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.
Wills, with his background in non-commercial radio, knew about non-profit organization and availability of grants. The process for obtaining non-profit status, Jackson recalls, was much easier in the 1970s. Wills was able to incorporate Kuumbwa as a 501(c)(3) non-profit under the tax code in a single day trip to the Secretary of State office in Sacramento. As a non-profit, the organization could access a unique kind of government assistance, in the form of volunteer time from persons working off court-sentencing for lesser criminal convictions. Electricians, plumbers, contractors could cut time remodeling an industrial space into a jazz room.
Even today, the non-profit access to grants and tax-friendly contributions is crucial to the club's success. Earned income covers only part of operating expenses. "We are very entrepreneurial for a non-profit, but ticket sales, proceeds from the cafe, and rental of the space only cover 70 per cent of our costs. The balance comes from grants, memberships, and other contributions. "If we had approached this as a commercial endeavor," Jackson admits, "we would never have made it."
The Monday nights started with an assist from Todd Barkan
, owner of the Keystone Korner
in San Francisco in the 1970s. Musicians then were typically booked for a six night run, Tuesday through Sunday. Mondays were dark at Keystone, but Monday-night availability in Santa Cruz could bolster either side of an engagement.
Dexter Gordon played for Kuumbwa at Barkan's suggestion in December 1975 simply because Santa Cruz was en route of Gordon's drive home to Los Angeles, after having returned from more than a decade of self-imposed expatriation in Europe. It was still a year before the great revival in Gordon's career was initiated at the Village Vanguard. Barkan himself years later went on to become director of Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola
at Jazz at Lincoln Center
in New York.
Over the years, the original founders of Kuumbwa moved on to other pursuits, but Jackson kept showing up day after day, the last man standing of the original crew, for more than 40 years. The club, once just a dream, is forever demanding. "You have to feed the beast, the beast being the venue," he explains. "A building that is not in use is not doing much good. So there's something going on 25 days out of the month: could be jazz shows, wedding receptions, banquets, dinner or business or community meetings."