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San Francisco Makes Jazz History


San Francisco Makes Jazz History

Latin percussionist John Santos, who calls San Francisco's new jazz institution "a miracle," is a resident artistic director for SFJAZZ Center's first season.

Photo courtesy of SFJAZZ.

With three stories of glass covering an entire city block, San Francisco is making jazz history. SFJAZZ Center, a state-of-the-art structure that opened in Hayes Valley on January 21, 2013, is one of the few in the world designed expressly for jazz--to optimize the performing, listening, teaching, recording and sharing of America’s homegrown music form.

Although the January 23 opening night concert is sold out, it is being broadcast live on KALW (91.7 FM) San Francisco and KCSM (91.1 FM) San Mateo and streamed live online at NPR Music’s website starting at 8 pm. The 19-week season starts the next night with various artistic directors, jazz stars and jazz genres leading each week--and About.com's guide to SFJAZZ Center's first season covers the highlights.

The $64 million center, at Franklin and Fell streets, is the long-dreamt-of permanent home of SFJAZZ, which has been performing and presenting jazz in rented Bay Area clubs and halls for the past three decades. “You always wonder, ‘OK, maybe I’ll live to see it,’ ” says Latin percussionist and San Francisco native John Santos, who played at the first SFJAZZ (then called “Jazz In the City”) event at Herbst Theatre in 1983. “This building is a miracle to me.”

It is sleek and contemporary, bearing names of jazz artists on one of its glass walls and an illuminated sign board of upcoming events. It’s the first free-standing building in the country dedicated to jazz, which distinguishes it from Jazz at Lincoln Center.


* Robert N. Miner Auditorium
Step inside the Miner Auditorium (named after the Oracle Corporation founder), and you know immediately that you’re not at the opera. The amphitheater is industrial no-nonsense: walls of gray slats, silver cables delineating seat sections, gray chairs each with matching metal armrests and a cup-holder.

Randall Kline, SFJAZZ’s founder and executive artistic director, wanted the capacity and acoustic precision of a concert hall yet the coziness of a club. So that no audience member is more than 55 feet from the musicians, seats encircle the entire stage and the tiered rows rise at a 30-degree angle (descending from the balcony level, though, it may seem more like 45 degrees). While comfortable enough, the seating nudges you upright and is purposely not cushy--unlike at the symphony or opera, there’s little chance you’ll nod off. In the balcony, the chance is even smaller because the chairs are narrower, a mere 13.5 inches wide. The upper section tries to feel more club-like, though; the seats swivel, some are high, like bar stools, and in front of them is a handy ledge for your drinks.

Architect Mark Cavagnero, whose projects include the ODC Theater and the Oakland Museum of California expansion, also made the auditorium flexible. With stage extensions and removable seats, the hall can provide room for dancing and can seat anywhere from 350 people to twice that many. During the inaugural season, it’ll even accommodate a skateboarding half-pipe. The acoustics engineered by Sam Berkow, who worked on Jazz at Lincoln Center, are such that during a media preview, the balcony audience could clearly hear a question asked by person without a microphone on the ground level.

One special feature: From Franklin and Fell streets, peer into the center’s café and through a couple of small windows for a bull’s eye view of the Steinway piano on stage.

* Joe Henderson Lab
The street-level lab, named after the late San Francisco saxophonist, has full-length glass walls to attract bystanders on Franklin St. (reminiscent of the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center, whose giant window overlooks Central Park). The space that’s also frequently called “the ensemble room” seats 80 people, and hosts classes, rehearsals, recording sessions and performances.

On the second floor are Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet’s three lively, detailed murals of jazz of different eras, composed of tiles painted in shades of blue punctuated with yellow. Jazz and the Nation shows jazz’s African music heritage and its birth in New Orleans, along with its expansion to Chicago, the West Coast and Europe. Jazz and the City depicts San Francisco’s jazz scene past and present, and includes neon signs of The Long Bar, Can Do Club and Bimbo’s, men in 1950s hats and suits, and skateboarders.

The most fun and fanciful of the mural trio is Jazz and the Afterlife, installed in the green room of the Miner Auditorium. In its top corners are consecrated icons like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Etta James and Louis Armstrong, but the mural parodies “Judgment Day” religious paintings.

SFJAZZ board member Robert Mailer Anderson, who partially funded the artworks, explains that people are shown lined up outside of a club, and inside, a motorcycle cop (as St. Peter) is checking names. Those he directs to heaven are overjoyed, only to discover it’s the repository of bagpipes, the accordion, ukulele, recorder and other “maligned instruments.“ Those sent to hell find themselves at a raucous jazz party full of singers, musicians and celebrants. A lone trumpet player and a man hunched at the bar are reminders that the jazz world wasn’t completely upbeat and rosy.

Charles Phan, founder of the acclaimed Slanted Door restaurant, is running the center’s all-hours café and bar, South at SFJAZZ. Instead of his signature modern Vietnamese cuisine, he has compiled a New Orleans flavored menu that includes beignets and shrimp and grits. The café is to serve breakfast items (such as Strauss yogurt with granola), freshly brewed coffee throughout the day, and late-night munchies, and Phan, a self-proclaimed bourbon addict, promises speedily made cocktails on concert nights. South at SFJAZZ is slated to be fully operational by February 1, 2013.

The café fronts Fell Street, and to invite encourage walk-ins, its floor-to-ceiling glass windows pivot open.

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