Some pundits have overstated the case. Jazz is not dead in North Beach, much less in San Francisco as a whole.
The dreaded Moment of Truth arrived in the wee hours of April 21. After months of glum expectation and twelve hours of nonstop farewell jamming, Jazz at Pearl's has closed its doors for the last time. The quirky 110-seat club, which co-owners Sonny Buxton and Pearl Wong opened in 1990, had withstood massive changes both in the city's economy and in the health of its North Beach surroundings. In the end, it wasn't the usual suspects skyrocketing rents or public apathy that killed Pearl's. They simply lost their lease. Nobody seems entirely certain what is about to become of 256 Columbus Avenue, but the building's owners felt it was time for something new. Pearl's, as a seemingly endless stream of commentators have noted in the past six months, was the last venue of its kind in what used to be one of the great epicenters of jazz. Some pundits have overstated the case. Jazz is not dead in North Beach, much less in San Francisco as a whole. But for now at least, the city is without a full-time, jazz-only nightclub in the classic mold of a Jazz Workshop or Keystone Korner. The venues that remain are restaurants first, or concert halls, or split jazz programming with blues, funk, and other fare. At Pearl's, the mood was casual, the music came first, and the music was jazz, straight-ahead and straight up. As of early May, no single savior has strode forward, ready to pick up all the slack. But with luck, the effect of Pearl's demise may be diffusion rather than simple diminution. Vince Lateano, Pearl's music director, has found a place at the Dogpatch Saloon on Third Street, as well as at Enrico's on Broadway; can the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra replace their weekly three-set gig?
Amidst the general feelings of gloom, several positive developments have gone largely unnoticed. For several months now, pianist Larry Vuckovich has been aggressively developing regular programs at new venues, most notably Bistro 339 in Union Square. Meanwhile, up in the Cannery near Fisherman's Wharf, a new club called (appropriately enough) Jazz Nouveau will launch in June after years of under-the-radar planning. There's no word on the post-launch schedule yet, but we wish them luck.
Regardless of what happens to these new ventures, the opportunity exists now for a venue to step out of the shadows and into the jazz limelight. Do any existing establishments have the will and the means to try? If not, will leadership have to come from a new sector perhaps the musicians themselves, or some sort of public-private partnership? Can the touristy Cannery become a jazz destination as its Oakland counterpart, Jack London Square, did? Or does the answer lie in the city's ongoing, if seemingly half-hearted, effort to restore the Fillmore district? And is the San Francisco jazz community panicked enough yet to give any new program its full support?