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Kuumbwa And The Magic of Monday Night

Arthur R George By

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The Monday night window is an enticing opportunity for all. —Tim Jackson
Monday nights, otherwise a down time for many music venues, have been magic for the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, CA. Kuumbwa's most prominent shows occur, oddly, on off-calendar Monday nights or midweek, featuring headliners before or after their engagements nearby in San Francisco and Oakland and who are touring up or down the West Coast, going to or coming from bookings in other more major cities.

It's a business plan which has found a way to keep the lights on when many sites are dark after a weekend, and performers would otherwise be idle or traveling. It's similar to New York's venerable Village Vanguard, where 50+ years of Monday nights originating with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis orchestras worked because its musicians were available as other places remained closed on that night.

Tim Jackson artistic director and co-founder of Kuumbwa, and also artistic director and past general manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival, says that the Monday night window is an enticing option for all. Musicians can add another night's employment opportunity at Kuumbwa. "They're already out working, on a tour. They can take the night off and sit around in a hotel, doing nothing, or they can work, playing together another night, in a great town, in a great venue, before a great audience."

Most recently, for example, Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band played the 200-seat Kuumbwa on a Monday, the night before rolling up to the 700-seat San Francisco Jazz Center. Monsieur Perine, the Colombian gypsy jazz trio, came to Kuumbwa the night after a sold-out show at SFJazz. Christian McBride had a Friday in June before the Stanford Jazz Festival the next night. Kurt Elling played a Monday in May after working a weekend in Las Vegas and before two nights at Yoshi's in Oakland.

Reaching Beyond

The off-night engagements also permit the audience to be up close and personal with performers who might be unapproachable in larger halls, and often at a discount from big city ticket prices. The club is close enough to San Francisco and Oakland, perhaps a 90-minute drive, that someone unable to see a show in the Bay Area, or who wants to see more of a performer, can get an extra dose in Santa Cruz. For musicians, the setting can be more relaxed than in a big city. They may choose to earn less than at a larger venue, a smaller surplus on top of a bigger gate elsewhere, which keeps the smaller room affordable and economically possible.

Evenings relaxing in the intimacy of small clubs can ease the pace of a tour. A Kuumbwa engagement is a signature event for performer and audience alike: important for each to see and to have been seen; headliners maintain traction, new performers can establish name recognition: word of mouth is the original social media business app.

Jackson networks through the Western Jazz Presenters Network by which venue operators discuss who they are hearing for their locales, who they find exciting. Jackson also learns from his headliners who among their sidemen might be emerging with interesting projects. He finds musicians to be "incredible human beings," whose ears are continually open and forward looking. He himself is "always sniffing the larger landscape" to find what's next.

Kuumbwa joins with other venues to "co-present" talent; "block booking" across multiple dates and locations plugs gaps in the calendar for clubs and performers alike, and brings performers who might not otherwise ever touch down locally. Agents are thus willing to package a Santa Cruz night into making an outing more lucrative overall. A chain of performances linked through smaller venues like Kuumbwa makes a trip easier to accomplish, supplementing a tour to make it feasible financially. More work for the artist, more revenue for the clubs, a place to be on Monday nights. It all adds up.

The wealth of talent available has spilled beyond the Monday night origins and beyond the Kuumbwa itself. John Pizzarelli is booked for a Friday in August, following two midweek nights at Yoshi's in Oakland as he swings southward to La Jolla, Phoenix, and Newport Beach. Herb Alpert, recalling his jazz-pop crossover Tijuana Brass, joins with wife Lani Hall, the original vocalist for Sergio Mendes' Brasil 66, for a Saturday night in September at the 685-seat Rio Theater, a 1949-era movie theater re-imagined as performance space. Chick Corea is a Wednesday at the Rio in October.

The scope of the music has also expanded along with added days of the week. Country swing band Asleep At The Wheel was presented at the Rio on a Saturday night in May, followed by chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux on a Thursday. Bluegrass master Del McCoury is playing a Sunday night in July after a Saturday in San Francisco. Country and bluegrass would appear to wander afield from jazz purity, but Jackson responds that one cannot contest the jazz elements in western swing, or the improvisational acoustic flavor of McCoury's bluegrass. "It's close enough to fit."

Kuumbwa has also twice booked the Pacific Mambo Orchestra into the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, a place with authentic jazz lineage. The Cocoanut Grove, built in 1907, was a regular stop for dance bands in the 1930s and 1940s. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie with Lester Young, Xavier Cugat, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey all came through. Their photographs still adorn the walls. The Cocoanut Grove retains a retro grandeur after all that, and Jackson accessed the Cocoanut Grove's extra capacity, its dance floor, and period elegance for a special evening of swell for a contemporary Latin big band.

100% Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is seventy miles south of San Francisco, thirty miles over a mountain from Silicon Valley, but a world apart from each. A review on Yelp says Kuumbwa is "100% Santa Cruz." True, certainly, but that means... what? Santa Cruz is not urban, it's not even suburban. Santa Cruz is uniquely Santa Cruz, quirky in its own way, combining elements that are rarely found together.

Santa Cruz is a beach town, geographically northern California but with a tropical southern California vibe, with surfing coves and sandy expanses, tide pools, and natural arches eroded by the Pacific Ocean; marine science laboratories; a boardwalk and thrill rides 3,000 miles distant from but otherwise much like the Jersey Shore. Santa Cruz is a college town, with a campus of the University of California spread across meadows and woodlands on hilltop acreage above the city, with libraries, and research, and lecture and concert halls; serious academia amid its sylvan setting. And Santa Cruz is a resort town, with a main street of hip, organic restaurants; fashionable boutiques; athletic clothing and surf shops; numerous beachside hotels; and Bookshop Santa Cruz, one of California's most varied and complete independent bookstores.

Kuumbwa is on a mixed-use street tucked a block behind Santa Cruz' main downtown shopping street, Pacific Avenue. The club started in an edifice that had been a bakery, and still shares its building at 320 Cedar Street with a more-visible streetside bagel shop, even as the music room has been named one of the top 150 great jazz venues in the world by DownBeat magazine.

A gently curving canopy arches over the doorway, windows open to a courtyard dotted with a mix of plants. Exterior paint is tan and turquoise, as the club is about a mile from the sand and waters of Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Santa Cruz is at the north end of Monterey Bay, 25 miles in a straight line across to the city of Monterey, home of the Monterey Jazz Festival, a kind of elder to Kuumbwa.

Kuumbwa draws upon all that, as educational center, entertainment place, organic cafe, and intimate concert room. The university up on the hill does not have a major concert series on a scale with Stanford and U.C. Berkeley over the mountain. The place thus fills a cultural niche otherwise lacking. Its cafe serves dinner and pastries, 100 % Santa Cruz style: locally-grown produce, sustainably-sourced meat, fish, and poultry; carrot cake with walnuts and raisins: a vegan tofu-chocolate mousse pie.

Building on the scholarly aspect of U.C. Santa Cruz which with Cabrillo College in nearby Aptos have strong instructional music programs, the guiding idea in founding Kuumbwa, Jackson said, "was that jazz is an art form and deserves as much dignity as chamber music or the symphony."

That academically-friendly entertainment model continues. Half-price student tickets are sold at the door subject to availability. Kuumbwa also offers a jazz camp each summer at Cabrillo for students from grades 8-12, and maintains jazz-in-schools programs to educate future players and listeners. "Club Kuumbwa," a project now on hiatus, gave bands local to Santa Cruz, in music genres that might reside slightly outside of jazz, featured placement on weekend nights with lowered cover charges and drink prices. These position Kuumbwa as an incubator for music and new and independent artists.

Spontaneous Creativity

The name Kuumbwa (pronounced koo-um'-baa) itself is a Swahili word meaning "spontaneous creativity." The name was suggested by an early volunteer, James Coleman, and was selected, Jackson recalls, because "it sounded cool, and what it stood for was cool: a recognition of jazz' origins as African- American music."

The place grew from the most modest of beginnings, particularly when considering how the arc of Jackson's life brought him to the top of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Jackson and two friends, radio programmer Rich Wills and singer Sheba Burney, were barely in their 20s (Jackson was still only 19). In the enthusiasm and naivete of youth and the spirit of "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!," upon Wills' initial idea they called a public meeting to float the concept of staging jazz concerts. Their first seed money came from selling castoff junk and various unwanted items at the local flea market.

Jackson had grown up in San Jose, started surfing in middle school, and moved to Santa Cruz after high school to surf and study music at Cabrillo College. Surfing and music also brought him northward, but still near the waves, to attend the College of San Mateo and work as a ticket-taker and janitor at the beachside jazz venue Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society started by eccentric music fan Pete Douglas on Half Moon Bay (read article). Jackson's assets at the time included his flute, surfboard, Volkswagen van, and a spot for a sleeping bag on Douglas' floor.

Douglas became Jackson's mentor in the presentation of jazz. Douglas had recorded the live concerts at the Bach, and Jackson brought the tapes down to Santa Cruz for air time where Rich Wills worked at a non-commercial radio station.

Beginning steps included a fundraiser for the "First Annual Santa Cruz Jazz Festival" in 1975 with a concert by Joe Henderson. Within two years, the group had presented a dozen shows, including concerts with Dexter Gordon and Elvin Jones, and found what would become its home within the shell of an abandoned bakery.

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