SFJAZZ Christens New Facility with All-Star Gala
Posted 1/30/2013

On Jan. 21, SFJAZZ debuted its new facility—America’s first stand-alone jazz center and concert hall, which was designed by architect Mark Cavagnero and features state-of-the-art acoustical engineering. Despite its modernist facade, the SFJAZZ Center’s opening gala on Jan. 23 was all about roots.

The Bourbon Kings Brass Band welcomed guests into the reception with classic New Orleans swing, while the Bay Area’s top soul-food eateries offered buttery delights—from crawfish étouffée with Dungeness crabmeat to raw Walker Creek oysters—on tiny compostable plates. Rows of yellow orchids bloomed from the acoustical mesh on the ceiling, and bourbon cocktails flowed.

The concert was the conclusion to a long week of opening events, 20 months of construction, nine years of planning, and, according to SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline, “30 years of dreaming that this would be possible.”

That night, master of ceremonies Bill Cosby traded his traditional sweater for an SFJAZZ hoodie. Cosby opened the show by playing cowbell with percussionist Pete Escovedo, bassist Saúl Sierra-Alonso and two SFJAZZ resident artistic directors—percussionist John Santos and saxophonist Miguel Zenón—on Tito Puente’s “Ti Mon Bo.” This early number demonstrated a fact that held true throughout the show: The percussion sound in the 700-seat Robert N. Miner Auditorium is eerily clear. Drummers Eric Harland and Jeff Ballard played an attentive set with a lot of muted cymbal and tapping on the side of the snare. Even next to the most powerful horns in jazz, no articulation was lost in the mix.

When Cosby introduced saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, who dueted on Lovano’s “Blackwell’s Message,” he asked Redman the name of the tune and snapped, “Shut your mouth boy!” when Lovano tried to answer. Once the laughter died down, the piece was stunning, with a wide-ranging bop intro that was built around the beautiful unison lines of the two saxophones. Like many songs that night, the rubato broke into an unapologetic swing with the help of Ballard and bassist Matt Penman. This was one of four spectacular duets; the first was between pianist Jason Moran and Harland, the second between pianist Chick Corea and guitarist Bill Frisell, and the third between Harland and bassist Esperanza Spalding.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony two days earlier, Santos had joked about the acoustical canopy hanging over the stage. “Make sure the wires holding that thing are really strong,” he said, pointing to the 25- by 15-foot panel over his head.

“He’s got nothing to worry about,” said acoustic engineer Sam Berkow, who was leading a tour of the catwalk. “The supports weigh more than the panel itself.” The sheet of sound-scattering tiles is composed of 64 2- by 2-foot quadratic residual diffusers angled in different directions. The panel is designed to interact with five subwoofers that absorb and project low-range tones, a feature of the hall that worked magic on Spalding’s bass. Every note was crystalline, even in the third-tier balcony, during her surprise duet with Harland, listed as a solo in the program.

When Spalding returned to play pianist McCoy Tyner’s “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” with Tyner himself, Lovano and Harland, she motioned for the sound engineer to turn her down, when bassists often need to do the opposite.

At this late point in the set, the legends of jazz began to take the stage. It’s hard to see Tyner be helped to the piano or see vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson with an oxygen tube, but the pianist still slaps the keys with a righteous left hand, and Hutcherson still punctuates the vibes like a mockingbird. In that hall, surrounded by musicians whom they had raised by example, these giants of the genre could forget their age and impediments because they were home.

The final number was a thoughtful deconstruction of Corea’s “Spain” by the SFJAZZ Collective. Corea was the only one onstage without sheet music, floating in and out of Joaquín Rodrigo/Miles Davis’ “Concierto De Aranjuez” on the electric keyboard.

The closing piece was played by gala chair and novelist Robert Mailer Anderson, who performed on an old Victrola record player that he had to crank. “This is to honor the musicians who came before us,” he said. “Those who made all of this possible.”

Anderson drank bourbon from the bottle and told the story of a grandfather who would come home from work every night and play both sides of a record, but talking was only allowed during the B-side.

“This is the A-side,” he said as he placed the needle, and Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” crackled into the hall.

The SFJAZZ Center is only a few weeks old, but its roots go deep. This is an institution that understands where it comes from, and it will be a pleasure to see where it goes.

Zoe Young


From left: Chick Corea, Edward Simon, Stefon Harris, Robin Eubanks, Avishai Cohen, David Sánchez, Jeff Ballard (back) and Miguel Zenón (Photo: Scott Chernis for SFJAZZ)

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