Happy birthday, SFJazz Center
Posted on February 13, 2014 | By email@example.com (David Wiegand)
It’s really hard to believe it’s only been a year since SFJazz opened the first free-standing venue devoted exclusively to jazz performance in the U.S. Every time I’m in that building, I marvel at what a singular source of pride it is for San Francisco and the Bay Area.
I was there tonight to hear the young jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, who came out of nowhere a couple of years ago to win the Thelonius Monk Jazz Competition at the age of 23. She did some cool stuff on a Jacky Terrasson’s “Gouache” CD and has her own CD out, “WomanChild.” She also made a disc with Jean-Francois Paris Quintet that’s hard to find.
So I reviewed the CD and loved it. And then I reviewed her first Bay Area appearance at SFJazz last season and went crazy for it. She did many songs from “WomanChild” then and tonight. But I have never heard McLorin Salvant sing the same song the same way twice. Each time she approaches a song, it becomes something different. She probes and explores it with her insanely supple voice, lolling in the deepest contralto range and building back to a high, breathy soprano. Vibrato can flutter like Nina Simone, or swing slow and deep. She modulates tone like a sculptor models clay.
She began her concert with “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from “Porgy and Bess,” and did another song from the Gershwin opera later on, “My Man’s Gone Now.” She paid tribute to the great Bert Williams, the African American turn of the century entertainer who wore blackface in performance. “Nobody” was his signature song, and McLorin Salvant honored him with a stunning rendition.
Time and time again during the evening, I found myself reaching for classical music comparisons, as antithetical as that may seem. Listening to McLorin Salvant and her arranger-accompanist, Aaron Diehl, became, in my mind, a kind of jazz concerto for voice and piano. And that isn’t to take anything away from the other two members of the combo, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Pete Van Nostrand. At times, the focus shifted to a kind of jazz concerto for voice and bass, and for voice and drums.
For me, the classical link has to do with the virtuosity of each individual performer and the shattering power they achieve together.
I wanted someone to remake that awesome “Porgy and Bess” album that Ray Charles and Cleo Laine did and let McLorin Salvant explore the jazz opera as only she can.
SFJazz opened on Jan. 23, 2013. The organization itself is 31 years old. Its visionary director Randall Kline has built this organization into one of the finest in the world. And I have to say that the programming has become even better since the center opened. Much of that has to do with the respect Kline enjoys in the industry, but a whole lot must have to do with how much jazz musicians love performing here.
Fourteen months before the center opened, SFJazz had only a small membership. It reached a couple thousand or so by the time the center opened.
Right now, as the center celebrates its first anniversary, there are ALMOST 10,000 members. In just a year.
Before I left tonight, Randall introduced me to the architect, Mark Cavagnero. It was a pleasure to meet him when I was still in the building, but the pleasure only deepened as I left. I walked by the Joe Henderson Lab, an intimate street-level performance space on the Franklin Street side of the building. There was a combo inside, playing, and the place was packed. Maybe 75 seats or so. It was Harvey Wainapel and Claudia Villela doing the second of two sets tonight recreating one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, “Getz/Gilberto.” I had it on vinyl as a kid and practically wore it out.
And it was right there. It wasn’t behind some wall, or up a steep stairway, or overlooking the street from a higher floor. You walked right by the audience in the lab as if you were walking down the aisle to your own seat.
No one in the audience looked up at the people passing by — they were too intent on listening to the music. But I looked in, and so did others, and it was almost as if I could have touched the sound.
That’s the genius of this building. It’s so much more than a “glass box”– unlike so many other venues, its design concept is all about openness and welcoming.
I was at Hayes Street Grill this week having lunch with Kary Schulman, the keeper of the cash register for the city’s enviable and irreplaceable Grants for the Arts program when Randall came in with Tim Fox of Columbia Artists Management Inc. (or simply CAMI to anyone in the biz). Randall reminded me that SFJazz got its all important first grant from the city’s program 31 years ago. Officialdom already had faith in SFJazz and it’s repaid that confidence tenfold in the intervening years.
I hope by the time this gets posted, SFJazz passes that 10,000 membership mark. That would make the first birthday celebration even greater.
They’ve got some great stuff coming up, like Bobby Hutcherson next week, playing with David Sanborn; Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding with Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano on the 19th. Those shows are in the Miner Auditorium. Terrence Brewer has a new CD and has back to back gigs in the Henderson Lab at the end of the month. Wynton Marsalis rolls in with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in March for several performances, followed by Hugh Masekela, Rosanne Cash is here in April, on the 10th. Her new CD may be her finest yet. And to mark National Poetry Month in April, SFJazz has its own poetry festival in the Henderson Lab in April.