San Francisco turns up the sound on jazz

Franklin Street skirts the edge of a trendy neighborhood known as Hayes Valley, where Herman Leonard's oversize photographs of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Art Blakey look down from the windows of an old brick building onto jazz's newest temple.

After 10 years of planning and a $64-million fundraising effort, the SFJAZZ Center opened this week — and immediately staked its claim as the West Coast's most significant hub for America's original art form.

Blocks from Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House, the two-story SFJAZZ Center doesn't fit the imposing visual profile of the rest of the dwellers of the city's cultural corridor. But that's exactly the point.

Sheathed in floor-to-ceiling glass and warmly lighted from within, the center threw an opening-night bash on Wednesday that might have seemed exclusive, with its red carpet and VIP-heavy guest list. But the aim here is to make jazz more accessible to the people.

"When the lights go up, it feels like the building is part of the street," SFJAZZ founder and Executive Director Randall Kline said in November, when the building was still under construction. He said the idea was to pull away from the notion of jazz as an esoteric art form and present it in a way that's "more open and more connected to contemporary culture."

It's a goal underscored by a gap intentionally left in the walls around the venue's main auditorium, allowing those on the sidewalk to get a glimpse of what's happening on the bandstand without buying a ticket. The architect borrowed the idea from AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play.

Jazz has long been a fringe genre as compared with the cash cow that is pop and has spent years attempting to sustain itself by aligning with so-called higher arts. Partnerships with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York City's Lincoln Center give fans seasonal offerings of the genre.

But SFJAZZ has, in the grand tradition of the West Coast, made an aesthetic left turn in hopes of satisfying current fans as well as courting some new ones with the first free-standing building of its kind in the U.S. built exclusively for jazz.

This shift in the way the music is presented is also apparent in Los Angeles and its most buzzed-about club, the Blue Whale. Next to a noodle shop in a Little Tokyo mini-mall, the club — like the SFJAZZ Center — removes some of the financial barriers to discovery by keeping cover charges low ($10 to $15 for the Blue Whale, while most shows at the center start at $25) and eliminating any food or drink minimums.

The Jazz Bakery, the beloved Culver City club that closed its doors in 2009, has plans for what could be considered a smaller-scale version of the SFJAZZ Center with a two-story space designed by Frank Gehry, a 250-seat main performance room, a lobby cafe and a smaller, first-floor theater.

Though ground has yet to be broken on the Bakery's new home (scheduled for completion in 2015), Executive Director Jeff Gauthier sees a future link between the two venues that could spell a jolt for the West Coast jazz scene.

"We're kind of talking apples and oranges here, but we're thinking kind of a Lincoln Center for L.A. [for the Bakery]," he said in a 2012 interview. "We'll have a little network going with SFJAZZ ... a circuit that artists can do when they come to the West Coast instead of having them all skip L.A."

But right now, the spotlight belongs to the SFJAZZ Center. The organization rose to the occasion Wednesday with a concert that featured a who's who of the music: Chick Corea, Jason Moran, Esperanza Spalding, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and Bill Cosby.

Before a note was played, the center hosted a red carpet reception that would have fit in among the awards galas that pepper L.A. this time of year.

There was even an SFJAZZ-branded photo backdrop against which the night's guests (all VIPs or concert patrons who paid $500 each for a limited number of tickets) could pose. The crowd gathered around small plates from a number of local restaurants was a stylish, sharply dressed mix of young and old, and some of the faces seemed familiar from the covers of Fast Company and Wired.

Local dignitaries such as Mayor Edwin Lee and Willie Brown rubbed elbows with locals honoring the night's "black tie optional" dress code, mixed with such geographically appropriate outliers as a velvet suit or jauntily angled beret.

Open bars pouring craft beer, wine and bourbon cocktails dotted the center and its neighboring tent, which allowed the spillover of revelers to appreciate a young band that at times stepped off the stage to charge through giddy, New Orleans-styled takes on standards such as "All of Me."

The center's floor-to-ceiling windows on the first level blend the room with bustling Franklin Street outside so seamlessly that it's almost disorienting. Yet it doesn't feel crowded by the city, apart from the occasional passing siren. Long steel rods anchor the staircase to the performance space above and golden flowers poke from the ceiling, giving the room a lush, naturalistic flourish amid its modern mix of glass, metal and brushed concrete.

As the concert began, it offered a glimpse into jazz circa 2013. The almost hexagonal-shaped hall, fleshed out to 700 seats, is intimate but oddly spacious with its rows of bar seats that ring the upper balconies around and behind the stage. Its mix of horizontal and vertical acoustic slats along the walls helps the room echo the site's original life as an auto repair shop with the crisp, spartan aesthetic of a work space.

It's not Disney Hall, which may be the most recent opening of this magnitude the West Coast enjoyed, but it doesn't want to be, either.

After a sweat-shirt-clad Cosby opened the show joining Pete Escovedo and others for a swiveling take on Tito Puente's "Ti Mon Bo," pianist Moran — who will return to the venue in May to improvise with skateboarders — teamed with drummer Eric Harland for a lively, inside-out acceleration through the blues.

A free-flowing take on Fats Waller's "Yacht Club Swing" began by recalling Jaki Byard and rumbled toward the outer limits atop Harland's driving pace. "You had me worried for a while, I thought you had forgotten the song," Cosby teased when the duet finished, sounding like a concerned parent. "I was so glad he was with you!"

In another pairing, piano great Corea joined guitarist Bill Frisell for what was said to be the first time. The two improvised around a central melody in a graceful sort of dance with Corea roaming up and down his keyboard as Frisell, ever the country gentleman in a suit and clean-toned Telecaster, mirrored his every step. Corea was next joined by drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Spalding for what Corea introduced as a tribute to Bill Evans' "Alice in Wonderland."

Spalding, her signature puff of hair wound into a wrap, continued her run as the anointed talent of the moment in jazz, and she again justified her standing with performances that showed that, as accomplished as she is as a vocalist, she's an even better bass player. Her nimble duet with Harland earned the night's first standing ovation, and a vibrant later turn with Tyner and Joe Lovano on "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit" conjured the restless spirit of John Coltrane.

A two-saxophone front line of Lovano and Joshua Redman offered another highlight in a free-blowing "Blackwell's Message," and, in maybe the night's greatest moment for cross-generational pollination, Frisell, Redman and Tyner joined John Handy and vibraphone great Hutcherson for "Blues on the Corner." Hutcherson might have looked worryingly frail with oxygen tubes trailing from his suit, but he punched his instrument with a taut, ageless grace.

"What tonight is about is the music and our community. We did this thing," SFJAZZ executive director Kline said at the show's outset. "It's about you making something happen."

As the night closed with an onstage Victrola murmuring a Billie Holiday performance of "I'll Be Seeing You," you believed him, particularly as the center's crowd fell to a warm, thoughtful silence. The show may have ended, but the party feels like it's just getting started.

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