SFJAZZ Opening Night Concert with McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Bill Frisell, Bill Cosby, and more
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 SFJAZZ Center via NPR web stream
Despite not having had regular employment for the last year or so, I have had the opportunity to see Radiohead perform live at Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Olivia Tremor Control's final original lineup performance at Chicago's Pitchfork festival, and, last night, the opening gala for the SFJAZZ Center, the West Coast's first concert hall dedicated to jazz. The key to all this entertainment has been a rickety Dell laptop and an overpriced internet connection.
According to that rickety Dell, I am 385 miles from the corner of Franklin and Fell. I live in Los Angeles, a town frequently shit on for its jazz scene. Even Chick Corea, during his intermission interview last night, listed a few cities worthy of great jazz halls (Tokyo, London) before conceding "even Los Angeles." There's already one coming, Chick. Frank Gehry is slated to mash some steel together for the vagabond Jazz Bakery sometime this decade and it will be glorious. Hopefully.
In the meantime, we are closely watching the SFJAZZ center. I have no idea what it looks like other than some stills. Google Maps shows a car repair shop at the listed address, but I have watched the interior slowly come to life through the tweets of director Randall Kline. A big hole in the ground slowly filled with cement and gradually it took on the shape of a concert hall. They even opened on time!
Now that it's finished, they put on a show befitting such an event. NPR's live video feed of the performance lasted 204 minutes. In that time, MC Bill Cosby did some funny things (bantered with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman) and also some strange things (bantered with a 14-year-old high school student). Pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland gave a beautiful display of telepathy, while Chick Corea engaged in a sweet duet with Bill Frisell on "It Could Happen to You" before leading a trio featuring bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Jeff Ballard. Redman and fellow tenorist Joe Lovano bounced through a Lovano original and the SFJAZZ Collective flexed some muscle.
By intermission, a wide swath of jazz history had already blessed the stage. The second half upped the game by bringing out pianist McCoy Tyner, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and hometown hero John Handy on alto saxophone. Despite his frailty, Hutcherson displayed an effortless strength through his mallets on Tyner's "Blues on the Corner." Corea returned for a newly commissioned arrangement of his tune "Spain" with the Collective, and then the radio signed off. But the video feed kept running.
What the radio audience missed was a swaggering Robert Anderson, a fundraising co-chair for the center, armed with a bottle of Wild Turkey and a polished "ring-a-ding-ding" routine, playing a gentle Billie Holiday 78 on an oversized Victrola positioned right next to Chick Corea's elaborate, whammy bar-equipped keyboard. The hushed crowd soaked it in before Anderson signed off with "Welcome to the 21st century in San Francisco."
Is this method of entertainment a substitute for concert going? Hardly. The people watching, the mingling, even the smells were not there to share. But on the plus side, the parking, the need for pants, and the smells were also not a part of the experience either. Live radio broadcasts have been around a long time. Symphony Sid imploring listeners to come down to 52nd Street was the beboppers' greatest marketing tool, but the idea of watching it live, from multiple camera angles with a crisp, well-mixed audio feed, is kind of irresistible and still wonderfully futuristic.
I don't have the bank account to nab a good seat for an event like last night. (That cultural/economical/"jazz is dead" conversation could fill a book, so I'll spare you.) Those who do probably have their names etched on a wall somewhere. So how does a venue make this kind of accessibility profitable? Can this kind of venue succeed elsewhere? Will this venue succeed? I don't have those answers, but like most people who have been comfortably freeloading, I hope it doesn't come from my wallet.
What I do know is that the SFJAZZ Center put on a hell of a show, and has set a very high bar for preserving the jazz genre. While simultaneously instant messaging with a friend in a Brussels airport, ignoring the dishes in my sink and barefoot, I got to witness a piece of musical history. Welcome to the 21st century indeed.