Pick up the beat

Yoshi's arrival in San Francisco raises questions about whether jazz can revive the Fillmore
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Bop City. The Blackhawk. The Jazz Workshop. The Both/And. Keystone Korner. Kimball's.

San Francisco's world-renowned jazz club heritage has always been a part of the city's matchless cultural identity. But the je ne sais quoi's been missing for decades, because there hasn't been a jazz club regularly booking national and international touring musicians into the city for more than 20 years.

That all changes this month with the Nov. 28 opening of Yoshi's San Francisco. There's been a Yoshi's in Jack London Square for 10 years, the descendant of a North Berkeley sushi bar that morphed into a restaurant and music venue on Claremont Avenue in Oakland. Down by the waterfront, Yoshi's became synonymous with jazz and was revered as both an artist- and an audience-friendly venue.

The brand-new club and restaurant at 1330 Fillmore holds down the ground floor of the freshly minted Fillmore Heritage Center, a 13-story mixed-use development that hopes to jump-start a renaissance in the scuffling Western Addition historic area. "Truthfully, I really don't know why there hasn't been another jazz club in San Francisco," says Yoshi's artistic director, Peter Williams, the man charged with making sure the music part of the business stays in business. He's been booking the artists at Yoshi's for the past eight years. "Jazz is very risky," he continues, "and maybe people were feeling like they didn't want to take the chance. These owners felt there was an opportunity."

The owners are Kaz Kajimura, one of Yoshi's founders, and developer Michael Johnson. Their opportunity is costing $10 million, with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency kicking in a $4.4 million loan as part of the total $75 million redevelopment project helmed by Em Johnson Interest, Johnson's company.

Their idea of a new jazz club in the Fillmore District took shape four years ago, after a series of false starts with other developers and other discussed flagship venues, such as the Blue Note. Johnson sent out requests for proposals to jazz clubs around the country; Kajimura received one, and when he met with Johnson, the two hit it off. "Michael could see Kaz's vision, and vice versa. That made it happen," Williams says. The building, designed by Morimoto, Matano, and Kang Architects, has a performance venue of 417 seats, 317 on the ground level and 100 more on a mezzanine. The restaurant, serving a modern Japanese cuisine created by executive chef Shotaro "Sho" Kamio, seats 370 in its combined dining and lounge areas. Success on the food side is a likely slam dunk — it's in jazz presenting, much like three-point shooting, that percentages decline.

Williams is counting on Yoshi's reputation among jazz professionals — musicians, managers, and agents — as a starting point. "We've put a lot of care into presenting the music in as respectful a setting as possible," he says. "I think that's paid off for us."

CLUB DECLINE?

But jazz club culture has receded in the past 20 years, with the music finding support from institutions like SFJAZZ, which stepped into the developing void in the city 25 years ago. SFJAZZ executive director Randall Kline has always looked to organizational models like the San Francisco Symphony in terms of sustaining and growing the jazz art form. "What has happened is jazz has moved more into the concert hall and into more of a special-events format than a club format," Kline says. "There hasn't been a great growth of jazz clubs in the country.

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