Yoshi's arrival in San Francisco raises questions about whether jazz can revive the Fillmore
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."
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. But there's a proliferation of festivals."
There are jazz clubs Jazz at Pearl's, under the strong stewardship of Kim Nalley and Steve Sheraton, is certainly a necessary element of North Beach, and farther north on Fillmore is Rasselas but Kline believes there just aren't as many live music clubs as there once were.
Still, despite the fierce competition for eyes, ears, and dollars, the fact remains that musicians need to play. Performance has always been one of the most effective ways for jazz artists to sustain themselves and build their audience. Not only is there no substitute for hearing the music live, but venue sales have also become a larger part of the overall sales picture, observes Cem Kurosman, director of publicity for Blue Note Records.
"Now, with fewer and fewer TV, radio, and mainstream press outlets covering new jazz artists, touring has become more important than ever," Kurosman says, "although there are fewer jazz clubs on the national circuit than ever before."
The Bay Area is one of the top four jazz markets in the country, and it behooves artists to gain exposure here. That wasn't really a problem while the region was consistently supporting the music, when the music was here in the clubs and jazz seemed to swing up from the streets.
But times have changed, and no one recognizes that better than Todd Barkan, who ran Keystone Korner in North Beach. When Keystone closed in 1983, it was one of the last San Francisco clubs to regularly book national and international touring jazz groups. Barkan is now the artistic director of Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the jazz club operated by Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and he's also a highly regarded producer who works with numerous domestic and European jazz labels.
"The reason there hasn't been anything in San Francisco proper for some 20 years is that it's a new era," Barkan says. "San Francisco is not the bohemian place that it was when I started the Keystone in the early '70s, which itself was a holdover from the psychedelic era."
While Barkan's place could not rightly be called a dive, it was a funky little crowded club. From the stage to the bar, the setup at Keystone was significantly removed from the state-of-the-art amenities at Yoshi's. In some ways, Yoshi's splits the difference between the club and the concert experience, the hope being that the artists and the audience get the best of both worlds.
Barkan says the primary jazz audience now has different expectations than it used to. "It took a number of years to get the business set up to have the right kind of a club that could really be competitive and cater to a much more upscale audience, which is where the real jazz audience is now overall," he says. "For better or worse that's where it's at."
That audience is also spread throughout the Bay Area, which is important for a San Franciscosituated club to keep in mind. "San Francisco's a little town," Barkan says. "With all due respect, 'the city' is only about 800,000. The Bay Area is 4.5 to 5 million people, but it's very spread out." His North Beach club got a tremendous benefit from the freeway off-ramp at Broadway, which made getting into that part of the city from the Bay Bridge simpler.
But Yoshi's San Francisco won't survive on jazz alone, as Barkan and Williams acknowledge. "To do the kind of numbers and volume Yoshi's needs, you have to have a diversified musical program," Barkan says.
Williams spins the challenge of putting butts in the seats as an opportunity to be creative. "I'll have to branch out a little bit in what we do," he agrees. "I don't think we'll be able to do just jazz all the time." At Yoshi's Oakland, Williams has added salsa dance nights on Mondays, and he consistently books fusion and smooth jazz performers like Keiko Matsui and neosoul acts like Rashaan Patterson.
The San Francisco spot will likely see a similar mix, though the inaugural performers are a mainstream ensemble called the Yoshi's Birds of a Feather Super Band, which includes vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Kenny Garrett, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and bassist John Patitucci. Veteran drummer Roy Haynes leads the band, which Williams created specially for the club's opening.
Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band follow, and later in December, Chick Corea, Charlie Hunter, and Rebeca Mauleón will perform. Next year will see guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and guitarist Bill Frisell in multinight runs at the club. Williams will try various things, particularly in the early months. "December is mostly artists coming to San Francisco with one band and then going to Oakland with another," he says. Corea, Hunter, and Taj Mahal will all pull double Yoshi's duty.
"It's gonna be a learning experience to find out what works and what doesn't and how the two clubs can work together," Williams says. He will also have bands play the first part of the week in San Francisco and then Thursday through Sunday in Oakland, reasoning that San Franciscans are looking for more things to do early in the week. And he wants the club to be a platform for local artists probably early in the week as well but says Yoshi's will have to focus on national touring acts simply to get people into the club.
Local saxophonist Howard Wiley is bullish on the new club, hoping that, if nothing else, it brings some notice to jazz instead of more exploitative forms of expression. "I'm so tired of hearing about Britney [Spears] and strippers and all that stuff," he says. "I'm hoping and praying the pendulum will swing back and people will cherish things of value again. I always love it when more attention can be brought to the music."
Currently Intersection for the Arts' composer in residence, Wiley put out the self-released Angola Project earlier this year. The music is based on African American prison spirituals with roots primarily in songs and stories from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. While Wiley hopes Yoshi's can bring in artists like Billy Harper and David Murray, not necessarily household names even in mainstream jazz homes, he recognizes the reality of booking the club. "I'm not so into Rick Braun, but I understand," he says with a laugh, referencing the smooth jazz trumpet icon. "I just hope the club represents the music to its fullest, because it's the only American contribution to global art."
Former club owner Barkan hopes the new Yoshi's anchors a reinvigorated jazz scene in San Francisco, one that can support another, smaller club as well, something with around 150 seats and less of an overhead, which a savvy veteran promoter like, say, himself might book. A smaller room certainly would make music more accessible to audiences. It might also underscore the notion that there just aren't the headliners in jazz that there once were the names needed to fill a room the size of the new Yoshi's. "When the Keystone was up and running, we had Dexter Gordon, Elvin Jones, Gene Ammons, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderly, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Freddie Hubbard," Barkan says. "The list was pretty inexhaustible.
"More than anything, jazz needs committed, dedicated presenters," he continues. "Yoshi's is to be commended for what it does. They're unsung heroes of this whole scenario."
The long-ago memories from San Francisco's jazz club past sound like misty urban legends. Bop City, for instance, was the spot where Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker played. Saxophonist John Handy was just 18 when he joined John Coltrane onstage. Across town in North Beach, Miles Davis recorded his first live album at the Blackhawk. Charles Mingus recorded one of his best live LPs at the Jazz Workshop, and Adderly got famous from the one he recorded there. Do you remember Sun Ra's expansive band flowing off the tiny stage at Keystone Korner? Jazz fans may have to resign themselves to the fact that it may never be like that again.
But there's a San Francisco jazz continuum that includes those clubs, writers like the late Phil Elwood, producers such as Orrin Keepnews, and musicians including Joe Henderson, to name just a few. There have been many other forgotten heroes and great moments. And even though CD sales have slumped in recent years, reflecting the faltering music industry as a whole, there are as many good musicians around as ever, and most observers think an audience is there as well. For any live music scene to work, there have to be the players, the audience, and the venue to bring them together, and Yoshi's hopes to do that for the Fillmore. "I just hope the Bay Area jazz community will band together, check this out, and make it work," Williams says. "It's a huge undertaking. It's going to be a beautiful room, there'll be beautiful music, and if people come, it'll be a success."
ROY HAYNES AND YOSHI'S BIRDS OF A FEATHER SUPER BAND
Nov. 28, 8 and 10 p.m., $100
1330 Fillmore, SF