For some 30 years, Randall Kline has been defying the notion that the West Coast was just a desultory detour on jazz’s journey from New Orleans up the Mississippi to Chicago and across to New York. As founder of SFJAZZ, one of the most ambitious such programs in the country, Kline has sought to turn San Francisco into a jazz capital to rival Manhattan. With the unveiling in January of the gleaming, glass-and-concrete SFJAZZ Center, he may have succeeded.
The 35,000-square-foot center is “very different from the halls over there, which are fortress-like” says Kline, pointing to the symphony hall and the stately opera house a stone’s throw away. “Jazz is a more open art form.” For local architect Mark Cavagnero, transparency was the name of the game. The outer walls are glass, giving passersby a view of the lobby, a side stage with a grand piano, and a café called South, run by James Beard award–winning chef and mixologist Charles Phan, which Kline hopes will lure foot traffic from the increasingly vibrant Hayes Valley neighborhood, north of the Mission District. There’s even a glass panel in the back of the café through which pedestrians can glimpse a section of the main concert hall’s stage and catch sight of, say, Brad Mehldau or Regina Carter from the street. “The idea was that the building would just dissolve into the San Francisco night,” says Cavagnero.
The hall itself is a cube, with steep, intimate seating and an advanced acoustic system engineered by Jazz at Lincoln Center acoustician Sam Berkow. The room’s dimensions are modeled after a Unitarian church in upstate New York designed by Louis Kahn. (Kahn, in turn, had based his structure on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple outside Chicago. Architecture, like jazz, is an interplay of tradition and appropriation.)
The hall, like Kahn’s and Wright’s, is a place of community worship. A church of jazz. That’s not to say it’s sacrosanct. The room is an instrument, ranging in capacity from 350 to 700, and the stage can contract around a piano or expand to accommodate a dance floor.
The Shape of Jazz to Come
Three particularly bold experiments from SFJAZZ’s spring season.
Puttin’ on the Fritz, April 14: Capping off “Weimar Germany” week, San Francisco’s Club Foot Orchestra performs a (wildly) original accompaniment to a screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Going Gonzo, April 20–21: A recitation of Hunter Thompson’s notorious 1970 article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” set to a score by guitarist Bill Frisell, with visual design by Thompson’s longtime illustrator, Ralph Steadman.
Half-Pipe Dreams, May 4–5: Restlessly inventive pianist Jason Moran and his combo, Bandwagon, share the stage with top Bay Area skateboarders in one of the most unusual collaborations in jazz history.
The SFJAZZ Center is at 201 Franklin St.; sfjazz.org.