Jazzed Up, Boxed Out

The East Bay's flourishing alt-venue scene stays alive, somehow.

Folks both locally and nationally have started noticing the East Bay’s musical output — they just don’t always realize what they’re noticing. Consider the cover of a New York Times Arts section this past November, when a reviewer graced Bay Area weirdo-rockers Deerhoof with a string of superlatives after the band performed in Brooklyn. But for all the band’s off-kilter prowess and edgy, evocative stage presence, it’s fair to say that without cutting a few of its teeth on the East Bay’s informal art space/warehouse scene — at arty joints like West Oakland’s Liminal — Deerhoof might not be garnering such high-profile publicity.

Furthermore, Deerhoof isn’t the only band partially reared in the East Bay that’s enjoying a taste of the limelight these days. Oakland’s Toychestra — which frequently mesmerizes crowds with its eclectic, tinkering, toy-generated music at beloved experimental-music venue 21 Grand — now invades concert halls in France as well. And if you missed out on Rogue Wave’s blissful indie-pop at Oakland venues like the diminutive Mama Buzz or the recently opened, cavernous LoBot Gallery, you can now find the band’s Sub Pop debut, Out of the Shadow, everywhere.

In 2004, the East Bay continued to form a network of venues that fledgling bands use to grow as they adjust to playing different rooms and catering to different crowds. On Telegraph Avenue right where it drains into Broadway, Cafe Van Kleef matches gewgaw chic with Kaiser Permanente clientele sipping after-work drinks and absorbing challenging jazz and bebop. Tucked away on 23rd Street, Ego Park dares young experimental bands to compete with high ceilings, art installations, and folks who may not have come for anything but the Scene. Fresh to this pocket of clubs, Oakland’s 2232 MLK is a name and address where hip-hop and community projects blend.

But rather than compete with each other, these venues often collaborate and commiserate. At Mama Buzz — the Telegraph Avenue cafe that hosts music in addition to serving as ground zero for prominent arts-and-culture zine Kitchen Sink — co-owner and event coordinator Jen Loy embodies that community when she stands on a chair to tell the crowd at her monthly afternoon acoustic series Ace of Spades about all the other events going on around town.

For Loy, it isn’t about losing customers to the competition, but about spreading and sharing the wealth of options and variety that exist here. Ashley Berkowitz, executive director of Berkeley’s living room-esque Epic Arts, considers himself in the “business of building relationships and an arts economy,” while Rob Woodworth of Berkeley’s Jazz House sees his efforts as an attempt to fill “a void in the community.”

Unfortunately, as the community widens, the void occasionally follows suit. Sometimes East Bay venues are forced to work together on last-ditch benefits to keep themselves alive.

Thus, 21 Grand — preparing for its third location in its five-year existence, each relocation shifting the venue two city blocks — recently hosted a show sponsored by the Jazz House, a popular spot that closed its digs near the Ashby BART station in the fall to make room for a parking lot. Furthermore, West Oakland’s LoBot will host a benefit Saturday night to help fund 21 Grand’s impending relocation effort. Overall, for all the success places such as Mama Buzz and Epic Arts have enjoyed, too many other East Bay venues fall prey to issues of real estate and commerce. The still-evolving fates of the Jazz House, the Oakland Box, the Mile High Club, and 21 Grand all prove how difficult, and pervasive, those issues can be.

For a couple golden years, Rob Woodworth’s Jazz House served not only as a venue for experimental jazz and new-music musicians both local and national, but also as a training ground for young amateurs via countless workshops, community projects, and weekly jam sessions. The venue emerged as a strong advocate of arts education, mixing in student recitals with more established acts like the Nels Cline Singers, often by turning the kids into opening acts. But Halloween night, Woodworth shuttered the doors to make way for bulldozers that’ll raze the building and replace it with a parking lot for the South Berkeley Police Station.

Heralded locally and internationally as a nexus for true music appreciation (free of drunks and clinking dinner plates), the Jazz House now turns artists away because between renting spaces and handling travel expenses, it’s a financial hit for players and promoters alike.

So recently, when bona fide jazz legend Sam Rivers called Woodworth to inquire about coming to Berkeley to jam with a trio, Rob had to turn him down. “Unless you’re sitting on a pile of money, it’s impossible to get spaces up to code so you can even host an event, let alone make money off it,” he explains. Of course, Berkeley wants the Jazz House to stick around town in some form, as all the press is good for the city. But when it comes to helping the organization find a new home, Woodworth laments that it’s nothing but fruitless meetings and conversations with realtors about unaffordable properties.

There is no shortage of acts that want to work with the Jazz House, but without a space to call home, Woodworth has decreased his promotion schedule dramatically. Ideally, he’ll keep hosting shows at other venues, but too often other spaces can’t (or won’t) donate their spaces for free, so the overall lack of funds makes it difficult to put together a show.

Another casualty of financial woes: the Oakland Box, opened in 2001 on the stretch of Telegraph bookended by Mama Buzz and Cafe Van Kleef. Between costly rent, unpaid permit fees, and building-code violations, the venue regarded for hosting everything from literary readings to hip-hop shows closed this past September. Its handlers set out, and succeeded, to be players in the Oakland arts scene. Unfortunately, they simply didn’t know what they were getting into on the business end.

To be fair, the city didn’t oust the Box; in fact, Oakland was as lenient as possible as the venue’s outstanding fees approached $100,000. Last-minute fund-raisers orchestrated by the venue and community supporters fell far short of the mark. Of course, a hundred thou isn’t money at all when you’re Bob Fratti and Kevin Burns (former manager for Santana and Eddie Money). The two will spend close to a half-million dollars to open the newly christened Uptown, a 4,000-square-foot bar and music venue, this spring where the Oakland Box formerly stood at 1928 Telegraph, aiming to cash in on the projected downtown population surge.

Steeped in the urban lore of raunchy blues, Eli’s Mile High Club, a longtime landmark near MacArthur BART that reopened in 2003 but shuttered less than a year later, enjoyed its own renaissance in 2004, albeit one with a tenuous future. Lisa Nola, a former teacher with lots of musician friends, resurrected the Mile High Club to provide Oakland with an indie rock/DJ venue comparable to San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill. Within weeks she was a tremendous success, welcoming Sub Pop faves Wolf Eyes and Comets on Fire as well as local heroes Erase Errata.

“At heart, I was making an attempt to prove that it was possible to have a well-supported venue in the East Bay,” she says. “Granted, it was an expensive way to make a point, but I love Oakland.” Unfortunately, the effort was a drain financially and emotionally, and the Mile High Club has been up for sale for months now — neither she nor her silent partner can maintain the manic pace required to run the place. So, rather than run it into the ground, Nola hopes to find a new owner and operator with the experience and eagerness to capitalize on the Mile High Club’s momentum. Until that happens, however, the joint will open only on weekends, where DJs (including Nola) will keep Oakland dancing through the night.

Finally, there’s 21 Grand, recently booted from its home on Oakland’s 23rd Street between Broadway and Telegraph, along with its charismatic partner in crime, Smythe’s Accordion Center. Why? The spot is prime real estate for developers who envision overpriced condos and tony retail spaces.

This venue might be the most crucial to the East Bay’s art scene. Since June 2000, 21 Grand has been an advocate for genre-bending and innovative art, both visual and performed. Everyone from the rhythm-crazed drum ‘n’ bass duo Good for Cows to the Pornorchestra’s academic interpretations of classic porn soundtracks have graced the stage.

The good news here is that 21 Grand (and the accordion joint) have found a new, cheaper home at 416 25th Street at Broadway, right around the corner from God’s Gym (“Your pain, his gain”). The gang will move in April, and although programming director Sarah Lockhart admits it will be a hassle to relocate again, she is eager and ready to improve the design and layout of the venue. The new facility will have a fully handicapped-accessible bathroom, a larger stage, and better acoustics.

Thankfully, not every East Bay venue is constantly victimized by the real-estate shuffle. Spearheading the Ashby Arts District in Berkeley, Epic Arts is not an old concrete industrial space, but rather a homey, second-floor walkup with an atmosphere that matches the mission of its organization. The living room/teahouse performance space, replete with oversize cushions, has hosted Gojogo and the pickPocket Ensemble; the Eastern Gypsy jazz musings of both bands filled the room perfectly.

Unfortunately, running a successful East Bay venue involves far more than making and encouraging art; it also is about urban planning, gentrification, finance, and government cooperation. Like the musicians they support, the people who run these venues do so with a passion both palpable and contagious, so contagious that it creates an epidemic of community. So what Deerhoof-caliber band will that epidemic infect next? The Court and Spark, with its mystical country musings? Or everyone’s favorite fuzzy-faced, a cappella Leonard Cohen tribute choir, Conspiracy of Beards? Maybe Oakland’s Delinquent Monastery, a politically aware, acerbic hip-hop collective? All these groups are clearly on the rise, and will benefit from a healthy number of alternative venues at which to build fan bases and critical support, ultimately leading to a reputation that extends beyond the region.

Ask Rob Woodworth how hard this process is, but also ask Deerhoof if it’s ultimately worth it.

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