Kind of Blue

Will the Bay Area's jazz scene ever live up to its ambitions?

By all accounts, Ambrose Akinmusire appeared poised to become a star. The Oakland-raised jazz trumpeter came up in the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble at a time when the public school was known for its art school-level music program. Led by director Charles Hamilton, the ensemble was famous for arriving to band competitions in sloppy gear — baggy jeans and Bob Marley T-shirts — when everyone else wore tuxes, and creaming all the other schools. It was at Berkeley High where Akinmusire’s playing caught the ear of saxophonist Steve Coleman, who helped launch his career.

But to make it big, Akinmusire had to move to New York. He relocated there in 2000 to attend the Manhattan School of Music, and after completing a master’s program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, resettled there again. After four years of living on the East Coast, Akinmusire’s efforts paid off: In 2009, Bruce Lundvall, the head of Blue Note Records, sent him an e-mail with a cryptic message: “We need to figure out how to sign you to Blue Note.” Within eight months, they cemented a deal. Akinmusire’s Blue Note debut drops this month.

That makes him one of the most successful prodigies to ever emerge from Berkeley High School, or, for that matter, from the Bay Area at large. It also places Akinmusire in a long lineage of locally produced jazz musicians who feel they have to move to the Big Apple to find success.

“It’s the mystique,” said SFJAZZ spokesperson Marshall Lamm about New York’s appeal. “It’s where you gotta go, and play all night, and woodshed, and struggle. There are a lot more jam sessions. There are a lot of opportunities to play with people from all around the world.”

New York may have the reputation of being a jazz city, but the Bay Area is notable for producing talent, most notably, from Berkeley High. Over the four decades that Phil Hardymon and his successor, Charles Hamilton, led the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, it produced such talents as Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, Charlie Hunter, Dave Ellis, Julian Waterfall Pollack, and the old standard-bearer, Joshua Redman. Many of them are now nationally known. Lamm said that any star coming out of that band will have the whole Berkeley High imprimatur attached to his name. “If you were the first-chair tenor player at Berkeley High, then you’re the rookie everyone’s looking at,” he said.

The Bay Area is also home to a world-famous jazz club. Originally founded in Berkeley in 1973 and later relocated to Oakland, Yoshi’s became a destination for jazz, bringing such names as Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Branford Marsalis to its stage. Then, in 2007, it opened a sister location in San Francisco with the aim of reviving jazz in the city’s Fillmore district.

And yet, the Bay Area’s jazz scene seems to never be able to live up to its ambitions.

After receiving roughly $7.2 million in financial bailouts from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, Yoshi’s has been forced to shift its focus to more profitable genres — namely, old soul, rock, and hip-hop — to pay for its $15 million construction bill. And that’s just one domino to fall as the Bay Area’s jazz scene struggles to sustain itself. In 2008, three other Fillmore jazz clubs — 1300 on Fillmore, Rasselas, and Sheba Lounge — also sought bailouts from San Francisco. Two years ago, Coda was supposed to be a bright hope, but owner Bruce Hanson said the business model was untenable in a bad economy. The venue shuttered at the end of 2010, and its replacement, Brick and Mortar, has a more world- and funk-oriented lineup. Jazz at Pearl’s closed in 2008, and another North Beach jazz club, Enrico’s, closed about three months ago. Bruno’s, the Mission District venue which used to be known for booking a lot of live jazz, switched to a more cost-effective all-DJ lineup. And in Berkeley, Anna’s Jazz Island closed last year, and Randy Moore had to end his jam session at Nick’s Lounge after the bar was sold.

And yet, we’re also perennially on the cusp of creating a jazz renaissance. Two more big venues are slated to open. SFJAZZ will unveil a palatial, $60-million center (all privately funded) in the fall of 2012, right at Hayes and Fell streets in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the historic Preservation Hall of New Orleans plans to open a new offshoot on 19th and Valencia streets, hopefully in the fall of this year — although judging from the current construction site, the building has a long way to go. Also, it’s worth noting that the Jazzschool in Berkeley recently became offering a bachelor’s degree in music, which means that graduates of Berkeley High or Oakland School for the Arts have less reason to move back east if they want to go to music school. Berkeley parents are stepping up, too. Faced with school budget cuts and the 2009 retirement of beloved director Charles Hamilton, they formed a nonprofit organization to fund Berkeley High jazz programs. It pays for musicians like Dave Ellis to come in and lead the ensemble three days a week.

In other words, the Bay Area is abstractly interested in the idea of having a jazz scene. People are willing to pour money into it, devote big buildings to it, and form nonprofits to help buttress it. Just three weeks ago, jazz drummer Scott Amendola premiered his orchestral piece “Fade to Orange” at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. He was commissioned to write it for Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra, which goes to show that local arts boosters are still willing to take a chance on jazz.

Which begs the question: If there’s such an interest in jazz and so many talented jazz musicians coming out the Bay Area, why can’t the region sustain a thriving jazz scene?

Of course, the Bay Area will never be able to rival New York, if only because of sheer density. With 7 million residents, New York can sustain countless venues that stay open late. Few people have cars. Everything is laid out specifically to generate a vibrant nightlife scene.

In the Bay Area we have sprawl, a lower population density, and a subway system that shuts down at midnight. No matter how much lip service we pay to the idea of nightlife — in any form, not just jazz — we’re topographically set up to inhibit it. Such things might explain why Coda never quite took off. Revenues at the bar were low, and Hanson didn’t make enough to justify the cost of producing live music. Part of that could have been recession-era purse-string tightening — Hanson speculated that people were buying tickets but skimping on drinks. But a lot of it might have been a lack of continual foot traffic. Coda’s location at Mission Street and Duboce Avenue wasn’t easy to access by public transit. Plus it was right below a freeway overpass, which might have created a psychological barrier.

Out here, there’s not really a concentrated downtown for jazz — especially since the Fillmore didn’t pan out the way Yoshi’s owner Kaz Kajimura envisioned. It’s clear that jazz can survive at the micro level; funky art spaces like 57th Street Gallery — a small North Oakland venue run by a longshoreman-turned-art collector — and nonprofits like Intersection for the Arts will likely do okay. So, perhaps, will the SFJAZZ Center, Lamm said, since it won’t have to rely on the same business model as a nightclub like Yoshi’s. Equipped with a main auditorium of three hundred to seven hundred seats (depending on the show), it’ll be more analogous to Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. “SFJAZZ is a presenter like everyone else,” Lamm said, “but they do have the added luxury of being a nonprofit.” Thus, they can take contributions, receive grants, and take foundation awards. Said Lamm: “Once SFJAZZ has its own center, those financial avenues will expand.” He noted that the organization’s ability to undertake a venture of this scale shows optimism on behalf of jazz fans in San Francisco. Indeed, we’ve always lived by the credo that if you build it, they will come.

That said, there’s an apparent disconnect between our ideal and our reality. A nightlife scene can’t thrive on the backs of nonprofits and arts organizations alone, and jazz musicians can’t make a living just playing for restaurant tips. Around here, the market ebbs and flows, said bassist David Ewell, who grew up in the East Bay and has played professionally since 1997. In the Nineties, he said, there were a lot of young people who flocked to the Haight and the Mission — some were dot-commers, but others just wanted to work in the nonprofit sector and live in a cool, low-rent neighborhood. They had enough disposable income to go out at night, and enough of a hipster sensibility to pay for live music — which is how acid jazz bands like the Broun Fellinis and Alphabet Soup got really big.

“I don’t think the Bay Area is as much a place for that any more,” Ewell said. “It’s more of a money-tech powerhouse. People aren’t as interested in going out, or when they do, it’s more to blow off steam. Like they go out to hear a disco cover band and wear a rainbow afro wig.” He laughed. “I try not to be too dark about it.”

Scott Amendola, who bucked the trend by moving to the Bay Area from his hometown in New Jersey in 1992, agreed that it was a little easier to fill seats in the early-Nineties. “Places come and go,” he said, acknowledging that venue closures are really nothing new, and that you don’t always need a surfeit of nightclubs to cultivate a great scene. “Back in the mid-Nineties, there were a lot of places to play, but there was also a bigger, younger audience that came out. I think there still are a lot of places to play …. It’s just harder to get bodies out.”

Ewell’s view of the current jazz market is bleaker. A few hours after our phone conversation, he sent a long, pessimistic e-mail. “Jazz clubs have never been big money-makers,” he wrote matter-of-factly. “Opening a jazz club is like buying a vineyard in Napa. It is a good move if you have already made a ton of money doing something else. No one has ever opened a jazz club to put their kids through college. That is why places that are not trying to make a profit, and have a different mission, are some of the best places to play: The Red Poppy Art House, Intersection for the Arts, and Berkeley Jazz School. etc.”

He continued: “If musicians are not making music that people want to hear (and pay to hear), then there is no reason for those musicians to expect to make money.”

The bigger elephant in the room is that jazz is no longer a popular music form in America, especially among young people. They don’t buy albums, jazz isn’t played on the radio, and when most people go out on Friday nights, they’re not paying to watch a swing band or improv session. The Yoshi’s model shows that jazz works sometimes. When an A-list artist like Diane Reeves, Stanley Clarke, or McCoy Tyner comes to town, tickets are hard to come by; indeed, the best jazz acts will sell as many tickets as the best hip-hop acts. But you can’t book Stanley Clarke every night of the week. In addition, Yoshi’s is faced with the problem of running two nightclubs — one of which is actually three nightclubs rolled into one — and still maintaining a profit margin. To try doing that on jazz alone would be untenable.

That could be a problem of jazz being a niche market, or a genre for older people who don’t want to go out late. Whatever the case, it’s clear that audiences in the Bay Area are more likely to shell out for R&B and hip-hop.

When Yoshi’s decided to expand to San Francisco four years ago, it was unclear whether the club would be able to sustain two locations — an Oakland club with 330 seats, plus a 220-person capacity restaurant and lounge, and a San Francisco behemoth that encompasses two stories and 28,000 square feet. Diversified programming was inevitable, which undoubtedly meant less jazz. Or rather, proportionally less jazz. By that time, Yoshi’s had already begun booking Latin dance nights at its Oakland location, in addition to reggae headliners like the Jamaican singer Eek-A-Mouse. Pretty soon, it would bring Mos Def and Talib Kweli into the fold, along with singer-songwriters, old Motown artists, classic rockers, and even stand-up comedians.

Jazz fans issued a collective sigh of relief when Jason Olaine took over as artistic director of the San Francisco location in 2009. Olaine had booked Yoshi’s’ former Claremont Avenue location from 1993 to 1999, before landing a job at Verve Records in New York. In other words, he represented an older, purer version of the jazz club. Olaine was viewed as the messiah who would save Yoshi’s from bankruptcy, while magically turning jazz into a viable income generator.

That turned out to be an impossible burden to shoulder. With the onus on him to pay back a redevelopment agency loan and sustain a giant entertainment complex, Olaine had to get increasingly creative. He and the other staff figured out ways to divide up the club so that it actually functioned as three venues — main stage, mezzanine, and lounge — plus the restaurant. They diversified the programming even more — booking acts like Naughty By Nature and Bone Thugs N Harmony, for example — and venturing farther and farther away from Yoshi’s’ core vision of jazz. In 2010, Yoshi’s finally became profitable.

“There are a number of organizations in the Bay Area that present jazz, but they’re mostly nonprofit,” Olaine wrote in an e-mail. “They can go after grants, receive donations and corporate giving that is tax-deductible, whereas we have to survive solely on the goodwill of paying customers.”

His point, in a nutshell, is that Yoshi’s is actually a business. And though we tend to think of it as a sort of museum for jazz, Olaine’s job, in part, is to disabuse us of that notion. He stressed that the club also plans to deemphasize hip-hop in the coming months. “Hip-hop is a broad categorization, and there are positive rappers and hip-hop out there that we will want to continue to support,” Olaine wrote subsequently. “We experimented with presenting a broad range of it and soon found out that while the audience is there and they do come to Yoshi’s, our core music lies elsewhere.” Olaine’s decision could be related to a recent incident involving one of the venue’s sound engineers, Dan Pettit, destroying roughly $500 of the club’s equipment with a baseball bat following an alleged dispute between another sound engineer and the hip-hop act that performed the previous night, R.O.D. Project, according to Yoshi’s staff.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that the club’s core music is no longer jazz. A local musician who wished to remain anonymous since he occasionally gets hired to play in hip-hop and R&B backing bands, said that the programming changes at Yoshi’s point to a larger deterioration: “When Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are getting booked for a full weekend at Yoshi’s SF, I’d say that’s a pretty good indicator of the state of jazz in the Bay Area,” he wrote, via Facebook. “Not a reflection on musicians, but maybe on the demand, sadly?”

One of the greatest signs of a declining jazz scene is that gigs are drying up in the Bay Area. Saxophonist Howard Wiley said he started noticing the decline around 2007, and in the last couple years, work dropped precipitously. “Each neighborhood (North Beach, Mission, Jack London) went from having two or three clubs to one,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The only places for jazz and creative music are the Jazzschool, the Red Poppy Art House, Amnesia, and 57th Street Gallery, and none of their places have music — let alone jazz — more than two or three nights a week.”

Ellis concurred, adding that it’s one thing for horn players to grouse about a lack of gigs, but when your bassists, drummers, and keyboardists can’t find work either — well, that’s a really bad omen. After all, every band needs a rhythm section. “I came back to the Bay Area in the 2000s and found out that rhythm section players were having a hard time getting gigs,” Ellis said, adding that most full-time instrumentalists have to run laps around the world, or resettle in New York just to eke out a living. “I have to tell you, this is one of the longest droughts,” he said. “It’s making my peers question why we practice all them scales, when people are so tight with their purse strings.”

That said, it’s definitely possible to make ends meet as a full-time jazz musician in the Bay Area, but the going ain’t easy — for any musician, for that matter. Around here, restaurant gigs pay $80 to $150 per musician for about four hours of work, while the more lucrative weddings, corporate events, or private parties can pay anywhere from $800 to $1,000 per musician. Out-of-town concerts often pay well (sometimes musicians can make $500 to $1,000 a pop for one-nighters) and touring musicians usually optimize their revenue by booking a bunch of cheap club gigs around one big performing arts center show. High-caliber local musicians can also demand up to $1,000 a day in the recording studio. Many musicians supplement their income by teaching, touring with pop acts, or joining church bands. Some, like pianist Vijay Iyer (a Cal alum who currently lives in New York) start their careers by soliciting grant money for projects, and then use those to break through.

All the same, making it in the jazz scene locally has more to do with who you know than how well you play. There’s an uneven distribution of talent, and most business comes by word of mouth. Thus, musicians get more gigs by arriving on time and returning phone calls than by blowing audiences away on the bandstand. Most of them don’t have the luxury of turning down gigs they don’t want.

And there are other hardships. The unpredictable nature of the business makes it hard to plan anything. A full calendar doesn’t guarantee a fat paycheck, since any gig can get canceled at the last minute. The only way to make it work, musicians say, is to hustle extremely hard and keep your name in circulation.

Those characteristics are not necessarily specific to jazz, but the genre does seem to create a particularly brutal workhorse lifestyle, especially in a scene with a small audience and a paucity of venues. Thus, few musicians can make it on jazz alone. Some hire themselves out to salsa groups, church bands, cover bands, or touring pop artists. Some sell weed instead of selling their souls. Others marry into money. And many ultimately make the exodus to New York, where jazz still seems to thrive, even if it’s not that profitable.

The draw to the East Coast isn’t necessarily money. Wages in New York are about commensurate with — or less than — the Bay Area, says Wiley, because of stiffer competition for gigs. The cost of living is higher over there, too.

That said, the high concentration of jazz clubs, record labels, music schools, and great musicians in New York ensures its perpetual superiority over any other scene in the country. Wiley said the appeal of New York is more about volume than anything else. “It has three major music schools,” he said. “It has more of everything.” That might explain why the Bay Area keeps grooming talent only to lose it to the East Coast at the expense of cultivating our own scene. And that trend will likely continue.

Take Julian Waterfall Pollack, a star pianist who graduated from Berkeley High in 2006. He left Berkeley to study at New York University five years ago, and never came back. Pollack currently lives with his girlfriend in a one-bedroom apartment in East Harlem. The two of them have a small kitchen and a living room where Pollack keeps his upright piano. He doesn’t need a car and gets around easily by subway. Still, Pollack said that if he had his druthers, he’d move back to Northern California. “I talk to my friends from California all the time and say, ‘Why don’t we just get thirty to fifty musicians who are just really great to come back to California en masse, and make a scene?'” He laughed.

East Oakland-born drummer Darrell Green said he moved in order to play at a higher level, even though it required him to downsize. Ultimately, he saw more opportunities in New York, where there’s a vast cross-section of venues, from hole-in-the-wall restaurants like Cleopatra’s Needle, to medium-size rooms like Fat Cat, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club Lounge, and Zinc Bar, to larger places like The Village Vanguard or the Jazz Standard. And, he said, in New York you have a more voracious audience. “People seem to appreciate music more out here,” Green said by phone while setting up for a gig at Lincoln Center. “I have a friend in Fremont who slides out here twice a month to see shows. That’s really sad that he has to come all the way to New York to see jazz.”

Some musicians who make that pilgrimage ultimately return, since New York is a difficult place to raise families; as Lamm pointed out, it’s a fabulous home when you’re 18 or 22, and less great when you’re 35. Joshua Redman eventually came back, and currently resides in the Bay Area. Dave Ellis also returned home. Drummer Jaz Sawyer, a San Francisco native who spent many years gigging in New York, came back to run a small record label and teach at Oakland School for the Arts. “I knew moving back that the pace of the Bay Area could not compare to New York,” he wrote, “but it was important for to reconnect with family and fellow musicians again.”

And even then, we keep hemorrhaging talent. Among the latest to go are saxophonist Dayna Stephens, guitarist Will Bernard, singer Sasha Dobson, members of the band Sex Mob, drummers Justin Brown and Sameer Gupta. Well-known keyboardist and Berkeley High alum Michael Aaberg was contemplating the move a few months ago. “I still think about it a lot,” he said. “But I think the quality of life and the standard of living is better in the Bay Area.” He pointed out that rent is a lot higher in the metropolitan parts of Manhattan than in Oakland. That’s a big price to pay, even for the benefit of playing at a higher level. “My plan is just to go to New York often, and get my butt kicked,” Aaberg said. “Maybe get a New York phone number and pretend I live out there.”

Amendola said he loves living in the Bay Area and has found a way to make it work, put he still pays a price for it. “One of the things I’m having a hard time doing is getting work for my own band, and part of it is I don’t have that New York tagline at the end of my spiel. You open all the mainstream magazines, you read about people in New York. [It’s] this thing that the world looks at.”

Granted, musicians in New York don’t always recognize their own sex appeal, Amendola said, laughing. “You go to New York and everybody in New York complains, too.”

The last time Ambrose Akinmusire performed at Oakland Yoshi’s in September, he devoted several minutes of stage time to a plea for more performing arts programs and more funding for arts and music programs in the schools. Akinmusire considers himself a completely homegrown product. He learned to play trumpet at Claremont Middle School, played his first gigs at the neighborhood Baskin Robbins, and ultimately became a lead soloist at Berkeley High. He saw his first-ever jazz concert at the old Yoshi’s on Claremont Avenue. He bemoans the fact that journalists from other parts of the country are surprised when they hear he’s from Oakland.

And he’s right. In pop culture, Oakland might be known for hip-hop, but it’s not considered a jazz mecca. Akinmusire has the awkward role of championing a scene that’s now imperiled by budget cuts, decreased grant money, and a perennial dearth of venues.

There’s still hope, says Berkeley High’s current band director Scott Dailey. He says that, if anything, the Berkeley High music program has expanded in recent years. Parent largesse fills in where tax dollars can’t, and, as a result, Berkeley High can still afford to hire professional musicians like Ellis to drop in and work with the students on a regular basis.

Few people have a long enough institutional memory to compare this year’s jazz ensemble to its antecedents. But every iteration has its stars. The last of the Hamilton-era superstars was pianist Samora Pinderhughes, who played at Carnegie Hall as a high school student and used to gig at Club Deluxe in the Haight district — he took flak from the older band members because his dad drove him home at 11 p.m.

Pinderhughes currently studies at Juilliard, and his sister Elena Pinderhughes plays flute in the Berkeley High jazz ensemble. She’s considered another musician to look out for. So are bassist Erik Shiboski, vibraphonist Grant Milliken, drummer Lev Facher, and pianist Nick Lamb. The teenage group PopLyfe — whose members include both sons of Tony! Toni! Toné! singer D’Wayne Wiggins — are getting work around the Bay Area. High-ranking players at Oakland School for the Arts include trumpeter Tracy Fitzsimmons, drummer Ayinde Webb and alto player Ranzel Merritt (who also plays in PopLyfe alongside his brother, Denzel). Drummer Malachi Whitson is the hot young star at Middle College High School in Richmond. That’s only a partial list.

Sawyer says the new high school crop is actually a lot bigger than it was a decade ago, which makes him relentlessly optimistic. Moreover, since scholarships at fancy East Coast schools are limited, many of these kids might stick around to study at the Jazzschool or Mills College. That might be just enough to regenerate the scene.

Or it could mean a glut of talented musicians with nowhere to work. If the venues keep shuttering and jazz is forced underground, more will likely move away. Or change professions. Ewell stuck around, but decided to go to business school after years of working as a full-time musician. It was the only way to raise a family. “Even though I was playing seven nights a week, looking ahead twenty years it was, like, ‘Man, I’m gonna get tired,'” he said. “Making a living playing music is for the most part like squeezing blood from a stone.”

Trumpeter Khalil Shaheed alluded to that problem during a recent jam session at the 57th Street Gallery. His daughter Savannah Harris plays drums and attends Oakland Technical High School. She’s seventeen now, and thinking about college. But she probably won’t go for music, Shaheed said, laughing sheepishly. “She wants a job.”

Update: The SFJAZZ Center will cost $60 million to construct, not $16 million, as we originally reported.

Update: The new owner of Nick’s Lounge will host jazz on Sunday and Tuesday nights.


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