The SFJAZZ Collective perform at the new SFJazz Center
The SFJAZZ Collective perform at the new SFJazz Center

The image of US West Coast jazz remains stubbornly fixed in the 1950s, when cool horns were a Hollywood staple, trumpeter Chet Baker still looked like a film star and Dave Brubeck made it on to the cover of Time magazine. California was a sunny rival to the hard edge of New York.

The East/West divide never was that simple, though. Cool jazz had leading figures on the East Coast, while the West Coast had a vibrant, African-American jazz milieu – Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus both worked in California before moving to New York. In any event, the breezy themes and compact solos marketed as “West Coast jazz” were produced mainly by studio musicians in Los Angeles experimenting with a more composed version of jazz.

Now, a year after Brubeck’s death, and 25 years after a drug-addicted Baker died after falling from a hotel window in Amsterdam, it is hard to identify any strong regional accents – New Orleans apart – in US jazz. Jazz today is a global music; its fissures and fusions are both more intricate and grander in scale. And New York still pulls in jazz’s big names, with wave after wave of musicians coming up behind them.

San Francisco’s landmark clubs and recording venues, such as The Blackhawk and Keystone Korner, closed long ago, and the city’s only jazz nightclub proper is Yoshi’s, opened in 2007. But this is not to say that jazz is less popular, rather that it is consumed differently. High rents in gentrified inner-city areas, changes in audience demographics and a different work-leisure balance mean traditional nightclub models are less sustainable. Jazz is still hard to miss in downtown San Francisco, but it is restaurant-based and seems locked in heritage tourism while there is an underground scene lurking in pop-up venues dotted round the Bay area.

Yet against this backdrop, a $64m dedicated concert and rehearsal space, the SFJAZZ Center, opened in the city earlier this year and now dominates top-end jazz of the concert/festival kind. The venue is a base for a long-running touring repertory octet, the SFJAZZ Collective . They are an impressive outfit: listening to a set at the band’s glossy new home, I wondered if their distinct sound and tricky arrangements might even signal the beginnings of a West Coast revival.

If they do, Randall Kline, executive artistic director of SFJAZZ Center, will deserve a lot of the credit. He grew up in Swampscott, a town in the North Shore area 15 miles from Boston, and looked set for a career in law until he got sidetracked by music, playing bass in a folk duo around Boston. He moved to California and worked as dishwasher, security guard and, eventually, maître d’ at The Boarding House, a nightclub where acts from Herbie Hancock to Bob Marley came through the door. After some false starts in promotion, he co-founded Jazz in the City with Clinton Gilbert in 1983 to mount a two-day festival. Initially, a mixed-genre programme didn’t do well. “People interested in a Boswell Sisters kind of act were not at all interested in the avant-garde,” he recalls. He learnt the lesson, and next time ensured the programme was more focused and themed. “If you dig a little deeper into a niche, people become more curious, even in the niche,” he says. It became a guiding principle.

Gradually the festival expanded – with Stan Getz and Bobby McFerrin living nearby, headliners were not hard to come by – and Kline started to book other international heavyweights. By 2000, SFJAZZ had become a year-round arts organisation, mounting spring and autumn seasons and free summer concerts in venues rented on a concert-by-concert basis. It was time to start looking for a permanent home – an ambition eventually made possible by a $24m anonymous donation.

When he launched the SFJAZZ Collective in 2003, Kline, who describes himself as a “benevolent despot”, recognised that he had to confront the creative jazz hub that is New York by commissioning new works. “We needed to differentiate ourselves and wanted to move tradition forward,” he says. A big band was too unwieldy and Jazz at Lincoln Center under Wynton Marsalis had already nailed the classic jazz repertoire.

Instead, SFJAZZ formed a co-operative octet of contrasting voices that would focus on developing the modernist canon. Each year, the collective presents a mixed programme of originals and the work of a single composer. Each member must produce one new work and one arrangement of a composition by a named composer. Within these structures, the musicians have complete autonomy. Saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a member from the outset, explains how the collective operates: “Which composer we are going to honour, who’s going to come into the band, stuff like that . . . [on] big decisions, we take votes. It’s very democratic.”

Zenón still lives in New York but spends big chunks of time in San Francisco for the chance to work in depth with exceptional musicians. Two weeks’ paid rehearsal may not sound much, but in jazz today it’s gold dust. “That’s the key part of this band, that we spend a lot of time playing together,” he says. “It makes a lot of difference. We can take chances with the music that we play.”

Zenón is one of the Center’s five artistic directors, each of whom annually curates eight programmes of original music, organised in two four-night blocks. “Here I call the shots, I do my thing,” says Zenón, who often draws on his Puerto Rican roots. Other residencies have ranged from a live collaboration with skateboarders and a history of the electric guitar to a violin summit organised by Regina Carter.

Add in themed weeks and concerts from international stars such as Wayne Shorter and Wynton Marsalis, and SFJAZZ’s programme is world class. New York may not be looking over its shoulder any time soon – after all, many of SFJAZZ’s musicians, like Zenón, are based there – but the West Coast is doing its bit to shape tomorrow’s jazz sounds.

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