Well I’d say it is, sure. And if it works for them, you know, they’d become, I’m sure, a part of it,” says Carella.
By “works for them,” he means they need to withstand a democracy—a musical one, that is.
“So far it’s like no leader, people just come on their own, you know nobody tell what we gonna do and some people cannot take it,” says Tittelbach.
I can’t imagine who wouldn’t love this, but there are a few downsides, like the chilly wind, says Carella: “These brass instruments really get cold and they go flat. So you gotta you have to make up for it by tuning your instrument to an extreme that makes it very difficult to play.”
And then there’s mention of some mosquitoes here and there, and the rare instance of a park ranger visit.
“We had a nice crowd here and were playing great. And a park ranger came and he was really feeling guilty about it and he said, ‘Oh I’m just telling you I got a complaint that you have to go. But you don’t have to go.’ He said he was gonna call in sick next week so he wouldn’t have to do this,” explains Carella.
As it nears one o’clock, the wind picks up and the musicians begin to pack up. Their stint here this week is over, but they will be back next week, and the week after. And it’s not for recognition or any tips -- actually, Paul Carella says, since it’s not a hired gig, “if we blow a few notes here and there, it’s ok I think it’s more about our just us getting some experience.”
And for the passersby it’s about experience too – the one of stumbling across something surprising on a familiar path.