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All That Jazz

S.F. Fest Matches the Music to the Venue

October 23, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What does it take to make a great jazz festival? A strong sense of place and the right programming to fill it, according to Randall Klein, who has built the San Francisco Jazz Festival into one of the most impressive events of its kind in North America.

The 16th installment of the festival opens Thursday and runs for the following 11 days in locations around San Francisco. With programs in locations ranging around the city--from Davies Symphony Hall and the new Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to Temple Emanu-El, Grace Cathedral and a yacht on the bay--the festival clearly expresses a sense of place that could only be San Francisco.

But the real secret of success has been the festival's ability to create what Klein describes as "themed" programming for each of its differing venues.

"We found out, fairly early on, that people aren't all that interested in eclecticism in music when they're forced to experience it that way," he says. "So, from the second year, we began to theme things--to what people's interests are, or to musical styles or periods. And that's how we began to connect events to venues, as well. Instead of trying to get everything to fit into one place, we moved around into other venues, trying to find the right thematic event for that space."

This year, for example, the Grace Cathedral, one of the most acoustically interesting spaces ever to showcase jazz, will feature timbrally unusual performances by the Ann Dyer Trio and the duos of percussionist Adam Rudolph and saxophonist Yusef Lateef and trumpeter Tom Harrell and bassist Gary Peacock.

The festival's thematic slant also extends to three programs of music next Friday celebrating the work of Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk.

"The Mingus program, for me, is a typical San Francisco Jazz Festival kind of show," says Klein, "taking a chance and putting a real bebop-oriented, jazz-head kind of a show on a main stage. And doing it in a way that retains the music of Mingus--with the Mingus Big Band and Charles McPherson [who worked with the bassist-composer]--while also getting into Mingus' exploratory spirit with the offbeat group Mingus Amungus, a band that incorporates rappers and dancers."

Other, equally fascinating thematic aspects of the festival include a two-part program--"Riffs on Tradition" (Nov. 7 and 8)--examining some of the connections between jazz and Jewish music via performances by saxophonist John Zorn and klezmer artist Andy Statman.

In yet another thematic stance, the festival, recognizing the growing Latinization of California culture, has programmed several major events.

"Fiesta Boricua: A Puerto Rican Dance Party" (Nov. 7) juxtaposes young salsa sensation Marc Anthony against the music of Salsa Hall of Famers El Gran Combo. Another concert (Nov. 2) combines the playing of two legendary Cuban pianists, Jesus "Chucho" Valdes and Ruben Gonzalez, with the singing of Ibrahim Ferrer from the Buena Vista Social Club. And there will be appearances by Brazil's Ivan Lins, Puerto Rico's David Sanchez and Los Angeles' own conguero, Poncho Sanchez.

All this is accomplished with an annual budget of $2.7 million (60% of which comes from ticket revenues, 40% from fund-raising and corporate support)--a considerable step up from the $27,000 that funded the first San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1983. And Klein's blending of the right venue with the right thematic programming has been so successful that plans are underway for a spring jazz festival, scheduled to kick off in the year 2000.

"We don't plan to stop now," says Klein. "It'll take four or five years for the spring event to grow to the size of the festival. But it'll have the same programming philosophy, although we'll program events over a three- or four-month period rather than two weeks. Because we think there's still plenty of room for expansion left in the jazz festival world."

* The 16th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival. Various locations throughout San Francisco, Thursday through Nov. 11. Ticket prices range from $15 to $100, with a number of free events. Information: (415) 788-7353.

More Latin Jazz: Southern California Latin jazz fans who can't make it to the Bay Area for the festival won't have to miss out on appearances by "Chucho" Valdes, Ruben Gonzalez and Ivan Lins. In an unusual example of synchronicity (but actually an aspect of tour scheduling), all three--along with Ibrahim Ferrer--will make Southland appearances next week before they head up to San Francisco.

But the programming will be different. Valdes and Lins will perform at UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday in a bill that should offer some illuminating insights into the similarities and differences between the Cuban and Brazilian syntheses of jazz and African influences.

Gonzalez and Ferrer, in a two-night program at the Conga Room on Thursday and next Friday, will offer an older, more traditional view--one that has been preserved with remarkable clarity in their work.

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