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SF Institutionalizes Jazz
Certainly the City by the Bay has cause to celebrate. Last week, the organization that presents the best jazz soiree in America - the San Francisco Jazz Festival - unveiled plans for a $60 million arts complex (and endowment) devoted to the music.
Ground breaking will begin in the summer of 2011 for the SFJAZZ Center, a 35,000 square-foot facility that will include an auditorium with flexible seating for 350 to 700 listeners; state-of-the-art recording and broadcast facilities; 80-seat "black box" performance and education space; three rehearsal spaces; digital learning lab; and a street-level restaurant-café.
Though in many ways the concept evokes Jazz at Lincoln Center, in New York, the San Francisco institution will have a building of its own, making it the only free-standing jazz arts center in the country (Jazz at Lincoln Center's performance spaces flourish inside the massive Time Warner Center, at Broadway and 60th Street).
For the first time, jazz in America will have a counterpart to symphony hall, an edifice that proclaims the value of jazz to anyone who sees it on the street.
"This will be a physical manifestation of something important," says Randall Kline, who founded the SFJAZZ organization in 1983 and serves as its executive artistic director. "Everyone knows what the opera house looks like."
Now they'll know what the jazz house looks like - and perhaps step inside to savor its riches.
With $20 million from an anonymous donor and an additional $10 million from the SFJAZZ board, Kline and his organization are at the halfway point in raising the required funds (including a $10 million endowment toward the organization's future). The building will be designed by San Francisco-based Mark Cavagnero Associates.
For SFJAZZ, which presents more than 100 concerts a year, the new building will liberate the organization from renting spaces across the city and warehousing equipment between concerts. But that's just part of the reason for building the structure, at 205 Franklin Street in San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood, within a easy walk of the city's symphony, opera and ballet companies.
"All the other great arts institutions have their own facilities - the theaters, the museums, the symphonies, the operas ...," says Kline.
"They all have a hall specifically built for what they do, which helps the art express itself better. ...
"We're trying to create a space for jazz that has a feeling of energy and community - a more dynamic place for musicians to ply their craft."
All of which underscores my opening question: Should Chicago jazz listeners envy San Francisco?
Well, yes and no.
For starters, any institution that will present jazz throughout the year in a superb listening environment - and with the financial and marketing muscle to promote it - deserves a round of applause.
"I'm in favor of any space that's dedicated to jazz," says Jim Fahey, who programs the Jazz at Symphony Center series and would welcome such a venue in Chicago.
"Any space designed specifically for jazz would be a great thing, both for the musicians and for audiences.
"But I don't know if that's something that would ever happen here."
Indeed, Chicago's jazz scene is radically different from San Francisco's, and not only because it's larger (a marketing survey a few years ago gauged Chicago's jazz audience as 750,000 to a million at the least - more than the entire population of San Francisco - and possibly twice that size).
Moreover, the music pulses in practically all corners of Chicago, in clubs such as the Velvet Lounge and the New Apartment Lounge on the South Side; the Jazz Showcase and Andy's Jazz Club downtown; and Club Blujazz and the Green Mill on the North Side. Concerts draw thousands to Millennium Park all summer, and to Symphony Center and the Harris Theater throughout the year; and to uncounted smaller stages such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Old Town School of Folk Music.
All the while, the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago and Jazz Unites, Inc., present free events in the parks and the schools, practically blanketing the city with ingeniously programmed events.
Best of all, much of this music is free or cheap.
"My fear is that (a jazz building in Chicago) could make jazz less accessible for people who don't have the money to pay $50 for a jazz concert," says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute. "If it turned into something like that, I don't think it would be a good thing.
"I think it would be something that would hurt the club scene, which is more vibrant here than anywhere in the country. And that has played a big part in keeping music in Chicago as vibrant and as explosive as it is.
"Lastly, the idea of centralizing jazz in one placed kind of takes away from the idea that you should be able to go anywhere in this city and hear this music."
For sure, jazz in Chicago thrives at the grass-roots level and always has.
You don't need a $60-million jazz center for that.
But it sure would be nice.