Critic’s Notebook: At SFJazz Center, a Genre’s Boundaries Are Flexible

January 26th, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO — Hours before the opening-night concert for the SFJazz Center here on Wednesday, Randall Kline stood on the floor of the Robert N. Miner Auditorium and briefly slipped into reverie. Onstage, a few feet away, the pianist McCoy Tyner and the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson were testing out acoustics and rekindling a partnership; others scurried about, giving the room an expectant hum.

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me,” said Mr. Kline, the founder and executive artistic director of SFJazz, as he took it all in, finally snapping some pictures with his phone. “We’ve been working toward this moment for so long, it almost feels surreal.”

In one sense he was referring to the history of SFJazz, a presenting organization that began as a weekend festival called Jazz in the City in 1983 and now ranks among the leaders in its field. But he was also speaking more tangibly about the center, a $ 64 million, 35,000-square-foot building that suggests a physical manifestation of his organization’s ideals.

An approachable three-story structure in glass and concrete, the SFJazz Center is being billed as the nation’s first free-standing building created for jazz. And if the careful wording of that claim suggests a hedge against comparisons with Frederick P. Rose Hall — the $ 128 million home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, ensconced within the Time Warner Center in Manhattan — it hardly diminishes the extraordinary scope and promise of SFJazz’s achievement.

“It’s an impressive building, and has a certain grandeur,” said the saxophonist Joshua Redman on Wednesday. “But it also feels kind of down-to-earth, and like it’s part of the neighborhood.” (Mr. Redman, a former artistic director of SFJazz, happened to be warming up in the center’s Joshua Redman dressing room.)

The jazz circuit in this country has always relied on a network of nightclubs, but there are far fewer now than there once were — and not just in San Francisco, which counts Yoshi’s as the exception that proves the rule. For 30 years SFJazz was nomadic, using spaces like the Herbst Theater and Grace Cathedral. Mr. Kline began thinking about a dedicated home more than a decade ago, eager to solidify an identity and establish a consistent standard of production.

In 2004 he shared his vision with the Bay Area architect Mark Cavagnero. After weighing options like a partnership with the San Francisco Symphony, they set their sights on a property occupied by an auto repair shop in the emergent-chic Hayes Valley neighborhood (and just a block away from Davies Symphony Hall). Mr. Cavagnero began drawing up designs.

But the idea of a purpose-built structure wasn’t necessarily an easy sell with the SFJazz board: as some members pointed out, the organization had flourished for years without it. One thing that helped Mr. Kline’s cause was the focus and passion of his argument about permanence; another was a lead gift of $ 20 million, which he had secured from an anonymous benefactor.

One core principle for the new building, through many rounds of planning, was that it would be a community center as much as a concert hall. To that end, the glass exterior conveys a literal and conceptual transparency, while the second-floor lobby is bracketed by bars and balconies. (A pair of commissioned murals depicting jazz scenes, by the artists Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet, adorn the lobby walls.) The Joe Henderson Lab, a secondary 80-seat performance space that will accommodate workshops and other gatherings, sits at ground level, its goings-on visible to passers-by.

And while a street-level cafe called South at SFJazz won’t open for business until next month, it will be run by Charles Phan, the influential chef and owner of the Slanted Door restaurant group. It will be open all day, serving customers who aren’t SFJazz patrons, which Mr. Kline said was the point.

As for the feel of the auditorium, Mr. Cavagnero said, “I started looking at these Unitarian churches, because they’re places that are about people meeting, and there is no formal power relationship; it’s about everyone being equal.”

He said he drew particular inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple and Louis Kahn’s First Unitarian Church, adopting similar proportions for the hall. Its steeply raked seating plan offers good sightlines, and even a sense of intimacy, from just about every vantage. (One row of balcony seats, which peers down from behind the stage, is likely to become a prized perch for music students looking to get inside the action.)

Mr. Kline, whose own set of references included a range of nonsacramental spaces like the Brooklyn Lyceum and the Fat Cat in Greenwich Village, put it this way: “We wanted the focused feeling of a concert hall but the relaxed proximity of a club.”

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