SFJAZZ Takes a Stand

By Cristina Schreil

Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Matt Penman and Eric Harland perform at the 2018 SFJAZZ Gala. (Drew Altizer Photography)

With a fête focusing on female musicians, the San Francisco institution enters the decade with not just its trademark eclecticism but also a pointed call to action.

It’s Sunday night in a darkened concert hall, and suddenly, the woman next to me is dancing. She’s sprung from her seat at the center of SFJAZZ’s Robert N. Miner Auditorium and, arms stretched upward and limbs awakened, claps and grooves mid concert. Others join too. Soon, the entire space bustles. Is this a jazz concert?

To be fair, they’re following directions. With burnished vocals, SFJAZZ Collective vocalist Martin Luther McCoy has sung “Stand!” during an arrangement of the Sly & the Family Stone classic. It’s early November and the SFJAZZ Collective — the organization’s house ensemble, comprising eight composer-musicians including McCoy — are delivering the final performance of a unique project. It’s a concert tribute to seemingly disparate albums released 50 years ago: Stand, and Miles Davis In a Silent Way. As is SFJAZZ Collective custom, the musicians composed arrangements informed by these bodies of work, saluting the past while presenting jazz of the now.

“We have an interesting mountain to climb,” McCoy says of the task. “One, to represent this music that was fresh, refreshed and rearranged uniquely. Two, to give you elements of Sly and Miles that you could identify with easily, and then three, decide on whether we wanted to make it funky and dance, or if we wanted you to sit back and absorb.” He described a constant push and pull.

There isn’t quite another project like this all season, says SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline. Yet, it’s an apt encapsulation of their aim — in part, to survey jazz with a wide-ranging lens. “Rather than going back to the canon as a lot of classical arts organizations do, we like to look back at the canon but we much prefer to look forward. And we don’t lose sight of either direction,” Kline explains.

Randall Kline, executive artistic director of SFJAZZ, founded the San Francisco music hub in 1983.

This mighty goal only seems to be growing. The 2019–2020 season has more than 500 concerts, including in its festivals. It’s a leap from where SFJAZZ began, as the three-day Jazz in the City Festival, in 1983. The organization, now comprising educational initiatives and year-round programming, opened the SFJAZZ Center in 2013. It’s the largest nonprofit presenter of jazz and world music on the West Coast. The sleek Franklin Street building purposefully evokes a hublike gathering place; vast windows invite passersby to engage with the music within.

Kline says a guiding light was its diverse, globally oriented Bay Area audiences, 40 percent of whom hail from the city proper, Kline muses. Past SFJAZZ programming reveals international players and genres from post-bop to hip-hop to bluegrass to Latin traditions. There are icons from avant-garde free jazz founder Ornette Coleman to Latin jazzband leader Eddie Palmieri, to sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. These performances don’t pepper a program of mainly jazz standards, but make up the marrow of SFJAZZ. “I can remember getting criticism in our first 10 years that we’re not a jazz festival, we’re a world music festival,” Kline says. He then insists: “The idea is that this is eclectic — this is what San Francisco is.” And so is jazz, America’s indigenous, amalgamous art form — at least in Kline’s interpretation. “From the very beginning we did a lot with Afro-Caribbean music, more so with any other jazz presenters,” he argues. “We dug in a little bit more.”

Moving into 2020, that forward direction is informed by more than just music.

The SFJAZZ annual gala on January 30 hails gospel legend and civil rights activist Mavis Staples. In addition to Staples, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, also performing are Rosanne Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Lizz Wright, Charlie Musselwhite, Robin Hodge Williams & Friends Gospel Choir, Rick Holmstrom, SFJAZZ Collective and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars. Staples, the guest of honor, has inspired a gospel-focused weekend that also features two performances by the singer and her band. McCoy heads a gospel-themed Sunday brunch honoring the Soul Stirrers and Sam Cooke. “For those who need a recharge,” McCoy offers.

The SFJAZZ annual gala on January 30 hails gospel legend and civil rights activist Mavis Staples.

The predominantly female lineup is no coincidence. For SFJAZZ gala co-chair Denise Young Smith, it reorients the spotlight toward a long-darkened corner on female contributions to American music. It’s concert meets call to action. “We don’t celebrate women in music enough. Women in front, women behind the scenes, women producing,” she says. Smith adds that making Staples and her contribution to the American political songbook the evening’s lodestone hits on a broader cultural moment: More than ever in this social environment, women question how to get their voices heard.Staples has already emphasized this plenty, Smith points out. “We’re celebrating but also hoping to inspire and inform everyone who attends that they also have a voice, and they can go out and contribute in the same meaningful way.”

Vocalist Lizz Wright seized this spirit. “It might even be a bit bright-eyed to say it, but I think this is a moment where collectively we are wanting to become awake,” Wright speculates. “We are trying to relieve ourselves of the burdens we didn’t know before. And trying to figure out how to experience more possibility, exchange and openness going forward.” Wright, whose craft steeps in jazz and gospel tradition, says Staples was a direct influence. She watched the documentary Soul to Soul, featuring Staples and other soul titans, while recording her album Fellowship.

Lizz Wright sings at the SFJAZZ Center and will also perform at the 2020 SFJAZZ Gala.

The gala itself supports in-school educational outreach across the Bay Area, such as classroom learning residencies, day concerts and student music ensembles. In 2018, SFJAZZ announced an expansion affecting 23,000 students in 70 schools. With the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars set to perform at the gala, guests will be able to grasp where jazz might be going. Smith’s description of the students’ music-making echoes Kline’s vision for SFJAZZ: open-minded creativity and different genres instinctively woven together. “They’re taking interpretative risks,” Smith observes. For Kline, it’s a good sign. “The more cultured you are, the more you know about the world around you,” Kline says, paraphrasing Michael Tilson Thomas. He wants to get deeper. “And help make more connections with people to relate to what happens on our stages.”

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