Sunday, July 6, 2014

Is There a Future for Jazz?

No matter what they say, the Bay Area jazz scene remains vibrant.  Between the Monterey Jazz Festival, Yoshi’s in Oakland and San Francisco, the Jazzschool in Berkeley, numerous middle school and high school jazz programs, the newly constructed $63 million SF Jazz Center,  house concerts, the SFJazz High School All-Stars program, college jazz programs, as well as the many smaller clubs and restaurants that host jazz, you can hear jazz of the highest caliber in the Bay Area.  

Some say "Yes, but not vibrant like it used to be!"  They say that in the 1950's there were two dozen thriving jazz clubs in the Fillmore area.  The queen bee of them all was the Black Hawk at Hyde and Turk, slightly aloof at the edge of the Tenderloin.  There, famous Jazzmen recorded albums, including Miles Davis, Cal Tjader, Thelonious Monk, Shelly Manne, and Mongo SantamarĂ­a.  Billie Holiday and Lester Young played their last West Coast club dates at the Hawk and the Modern Jazz Quartet played its first.  On any given night you could find Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Vince Guaraldi, Stan Getz, Mary Stallings, Johnny Mathis, Art Blakey, Shorty Rogers, Art Pepper, Art Farmer, Gerry Mulligan,  Horace Parlan or Russ Freeman holding court at the Hawk.  Notable recluse Art Tatum played the Black Hawk in 1955.  San Francisco was a Mecca of Jazz.  Today, however, the few jazz clubs that exist are barely hanging on. 

Yet things are always in flux.  By 1963 the Black Hawk closed and the jazz scene had relocated to North Beach. There, along one block of Broadway from Columbus to Montgomery you could find the Jazz Workshop, Basin Street West, Sugar Hill, and El Matador.  Nearby at the Cellar (576 Green Street), Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were mixing up poetry and jazz.  But it was short-lived   Those places, too, are long gone; gone like Jack Kerouac, Ken Keasey, Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beats.    

Bill Graham took over at the Fillmore and built an empire.  The Grateful Dead played 51 psychedelic concerts there between 1965 and 1969, and they played another 29 concerts at the nearby Avalon Ball Room.  Phil Lesh, a founding member of the band and their bassist for 30 years was a graduate of the Berkeley High School jazz program.  But the late sixties and seventies were not an era for jazz.  The Vietnam war, free love, cheap drugs, and rock 'n roll moved in.  

The number of Jazz venues where gigging musicians might earn a steady living is much diminished these days.  John Curiel, in a good article in KQED Arts a year ago points to pricey real estate as one factor.  But the main problem, surely, is a lack of demand.  

A few years back, Bobbi arranged a great gypsy jazz gig at a Persian restaurant on Lake Merritt in Oakland.  It paid $150/night and tips.  Pretty good pay ... great music.  But even after four years, there was no perceptible surge in customers at the restaurant on account of the music.  Paying $150/night to a jazz band is an expensive perk for the restaurant on the margin.  In this case it worked out to be mutually beneficial, sort of, only because just enough personal friends of various band members dropped by now and then to have a listen and have a meal and drink some wine.  This is not a "jazz" problem, however,... it's a problem shared by all genres, working musicians, and venues.  

It seems unlikely that those 24 jazz venues on Fillmore in the 50's were thriving because of the music.  It seems more likely that these were inexpensive eating, drinking, and socializing  establishments that thrived in a particular place and time where jazz fit in.  Were the establishments supported by eating, drinking, and socializing, or were they supported by the music? When the crowds went away, was it because the neighborhood changed, or was it because they liked jazz less?  These seem like a rhetorical questions. 

True jazz listening venues do lack an audience. Curiel, in the article linked above reports 30 appreciative patrons at the Savannah Lounge on Mission street taking in top talent flown in from Montreal.  It's not unusual to have similar numbers at iconic venues in New York City, he reported. Such numbers do not pencil out.  

So is there a future for Jazz?  I think the answer is "You bet."  Last night we had the pleasure to hear 17-year old Logan Kane and his "New Music Ensemble”, a Dectet, comprised of five of the Bay Area’s finest young jazz musicians and five classical musicians (arranged as a woodwind quintet) at the Jazz School in Berkeley.  The evening featured mostly original music written by Kane, the upright bassist in the video below, and a lovely longer piece, written by the piano player, Omree Gal-Oz.  Kane is the winner of two Downbeat Student Music Awards for composition.  Bobbi’s nephew, Zev Shearn-Nance, who is studying percussion at USC, anchored the group with inventive and captivating rhythms.   Here are Ken, Omree, and Zev closing out the first half of their concert with a fast Herbie Hancock John Coltrane piece.

The concert was part of the Berkeley Jazz School’s 2014 Rising Stars Summer Concert Series, which continues for the next three Saturdays, starting at 8:00 p.m. at the Jazz School in Berkeley.  Check it out!

This talent, of course, is not nurtured by a club scene.  It is supported by school programs, and parents who pay for private lessons and university conservatory programs.  The trick is, how will these kids make a living off the music when they are done?  In order to sell out venues like Yoshi's, Savannah Lounge, Zellerbach, or the SF Jazz Center they need an audience willing to shell out $100 plus for an evening to hear them.  This is a bigger commitment than nursing a beer at your local juke joint.  How will they build an audience to fill such venues?  And in the meantime, will there be smaller venues available where they can build a following, a reputation.  Will there be an audience to purchase recordings of such music?  

The new SF Jazz Center was built with large donations from our captains of industry.  It's the classical music model:  support from rich donors who want to be seen to be supporting the arts, even though they may not understand it. Curiel suggests that such donors and centers like the SF Jazz Center carry this one step further, that they provide direct support to clubs.  A jazz farm team system, if you will.  He notes that in Denmark the government subsidizes smaller jazz venues so they can provide a place for talented musicians to play.  

The music business, of course, is discombobulated and in flux.  Is there still a big studio recording industry?  According to this source, album sales for jazz in the U.S. in 2012 were $8.1 million, which is more than for classical music, and about a fifth of country music.  Somebody is making that music.  Somebody  is buying it.  They say "if you build it, they will come."  It seems that must be true to some extent both for players who develop their talents, as well as for jazz venues and music industry executives who need high caliber musicians to fill their concert venues and new albums.  What do the paying customers want?  Therein lies the secret, but thus it ever was. 

With the level of talent, ingenuity and drive exhibited by these young musicians, I have no doubt that some of them will find a way to break through, that jazz will continue to thrive, that jazz audiences and musicians will continue to find each other and that there will be promoters and venues to help facilitate, and maybe even make a buck or two.  As for the rest, well they can always work for a living like the rest of us and keep the music going for fun.  It's all good.  


  1. Roland,

    A history of SF Jazz should include Keystone Corner in SF and in Berkeley. When I first moved to the Bay Area they had the kings of bop most nights for a modest price and it used to be packed.

    Yoshi's in SF has abandoned jazz more or less and now is being sold.

    The SF Jazz center is a gem and all but the top tier play there.


  2. And here is an article on the Keystone venue in North Beach.


  3. I saw Elvin Jones at the Keystone S.F. back in the day. We came for the second set but Elvin couldn't make it up to the stage for the third. Too filled with drink, I'd wager.

    Cool place.