As the opening strains of jazz standard All the Things You Are began, the gathering of media types paused, listened, and then after some moments, exhaled. Local favorite John Santos’ and his quartet, teased the song until it simmered and brewed and splashed across the auditorium with a sound that could only be described as warm and immediate.
Just like that, San Francisco’s new high church of jazz, the SFJAZZ Center, sprung to life.
Thirty years in the dreaming and two years in construction, the SFJAZZ Center will open January 21. In the words of SFJAZZ founder, Randall Kline, the opening of the Center in Hayes Valley “puts jazz music on par with San Francisco’s opera, symphony, and ballet”.
Design credit goes to architect, Mark Cavagnero, who is coming off a string of cultural hits like the Oakland Museum renovation and the ODC Dance Theater. Cavagnero’s compact three story concrete and glass box is scaled to coexist in the mixed neighborhood of apartments, small shops, and restaurants. The building has enough presence to occupy the Franklin and Fell corner, but not so much that it dominates the streetscape.
Cavagnero’s extensive use of glass on the façade invites the passerby to visually participate in the life of the Center. Both the interior of the lobby and the Joe Henderson Lab (a 90 seat ensemble room) are clearly visible from the street. One of the small design surprises occurs along Fell Street, where a pedestrian (or a driver if they’re quick) will get a snapshot view clear through to the stage; can’t you picture a group, huddled like kids peering through a knothole, to get a glimpse of McCoy Tyner or Joshua Redman?
The heart of the building is the Robert N. Miner Auditorium and here Cavagnero relied on Auerbach Pollock Friedlander and SIA Acoustics (theatre and audio consultants) to craft the high tech environment that constitutes a modern, state of the art listening space. This is where the magic happens; not only does the audience get perfectly balanced and tuned sound, the musicians do as well, allowing them to hear and interact with each other. Every seat has what eludes most music venues—great sight lines and perfect acoustics. Beyond the live audience experience, the space is functional for recording and broadcasting. Kline went so far as to observe that “someday I imagine us webcasting performances” from the tech-ready auditorium.
In addition to the Auditorium and Lab, the 35,000 square foot Center sports educational and administrative space and, hold on to your hats, an all-day café/bar operated by food virtuoso Charles Phan. Phan’s South at SFJAZZ will feature his take on New Orleans classic fare. Recommendation—get the beignets, they’re worth the calories.
SFJAZZ embarked on a $64 million capital campaign to build the Center and seed an endowment; to date $59 million has been raised. That level of participation speaks to the Bay Area’s commitment to jazz, admittedly a risky venture in today’s hip hop dominated music world. Bandleader Santos (he’s also a resident artist at SFJAZZ) put it succinctly: “We’re depending on the community to listen, to patronize, to support jazz.”
If the exultant splash of the SFJAZZ Center is any indication, the nexus of jazz music may be shifting westward. New York City, get ready, Jazz at Lincoln Center, don’t look over your shoulder, San Francisco is here.