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EARS NEW YORK: Live From San Francisco

If one believes that New York and San Francisco are America's great cultural bookends (with all points in between, Reader's Digest - rim shot, please...), then the news from the Left Coast is monumental. Rising up through the fog, alongside the Golden Gate towers and the Golden State beacon that is the City Lights Bookstore, comes news of a spanking new building dedicated to jazz  - the SFJazz Center, a counterweight to New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center. The ribbon-cutting ceremonies took place on January 21.

Three decades after SFJazz head Randall Kline first produced a two-day festival, proffering the music as a worthy touchstone for civic support and pride, he has unveiled a year-round organization carved from blocks of granite - a glistening facility that reminds all, of jazz's place in the pantheon of popular arts. His dream cost $63 million (calculated, of course, in jazz dollars), the securing of which must be considered a crowning achievement.

That's only a part of the story. More central is Kline's enduring belief that jazz is a far-reaching and expansive art and that San Francisco - a historically rich destination for this country's searchers and pioneers - can now throw down its values in an institutionally sanctioned way. No second-class citizenship here; no bowing to the dictates of New York's jazz ethos.

Kline has prescribed his own definitional guidelines, declaring that jazz is multi-ethnic and pan-cultural, that it evolves organically from global as well as regional influences. He has stood by his beliefs, filling his venues with artists as worldly as Mariza, Portugal's fado folklorist, or Omaro Portuondo of Cuba's Buena Vista fame. They (and numerous other performers) reflect a sweeping philosophy of sustainable jazz programming, progressive and forward-thinking, enjoyed by San Franciscans, though not embraced by all.

Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, for instance, have operated with tighter categorical constraints, boasting stylistic parameters that maintain orthodoxy and authenticity. Occasional deviations from the norm notwithstanding, purity of tradition stands at the heart of Wynton's message and programming; SFJazz, by contrast, celebrate myriad approaches and attitudes, enabling the hybridization of jazz in support of evolutionary development.

Ironically, this view does not negate the utility of definitional conservatism. SF's opening (replete with super-sized jazz portraits from Herman Leonard and William Gottlieb) featured artists who reinforce a mainstream jazz iconography - McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea,  Bobby Hutcherson, Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Jason Moran, Bill Frisell, Esperanza Spalding. Together they embody the past, present and future of a tradition-centric esthetic less indebted to world influences than SF's year-round programming suggests. But they do invite genre-bending and contemporary elements into their mix - from the pop-ish Americana of Frisell to the kick flips of skateboarders hotfooting with Moran. These artists are progenitive voices with a new pulpit, embracing inspiration from within and beyond jazz. One assumes that this inaugural line-up is an intentional affirmation of the SF jazz brand (spiked with a liberal twist of modernity). It should serve the organization's needs nicely - a foundational baseline for funding and civic outreach. 

The opening night audience seemed to get the point wholeheartedly. During the introductory remarks and official thank-yous one could feel the swell of collective pride.  When Chick Corea and Bill Frisell completed their wistful duet on "It Could Happen To You" the crowd let out a roar, effectively declaring that big-time art lives here. So too, the moment on "Blackwell's Message," when Joshua Redman and Joe Lovano locked horns in a series of kick-ass exchanges that amped the heat considerably. Jazz was in the house. And the house belonged to San Francisco.

So when the dust clears, there'll be observations and questions aplenty regarding the sum effect of the new SFJazz Center: A seismic shift in the art and business of jazz? Renewal for artists and the culture hounds who support them? Redistricting of the industry's power matrix?  Not sure about any of this, but for now, here's the story line that works for me: A pioneering jazzer on the Left Coast becomes a poster boy for innovative programming, dreams big, persuades others to put the money where his mouth is, builds a building, then in a game-changing moment snatches the ball upright from the reigning king and his court on the Right Coast. Ken Burns needs to do a movie about this.

Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, consultant and jazz columnist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat, Billboard and the Blue Note jazz club in New York. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition in Washington DC, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, Randy Brecker, Lee Konitz, Esperanza Spalding and Bill Frisell, among others. He has produced and/or supervised 9 Grammy albums - 2 winners, 10 nominees. He is a member of the Blue Note management team, consulting on club programming and international development. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and enjoys the company of jazz musicians.


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