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San Francisco turns up the sound on jazz

The just-opened SFJAZZ Center, a purpose-built home for America's art form, aims to gather jazz-heads and average Joes alike.

January 26, 2013|By Chris Barton, Los Angeles Times
  • Large jazz photographs by Herman Leonard are displayed on a building across the street from the opening night concert of the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.
Large jazz photographs by Herman Leonard are displayed on a building across… (Eric Risberg / Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Franklin Street skirts the edge of a trendy neighborhood known as Hayes Valley, where Herman Leonard's oversize photographs of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Art Blakey look down from the windows of an old brick building onto jazz's newest temple.

After 10 years of planning and a $64-million fundraising effort, the SFJAZZ Center opened this week — and immediately staked its claim as the West Coast's most significant hub for America's original art form.

Blocks from Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House, the two-story SFJAZZ Center doesn't fit the imposing visual profile of the rest of the dwellers of the city's cultural corridor. But that's exactly the point.

PHOTOS: Arts and culture photos by The Times

Sheathed in floor-to-ceiling glass and warmly lighted from within, the center threw an opening-night bash on Wednesday that might have seemed exclusive, with its red carpet and VIP-heavy guest list. But the aim here is to make jazz more accessible to the people.

"When the lights go up, it feels like the building is part of the street," SFJAZZ founder and Executive Director Randall Kline said in November, when the building was still under construction. He said the idea was to pull away from the notion of jazz as an esoteric art form and present it in a way that's "more open and more connected to contemporary culture."

It's a goal underscored by a gap intentionally left in the walls around the venue's main auditorium, allowing those on the sidewalk to get a glimpse of what's happening on the bandstand without buying a ticket. The architect borrowed the idea from AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play.

Jazz has long been a fringe genre as compared with the cash cow that is pop and has spent years attempting to sustain itself by aligning with so-called higher arts. Partnerships with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York City's Lincoln Center give fans seasonal offerings of the genre.

But SFJAZZ has, in the grand tradition of the West Coast, made an aesthetic left turn in hopes of satisfying current fans as well as courting some new ones with the first free-standing building of its kind in the U.S. built exclusively for jazz.

This shift in the way the music is presented is also apparent in Los Angeles and its most buzzed-about club, the Blue Whale. Next to a noodle shop in a Little Tokyo mini-mall, the club — like the SFJAZZ Center — removes some of the financial barriers to discovery by keeping cover charges low ($10 to $15 for the Blue Whale, while most shows at the center start at $25) and eliminating any food or drink minimums.

PHOTOS: Arts and culture photos by The Times

The Jazz Bakery, the beloved Culver City club that closed its doors in 2009, has plans for what could be considered a smaller-scale version of the SFJAZZ Center with a two-story space designed by Frank Gehry, a 250-seat main performance room, a lobby cafe and a smaller, first-floor theater.

Though ground has yet to be broken on the Bakery's new home (scheduled for completion in 2015), Executive Director Jeff Gauthier sees a future link between the two venues that could spell a jolt for the West Coast jazz scene.

"We're kind of talking apples and oranges here, but we're thinking kind of a Lincoln Center for L.A. [for the Bakery]," he said in a 2012 interview. "We'll have a little network going with SFJAZZ ... a circuit that artists can do when they come to the West Coast instead of having them all skip L.A."

But right now, the spotlight belongs to the SFJAZZ Center. The organization rose to the occasion Wednesday with a concert that featured a who's who of the music: Chick Corea, Jason Moran, Esperanza Spalding, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and Bill Cosby.

Before a note was played, the center hosted a red carpet reception that would have fit in among the awards galas that pepper L.A. this time of year.

There was even an SFJAZZ-branded photo backdrop against which the night's guests (all VIPs or concert patrons who paid $500 each for a limited number of tickets) could pose. The crowd gathered around small plates from a number of local restaurants was a stylish, sharply dressed mix of young and old, and some of the faces seemed familiar from the covers of Fast Company and Wired.

PHOTOS: Hollywood back lot moments

Local dignitaries such as Mayor Edwin Lee and Willie Brown rubbed elbows with locals honoring the night's "black tie optional" dress code, mixed with such geographically appropriate outliers as a velvet suit or jauntily angled beret.

Open bars pouring craft beer, wine and bourbon cocktails dotted the center and its neighboring tent, which allowed the spillover of revelers to appreciate a young band that at times stepped off the stage to charge through giddy, New Orleans-styled takes on standards such as "All of Me."

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