Yoshi’s Oakland reopens with a full roster of live shows after the challenge of surviving the lockdown

During an interview with Yoshi’s General Manager Hal Campos and Artistic Director Daniel Grujic, the meaning of “essential” is ripe for discussion. 

The topic is rich and the conversation branches from work life into relationships, society, politics, culture, reverence and respect. As the downtown jazz club and Japanese restaurant reopens—as of July 9—with a full roster of live shows for the first time since the British soul band Loose Ends performed on March 15, 2020, winning the “game” of survival is essential and weighs heavily on their minds.

“Being essential or not is a big question mark,” Campos says. “Some of my employees became homeless, which was very depressing. Why weren’t their lives essential? Things like the arts were overlooked. For a lot of people, music is life itself. Go back to the beginning of time: music is there. It’s part of celebration, human nature, life, everything. Musicians are artists and overall, they’re sensitive. Their life is music. They have mortgages, rent, and life costs.” 

Campos says the pandemic world was brutal to artists.

Grujic adds, “We found that once live events were shut down, the arts didn’t have the support in the same way other essential businesses had it. There was relief for airlines, but we as a music venue didn’t even have opening guidelines on the tiered system for months. Concert venues just had ‘closed’ listed. There was no tier at which we could open at all. Our government and political leaders didn’t think about it. Maybe art is not something you think about until it’s gone. In everyday life, going out to eat or seeing a show; that definitely makes life livable.”

Surviving the 16-month lockdown was incredibly tough for Yoshi’s, even with nearly 50 years of notable popularity in Oakland to its name. Shows prior to Covid often sold out at the 310-seat club, and Yoshi’s had weathered some tough times—including during and following the 2008 financial crisis that by 2014 shut down the club’s San Francisco’s Fillmore District location. Campos says most workers—other than a slim few working in the entertainment department—went immediately on unemployment when the doors shut. “A few of us kept working because they kept saying it would open, then it didn’t happen, then it was going to happen, then it didn’t,” says Campos. It was a gamble for us to stay closed, but it also would have been a gamble to reopen too soon and then have to shut down again.”

Early on, Yoshi’s landlord, the Port of Oakland, offered rent relief. But the agreements presented in late March and into April were based on re-opening in July or August 2020 at the latest. “That didn’t reflect the reality of what happened,” Campos says. “Because we reopened partially in April 2021 and more now in July—we’re still negotiating [extended rent relief]. I want to believe we’ll get the help we need. This all happened through no fault of the landlord.”

Regarding a GoFundMe campaign launched Dec. 11, which raised $198,000, Campos says, “Honestly, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the support of our patrons.” He recalls the campaign was “a hard sell,” but also, “emotional, beautiful, exquisite.” In addition to 3,600 people who sent donations, Campos says letters, phone calls and emails poured in. “All the people in the community came together with beautiful words. There were some from family and friends of staff, but mostly it was patrons who wanted the business to survive. Gratitude is eternal. I’d never done a campaign before, and the love was overwhelming.”

Livestreaming, which many art presenters turned to during the pandemic, was not a viable option for Yoshi’s—and likely never will be. 

“We tried a few short-term streaming projects, but it wasn’t sustainable. To truly experience Yoshi’s, you have to be here in the club. Watching a DVD or online show, versus seeing a performer live; they’re not at all the same,” says Grujic. “Because every live show is a one-off, every show is a little different. Even with using virtual reality technology, it’s not the same.”

Regarding whether or not the pandemic caused management to consider opening a rooftop location or other outdoor option, Campos says, “We can’t recreate the indoor world outdoors so everyone feels safe. That’s just not going to happen. And livestreams of shows with audiences in the house? During the pandemic, I kept in touch with the top 20 patrons who came here beforehand. Everyone was so tired of streaming content. They said it was like watching a YouTube video.”

Grujic, asked to provide comments and background about six artists chosen from among many others for the diversity they demonstrate, says hip-hop soul artist Musiq Soulchild’s shows sold out immediately. “He’s been a staple here,” Grujic says. “I think he’s been here yearly since 2015. The reason his shows sell out is that they’re celebratory, and that’s what people were missing.”

Two-time Grammy Award–winning vocalist Peabo Bryson is someone Grujic tried to book for years. 

“He’s a legend, with two Grammys, and he’s performed most of his life. The show will be fun and his story is uplifting. He suffered a heart attack in recent years, and has made a full recovery. It’s a strange parallel to all of us: We had a debilitating circumstance that stopped us, and now we’re on our way to recovery,” says Grujic.

Composer/jazz innovator Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah aims to “decolonize” sound and writes music that fuses jazz, indigenous, folk, African diaspora, trap, alt-rock and other contemporary forms. “When he became well-known, we were one of the rooms where he already performed,” Grujic says. “He’s like family that comes once a year or nearly that often. His show is fantastic, because it’s always different; he pushes the boundaries.”

Also this summer, the all-women jazz ensemble Mary Lou’s Apartment celebrates the music of African American composer/pianist Mary Lou Williams, and operates with a rotating group of performers Grujic says is always fresh and original to the moment. About Judy Collins, he offers, “You can’t say anything everyone doesn’t know. She’s singular in her ability, and the staff loves her. Her booking has everything to do with her being fantastic.” Alicia Michelle “Miki” Howard, a vocalist since the 1980s and a master of reinvention, offers something for everyone and fulfills Yoshi’s primary principles to: book great talent, open the doors, fill the house and enjoy a fluid stream of nightly, live shows.

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