SFJazz Center Opens, Bringing Swing To West Coast

Full of shimmer and swing, San Francisco’s sleek new jazz concert hall opened Wednesday night with an opening night gala featuring McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and Esperanza Spalding aimed at cementing respect for and expanding the reach of the jazz idiom on the West Coast.

Photo: Eric Risberg/AP Photo
Performing  before the opening night concert of the SFJAZZ Center Wednesday in San Francisco.

The 700-seat, specially designed concert hall nestled in the heart of the city’s arts district was brightly lit amid a light rain and attracted a crowd of hundreds with a high-energy, inaugural celebration emceed by Bill Cosby.

Cosby played percussion during the night’s first number, along with several others including Oakland percussionist John Santos.

“This is just fabulous, it’s a tremendous opportunity for everyone here,” Santos said.

Billed as the first freestanding building in the West built for jazz performance and education, the center opened Wednesday after raising more than $60 million over more than a decade to build a home for SFJAZZ, the nonprofit that puts on the city’s jazz festival.

A building that stood opposite the hall was decked out with giant black-and-white photographs of jazz greats.

“This is the revival of the jazz scene in San Francisco,” said attorney and attendee Kirk Boyd.

After three decades of renting trucks to drop off pianos and drums for gigs at outside venues, spokesman Marshall Lamm said the organization was delighted to open a permanent home, which soon will boast a New Orleans-style cafe and cocktail lounge led by The Slanted Door’s Charles Phan.

Photo: Eric Risberg/AP Photo
With Regina Carter during the opening night concert of the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.

“It’s just not like someone inherited some money and they built a building,” said San Francisco bassist, jazz composer and bandleader Marcus Shelby. “This a concept and idea and practice that has been developed for decades and this building is the result of all of that hard work to give the West Coast a venue that has to be respected.”

Wednesday, the show drew celebrities including Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Amy Tan, former Secretary of State George Shultz and hundreds of other jazz aficionados.

The venue will need to play multiple, distinct roles: attract exclusive, high-level performers, support local musicians and school groups such as the SFJazz High School All-Stars and celebrate the legacy of the city’s Fillmore District.

A half-century ago, hundreds of black-owned businesses including jazz and blues nightclubs thrived in the Fillmore, then nicknamed “Harlem of the West.” After the government decreed the area blighted, wrecking balls erased many such hotspots and forced thousands of people from the neighborhood through eminent domain. After a decades-long urban renewal project by the federal and local governments, the Fillmore was reshaped – and gradually jazz clubs have started coming back.

None, organizers say, will have the weight and promise of SFJAZZ Center, whose acoustics are custom designed to showcase the sound coming off the stage and enhance the listener’s experience.

Photo: Eric Risberg/AP Photo
Before they performed together during the opening night concert of the SFJAZZ Center.

“For the musicians to flow, it requires a stage where you can hear very clearly, “ said Sam Berkow, who designed the acoustics and sound system for SFJAZZ Center as well as Jazz at Lincoln Center. “For the audience watching the band, with seating around the stage you’ll get that collective sense of the listening experience, which is important when musicians are not just playing a chart but offering a solo in response to the crowd’s energy.”