The view at the corner of the new SFJAZZ Center, a 700-seat, specially designed… (Eric Risberg / AP )
SAN FRANCISCO — "This is one of my favorite rooms," said SFJAZZ founder and Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline, smiling as he stepped over exposed pipes and dusty planks in the SFJAZZ Center. "Then again, they're all my favorite rooms," he added.
You'll forgive Kline for sounding a bit excited. This month, construction on the $63-million SFJAZZ Center will finish with a grand opening scheduled for Jan.21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Two days later, a roster of opening-night performers that includes McCoy Tyner, Joshua Redman, Chick Corea and Esperanza Spalding (with Bill Cosby as master of ceremonies) will christen the first SFJAZZ season in the building (though SFJAZZ has been presenting concerts in and around San Francisco for 30 years).
"I think it's going to be a great thing, not only for the Bay Area but just for music in general to have a space like that," said New York saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who for nine years has been a member of the SFJAZZ Collective, a sort of musical outreach arm that performs concerts nationwide. SFJAZZ isn't "going to just go through the motions and book the same people every time, or book whoever's hot," he said. "They're really into presenting new music and giving people a sense of what's happening."
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At 35,000 square feet, the center is the first free-standing hall of its kind built exclusively for jazz, and its debut comes at a time when presenting live music — and jazz in particular — could be considered a risky proposition. A tough economic climate has seen clubs closing around the country, including Los Angeles with the still-itinerant Jazz Bakery (whose ambitious plans for a new, Frank Gehry-designed Culver City home in some ways mirrors aspects of the SFJAZZ Center). The same applies to San Francisco, where the city's second location of the venerable Oakland jazz club, Yoshi's, filed a petition for involuntary bankruptcy in November.
Despite his contagious air of optimism and excitement while touring his new facility, Kline is aware of the challenges ahead.
"'Terrified' is a good word," Kline playfully admitted at a restaurant a half a block away from the center, situated in the vibrant Hayes Valley neighborhood not far from City Hall. Kline worked at the Boarding House, a San Francisco club that hosted the Wailers, Janis Ian and Steve Martin, in the '70s before starting SFJAZZ as a two-day festival called Jazz in the City in 1982. "When we decided to do this project it was 2006 or 2007 — the whole world fell apart in 2008 as we were going into this. And the fact we raised most of the money for this — we're now at 57 and a quarter million, in a time of the worst economic times in San Francisco — where else could something like this happen?"
Watching a sold-out Herbst Theatre revel in a performance by Mallorca-raised singer Buika around the corner later that night, you begin to understand Kline's point. Presented by SFJAZZ, the show dipped into Flamenco and Gypsy music while brushing into Latin jazz, and the crowd hung on the magnetic singer's every word, even as she grinned through rapid-fire asides in her native Spanish.
The concert reflected an eclectic program that's been in place since the beginnings of SFJAZZ as an annual concert series, which booked Tony Bennett alongside a tribute to John Coltrane. The organization offers a broader vision for the music than its analogue in New York City, Jazz at Lincoln Center, which for years was criticized for its rigid view of what could be considered jazz. Another SFJAZZ-presented show in the '90s, a far-out night with Ornette Coleman that featured live body piercing, received plenty of criticism but remained consistent with San Francisco's history of free-spirited happenings.
The philosophy extends to SFJAZZ's varied resident artistic director program, which allows artists to experiment with different programs during a run of shows. This year's roster includes guitarist Bill Frisell performing a multimedia piece inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and pianist Jason Moran improvising alongside pro skateboarders riding a half-pipe that will be assembled near the stage.
"That's the whole idea here — what can you do to create better context for people to experience the music?" Kline asked. "If one thinks that jazz is something you have to know a lot about and get over a hurdle, well, it doesn't have to be all jazz you're going to hear in there to get you in the building.
"A little bit of context goes a long, long way," he added. "So if you know a little about history or theory, it doesn't take much to learn it. It isn't a lifelong course to understand jazz; it could probably be 20 minutes."