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SFJAZZ: Decades After, Five Years In

Arthur R George By

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Five years after the San Francisco, California organization SFJAZZ created its own building, the SFJAZZ Center, it has proved a raving, even rampaging, success, unrelenting in programming, sales, education, and music production. Its number of concerts has doubled from 248 to more than 500. Its membership has increased by almost 200% to more than 14,000. It moves a million dollars worth of tickets in the first week its box office opens; some shows sell out to members even before the general public can line up, an incentive to join.

It commits to bringing music programs to every middle school in San Francisco and Oakland, has family-friendly matinee performances, in-house digital production classes, a high school all-star band, subsidized tickets for community and school organizations. Positioned just blocks behind San Francisco's prestigious ballet, opera, and symphony, SFJAZZ inserted itself near these cultural pantheons but with an intent to be more grounded in its urban zone. The site it occupies not long ago were auto repair and muffler shops.

The center yields not an inch from its surrounding sidewalk. There's no setback, no distance, no elevated pedestal off the sidewalk, unlike the imposing entrances to many cultural edifices. Glass walls span three sides and wrap two corners; separation between inside and outside dissolves. The building, at the intersection of Franklin and Fell Streets, is transparent, immediately present. "We wanted to lock it into the street," architect Mark Cavagnero told Architectural Record magazine. There could not have been a tighter placement.

After starting in 1983 and playing to a variety of locations around San Francisco, the difference for success, according to founder and executive artistic director Randall Kline, has been in having a home to call its own. Its concert season runs from September to May, followed by a festival for two weeks in June and then a Summer Session from mid-July to late August before it all resets with new shows for the next regular season.

"There's an 'SFJAZZ' experience now," Kline explains. "Here, we're in a building that was designed from the ground up for the purpose of presenting jazz: lighting, sound, staging, hospitality, not borrowed space elsewhere." The size of the main auditorium, 700 seats, has an economic efficiency. If smaller, revenues would be insufficient; if larger, it would lose intimacy, seats would go unsold even in a supportive market, and empty spaces lack buzz. Now, Kline says, across all seasons, ninety per cent of his seats are sold, and there's a vitality apparent.

The repeated mantra about the Jazz Center is "first free-standing" or "first stand-alone." It takes that solo by being the first separate free-standing or stand-alone structure in the United States built specifically for jazz. That accomplishment distinguishes this West Coast facility from Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, also expressly built for jazz but enclosed within a commercial high-rise. Not coincidentally, as each sought the finest, the acoustics of both places were designed by Sam Berkow of SIA Acoustics, in New York and Los Angeles.

SFJAZZ has a grand entrance, but it is inside the building. One walks directly onto the concert floor from the lobby, or goes up a staircase before dropping down into a cube that surrounds the stage on three sides, or onto a terrace behind and above the performers. None of the 700 seats, rising as steeply as building codes permit, is more than 75 feet from the stage. Performers look directly at listeners, not out over their heads. The audience is not fixed in a forward gaze, but look across and around at each other. A window off the lobby lounge peeks into the main hall, visible straight through from the street outside, like a knothole in the fence of an old baseball park, connecting to the neighborhood.

At another corner of the building is the 100-seat Joe Henderson Sound Lab, about the size of a small club, with floor to ceiling windows also directly to the street. The room presents mostly emergent talent, but not always: Cyrus Chestnut (piano) will be in the space with Buster Williams (bass) and Lenny White (drums) in September.

Engaging Community

Five years after its construction, SFJAZZ seeks to be, and is, a place of engagement. This jazz temple, for music that is worldly but held sacred, sought the intimacy of a club but derived its design largely from churches. Randall Kline and architect Cavagnero visited a variety of jazz performance spaces, from clubs to classic concert halls to dive bars. They asked musicians what best suited them. The answers ranged up to a Roman amphitheater, uniformly purposed for connection with the audience.

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