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All That Jazz

Major S.F. Festival Takes on International Flavor

October 20, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Bay Area starts swinging hard next week when the San Francisco Jazz Festival kicks off its 18th annual installment.

Wednesday's opening night showcases performances by Abbey Lincoln and Jimmy Scott with guest David "Fathead" Newman. Hank Crawford, originally scheduled to perform, unfortunately had to cancel, reportedly because of illness.

Ten more days of concerts follow, in what is the West Coast's major, extended jazz festival, with performances in more than a dozen different venues--including some free events. On Nov. 18 and 19, a belated pair of codas are offered via special concerts featuring the Keith Jarrett Trio and John McLaughlin with Shakti.

This year, as in virtually every other year, thematic programming is a hallmark of the festival.

"It always has been," says Randall Kline, the festival's founder, "or I should say almost always, from the beginning. We actually started out in the beginning with a one-night event in which we tried to include a little something for everyone. But we soon found out that thematic programming--scheduling different events around themes that appeal to different tastes--was the best way to go."

This year's lineup is a good example. Mainstream fans will be drawn to appearances by Bud Shank, Toots Thielemans and Russell Malone. Those who favor a more edgy brand of music will undoubtedly turn out for Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill. Latin jazz aficionados are offered Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana, Cubanismo and an evening titled "Jazz in Brasil." Those who are fascinated by jazz singing can hear Lou Rawls, Abbey Lincoln, Etta James and Paula West, and view a film presentation of "Great Jazz Singers on Film." Blues audiences will have the opportunity to swing hard with Lavay Smith and the Red Hot Skillet Lickers, Russell Malone, Duke Robillard and the Robert Cray Band.

Despite the many different thematic areas covered in every San Francisco Jazz Festival, there is often a kind of overall theme that emerges, usually without specific planning or anticipation. This year's theme, Kline says, is its "international nature."

"We've got people coming from everywhere," he says. "More so this year than ever before. I mean, just to mention a few: Oscar D'Leon from Venezuela, Jane Bunnett from Canada with a lot of Cuban musicians--Hilario Duran, Pancho Quinto among them. And there are other Cubans: Eliades Ochoa, Cubanismo and Orquestra Aragon, as well as salsa queen Celia Cruz. Lee Konitz is arguably an expatriate now since he spends half his time in Europe. Trevor Watts is here from England with African drummers. B-3 organist Barbara Dennerlein is here from Germany. Mike Nock is in from Australia for the Fourth Way reunion."

This year's festival is the first to take place since Kline expanded his organization--which is now titled the San Francisco Jazz Organization, or SFJAZZ--and created a major parallel event, the SFJAZZ Spring Season. Stretching over several months in the spring and summer, the Spring Season is actually an extended series of concerts. But in those events, as well, thematic planning is at the core. In addition, the festival has traditionally offered a series of free jazz programs around the Bay Area over the summer months.

"We've really ramped up," says Kline. "A few years ago, we had a staff of seven or eight people. Now we've got 22 employees. And that's allowing us to do even more. In addition to the Spring Season--which opens in February of 2001--and the free concerts, we're looking at all sorts of other programs."

Now functioning with a $4-million budget and major sponsorship from Infiniti, SFJAZZ is beginning to fulfill Kline's long-term goal of establishing a premier, year-round jazz presence on the West Coast.

"We're operating very close to the model that we originally set out to emulate," he says, "which is a symphony association type of operation. And we've been very fortunate in that we're starting to attract support from the sort of individuals and companies who are drawn to those kinds of organizations. I really feel that SFJAZZ is working its way into the cultural fabric of the Bay Area. And that's good for the jazz, it's good for the community, and it's good for us."

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* The San Francisco Jazz Festival, Wednesday through Nov. 4. In venues around San Francisco. Tickets are still available for most of the festival concerts, but the more popular events are filling up quickly. Info: (415) 788-7353 or http://www.sfjazz.org.

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Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer. He can be reached at djh@earthlink.net.

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