Over the course of its storied history, San Francisco has been home to a swinging jazz scene on more than one occasion. Back when the Beats were inventing the idea of cool, hip cats and daddy-o's were hanging out at the Cellar, smoking Chesterfields and reading poetry while jazz combos played in the background. In the 1960s clubs like the Blackhawk put up Miles Davis' band for a month at a time, letting the buzz build and allowing the musicians to soak up the city's fog and dark steam beer.
As recently as the mid-1990s San Francisco was again at the forefront of a jazz renaissance. I was in high school then, and I spent almost every weekend sneaking into places like the Up & Down Club and (the old) Bruno's to see musicians that went on to redefine the genre. I saw the original Charlie Hunter Trio more times than I can count. I saw Josh Jones take Latin jazz and turn it into a beautiful hybrid of funk, rock, hip hop and tropical swing. It was only recently that I began to realize what a rare moment in time that was.
I was drinking with a friend and we were talking about the good old days, when San Francisco was awash in dot com money. For better or worse, those khaki clad douchebags fell in love with idea of martinis and jazz - and SF club owners were only too happy to oblige. During its short, but glorious run as Internet capital of the world, San Francisco hosted a jazz scene that rivaled New York. But that was then. What about now? Where could we go to see good jazz in the 2010 version of SF?
I enlisted my friend Nathan to serve as my tour guide. Nathan leads his own sextet, cleverly titled the Nathan Clevenger Group. More importantly, Nathan is tirelessly devoted to jazz music in general and SF's scene in particular. He was able to take me around and show me that not only does our jazz scene still have a pulse, it's actually thriving.
Now I know many of you will form a chorus and sing the praises of the Yoshi's franchise. And yes, Yoshi's is great, but it is also expensive and bright and has a two-drink minimum. Moreover, their calendar is often stacked with touring musicians from the KCSM daytime roster. Which is fine, but that's not the kind of jazz I'm talking about. I'm talking about young musicians playing new, innovative music in an intimate setting (read: dark bar with cheap drinks), ideally with no cover charge. I knew this sort of thing must still exist in the city, I just didn't know where.
Our first stop was the Make-Out Room, a bar not usually known for its jazz offerings. In fact, on most nights you will find no jazz there whatsoever. But on the first Monday of every month the bookers turn over the stage to bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and trumpet player Darren Johnston, who curate a series on original compositions called The Monday Make-Out. On the night we were there we saw a broad spectrum of new and original music - all loosely operating within the standard definition of jazz while simultaneously redefining it.
Citta di Vitti, the brainchild of alto sax player Phillip Greenlief, played an imaginary soundtrack to a trio of films by Michelangelo Antonioni. Next up was a nine-piece band that filled half the room, led by the impressive drummer Eric Garland. The Garlando Nonet (as they are apparently known) played a suite of four original songs that touched on everything from New Orleans funk to delicate chamber music. Rounding out the bill was a trio led by alto sax player Aram Shelton playing frenetic, high speed free jazz.
And how much did we pay for this full night of music played by incredibly talented, well respected professional jazz musicians? Nothing. A tip jar was passed around, to which the surprisingly large crowd contributed generously, but there was no cover or drink minimum. And the bar was dark and smelled comfortingly of stale booze. Beer was three bucks and it was served by a hot chick with lots of tattoos. All on a Monday night in San Francisco. What...?
I asked Nathan how this was all possible. Without a cover charge the musicians weren't going to make a lot of money. The answer is that the musicians do it out of love. "Playing high quality music reminds you why you became a musician," Nathan says, "why you work so hard at it, and why it's still worth it in spite of having to work a day job (or day jobs) or having to take grim money gigs backing up awful singers at weddings!"
We had this conversation en route to Blue Six, a venue that Clevenger describes as a listening room, meaning people come there to listen to music, not just to talk and drink. It is a musician-run space, with bassist Joe Lewis the main man in charge. It is funky and has a living room vibe, and it can be hard to pin down the show calendar, but it's often worth the effort. Tucked into the corner of Treat St. and 24th, the place has the feel of an artists' commune and is a great place to experience the freakier side of jazz, along with strange visuals provided by a group of artists clearly familiar with the effects of psychedelic drugs.
But back to our conversation. Why doesn't San Francisco have more venues that play jazz? And why aren't there more people interested in hearing it? Nathan, who often accompanied me on those illicit trips back in the day compared those times with our current epoch. "At this point, I feel like we're fighting against a culture with an ever-shrinking attention span and increasing disinterest in music that doesn't immediately explain itself. I mean, clubs don't even play full songs now—what hope does jazz have in a world of mash-ups and video DJs?"
I next met up with Nathan to see his band perform at the Revolution Cafe—right across the street from the Make-Out Room. As is the case with so many of the players crowded into the genre of modern jazz, the NCG's sound was yet another departure from the bands I had already seen. They sounded like a classical music ensemble playing a blend of jazz and rock without bothering to switch out their instruments. Nonetheless, the crowd stayed with them, cheering for solos and bopping their heads to the funky parts.
I was also beginning to notice a pattern: there were plenty of dark, intimate bars offering free, live modern jazz. But they all seemed to be in the Mission. In fact, the following night we were supposed to head to Amnesia on Valencia Street for their weekly jam session. Nathan had also been talking up Red Poppy, as well as Coda, which is stationed at the far end of Mission Street and serves as the informal home to a large collective of musicians known as the Jazz Mafia.
So what gives? Is the Mission the only place in the entire city cool enough for jazz? What about The Fillmore, the neighborhood the city redesigned to be a nexus for jazz and blues? That turned out to be a failed experiment in urban planning, but there are other venues spread around our city. Enrico's in North Beach still has small bands playing standards, as do Rose Pistola and Bix. Cafe Royale in the Tenderloin has an early evening Sunday jazz series, and according to Nathan, the owner has made it a priority to make jazz a part of his cafe's identity.
And here we get to the crux of the matter. Most club owners are hesitant to take a firm position as a jazz venue, especially when the economy is slack and promoters are casting the widest net possible in hopes of luring in customers. Opening a jazz club is a big risk in an inherently risky business. The running joke among Nathan and his cohorts is that the average time it takes for a San Francisco jazz club to become a funk club is three months or fewer. And two months after that the same club just hires a DJ and calls it "live music."
So it appears that, like so few things in this great democracy of ours, the power is actually in the hands of the people. There is great jazz happening in San Francisco. If you look for it, you can find it almost any night of the week. All you need to do is show up and buy yourself a drink so that the club owners know you were there. And of course, don't forget to throw a couple bucks in the tip jars so that the musicians know you're listening.
Go hear some music, dammit! SF is home to an impressive assembly of jazz musicians, and plays host to many more visiting from other cities and countries. Keep your eyes out for the names Graham Connah, Ben Goldberg, John Schott, Scott Amendola, Ralph Carney, Eddie Marshall, Phillip Greenlief, Adam Theis, Myles Boisen, Kasey Knudsen, Aaron Novik, Sylvain Carton, Howard Wiley or any of the players mentioned above. Otherwise, check out Make-Out Mondays or the schedules at Cafe Royale, Revolution Cafe and Blue Six.