Yoshi’s: Celebrating a Jazzy 40th Anniversary

Ed Hamilton interviews Bay area club’s founder about its long history

Only Ronnie Scott’s, The Village Vanguard and Howard Levine's Lighthouse have had long club lives. Not even Shelly’s Manne-Hole, The Jazz Workshop, The Black Hawk, Memory Lane, It Club, Parisian, Howard Rumsey's Concerts by the Sea and Ruth Price’s Jazz Bakery have endured long lives. Yoshi’s is celebrating its 40th anniversary, outlasting Kimball’s and Keystone Corners. Yes, the best jazz performed live in California has been at Yoshi’s. Jazz is covered east and west of the Bay and it’s Yoshi’s 40th Anniversary.

Kaz Kajimura and Yoshie Akiba (Mrs. Kajimura), while attending U.C. Berkeley, got together with chef Hiroyuki in 1972, built a restaurant and called it Yoshi’s in Oakland on Claremont Avenue. Yoshi’s was originally a Laundromat converted into a 100-seat restaurant. And 16 years later, Jimmy Smith was called upon to open the newly built Yoshi’s Nightspot in 1986.

Kaz Kajimura is the man who runs all the machinery at Yoshi’s---Oakland and San Francisco. He’s the voice both for himself and Yoshi who you see visually upon walking into the Fillmore San Francisco Yoshi. And there on the entry wall she is pictured with her arms wrapped around “Bags” Milt Jackson. Kaz is readying the big August 40th Birthday party with artists coming back who played in the early days: Benny Green, Pete Escovedo, Chick Corea, Ravi Coltrane, Joey DeFrancesco throughout August.

Yoshi was a dancer and graduated from Mills College. Kaz built Yoshi’s for her to have a place to dance. Yoshi’s favorite pastimes were always as she said, “Dance, music and Zen are the three pillars of my life. I have a fantastic place where I can dance anytime I want.”

Yoshi’s Directors of Marketing and PR’s Alex Knowlton in Oakland and Lisa Bautista and Camille Ives in San Francisco connected me with Kaz and he revealed many musings about the beginnings and longevity of Yoshi’s.

ED: Where did the idea to open a restaurant come from?

Kaz Kajimura: I was working for UPI United Press International) it’s not in business any more

ED: I know it well--I use to work for KNBC-LA and rip the wires UPI @ AP)

Kaz: I was a full time reporter then. Yoshi and I had a mutual friend called Hiro who was a Japanese restaurant chef in downtown Oakland and he wanted to have his own place. So Yoshi and I said let’s help him out and that’s how we started Yoshi’s as a side job. Five years later it got so interesting and a lot of fun. I liked to do things with my hands so I and UPI was really not paying me very well---very pitiful.
ED: Believe me, I know it well-I was a news writer.
Kaz: So I said I am going to put all myself into this restaurant business. We found a place in North Oakland on Claremont Avenue and we still were just a restaurant. We did pretty good business there---made some money and three years later, we bought the restaurant and the land.

ED: Three years later--- would that be 1977?
Kaz: 1980. We bought the place and the lot and I added a second floor to it and we called it Upstairs at Yoshi’s. A forty feet by forty feet complete square---not an interesting building. That’s all I could build---I was by myself That’s where we kinda started a nightclub business with a bar and a very small stage. We had jazz combos and on the weekends we always had sambas and salsa music so the people could dance. Very successful and a lot of fun and I did a lot of stuff by myself ‘cause Yoshi’ was my wife and she was very much into dancing. A lot of improvisational dance. She had a degree in Dance from Mills College. So part of the reason I wanted a nightclub was that she would have a place to dance. We had quite a bit of fun running it and that’s where I got Benny Green.

ED: Benny’s a local right---from Berkeley?
Kaz: Yes. Berkeley High student. Yoshi advised him to make a trio and I think he did. And interesting, that was sort of his start as a jazz player. (Benny gives props to Yoshi’s, saying, “My weekly sets at Upstairs at Yoshi’s gave me my first chance to lead my own band. It was a wonderful, irreplaceable experience and a true cornerstone for my career and most importantly, musicianship-like jazz itself-eternal magic.”) John Santos also played there and Pete Escovedo was there (Sheila E’s dad). But you know this big jazz scene would have to wait until 1985.

ED: is that where you got Peter Williams booking talent?
Kaz: Well no. Chuck Lapaglia. I decided to have a full fledged nightclub scene and so we built from the ground up. A 200 seating jazz club right adjacent to the restaurant. With the proper architect and contractor. That was the first full fledged nightclub facility I built. I still had an extension notion. We were doing an upstairs at Yoshi’s--- you know weekend latin-salsa dancing and local jazz acts weekdays.

ED: About 1982?
Kaz: That was 1985---we opened in 1985.. It really took this guy Chuck Lapaglia who had his own jazz joint in Milwaukee and he folded and moved to California. And he was walking around Oakland and stumbled into Yoshi’s on Claremont Avenue. He looked at the facility and he said said that’s a great place to do some national Jazz acts. We had no idea what it would be like. So Yoshi and I said ‘ok Chuck just try one and see what happens’. The first act was Sheila Jordan and it went ok but we didn’t make any money. But then Chuck said ‘Just wait just 2 more weeks and I’m going to get a really big one’---and that was Jimmy Smith. He really brought the house down.

ED: My friend --James Oscar; funny cat-wasn’t he?
Kaz: Funny Cat yes--his mouth kinda slips out of hls way; he regrets and says a lot of terrible terrible jokes. He was a really wild cat.

ED: I had a friend who ran a liquor across from Red Holloway’s Parisian Room and said Jimmy loved Cold Duck and when he had some he would say anything, plus he was a black belt and liked to throw fake punches at you.
Kaz: Yes. He was a really wild cat.

ED: Was it during that time you had Oscar Peterson, Betty Carter and Dizzy?
Kaz: Oh Yes. We had Dizzy and we had Betty Carter. We almost had Sarah Vaughan. She was booked but unfortunately she succumbed to cancer and couldn’t make it. Yeah that’s how we got sucked into the big jazz scene.

ED: I shared a table with her at The Baked Potato. Eddie Lockjaw Davis was performing. I was at a table by myself and the waiter asked me would I mind if these people sat with me. This lady sat down and said how you doing. I said well hello Sarah. I asked her why she was there for Lockjaw--she said ‘from Mr. B’s Band--we played together ---I’m a horn loving woman.’
Kaz: Yes, that’s how we got sucked into the big jazz scene.

ED: Has running a jazz club been lucrative for you?
Kaz: Financially we did very well when we started. But then there was some problem with the liquor license. When we added up the ground up facility, I forgot to go to the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) to extend the area of the business into the big addition. We didn’t think about. We were doing this big jazz scene the construction scene and the neighbors. It became so big. The neighborhood was composed of 3/4 residential and the neighbors got really scared about big crowds all of a sudden coming into a quiet neighborhood. They banned together and found out we missed this crucial step and so they went to ABC and and ABC came in and took the license away just from the club. We had a liquor coming into a quiet neighborhood. We had a liquor license on the restaurant. And we then moved the bar from the inside of club to the restaurant side. But inside the club was non alcoholic. We fought about it. Business it was really tough then without alcohol. We lost a lot of money and I think the economy was going against us. And we started to lose money and it got so bad that I gave employees a notice---a 2 week notice that Yoshi’s was going to close. We were going to sell the place and go do something else. But then right away, the city found out we we are going to close. The Oakland city said we were a landmark, but we were losing a lot of business around that time and Oakland couldn't stand another one going away. The Oakland City Redevelopment area invited us to open Yoshi’s in Jack London Square--- Port of Oakland. So we opened Yoshi’s in Jack London Square in 1997 with a full liquor license of course and business was good but not like the early years of Yoshi's on Claremont. It was a struggle, but we were doing pretty well because that was the time when jazz was really strong. The jazz market in the Bay area was really really strong.

ED: Were you competing with Kimball's and Keystone Corners? (SF/Oakland)
Kaz: Just Kimballs’s and Jack Lapaglia moved over to Kimball’s during the Yoshi’s Claremont time. Then we went thru a few different talent persons. Then Jason Olane came in as a publicist. He was working with Patrick Henry’s station KJAZZ. But when we lost all these talent bookings, I asked him to step up and start booking. Jason booked from the Claremont Avenue times all the way up to the first 3 years of Yoshi’s opening in Jack London Square. Then he quit and he brought in Peter Williams and from then on Peter Williams did all the booking until recently.

ED: When did you open up Yoshi’s SanFrancisco?
Kaz: In 2007. November late..

ED: Was that a sign you were doing very well in Oakland? Or did you say the market was open over here in San Francisco?
Kaz: I didn't know--- we might have gone over to San Francisco for the wrong reason. The business in Oakland was more than full time for me. I had my hands full. But when one guy came to talk to me about becoming co-tenant in his project to develop this particular parcel for the city.

ED: The Fillmore District you're talking about? (The Fillmore District is known as “The Heart and Soul of the City-San Francisco’s nickname).
Kaz: Yes and he was talking to The Bluenote in New York also, but he wanted Yoshi’s to be co-tenant instead of Bluenote. And I thought if Bluenote comes to San Francisco, then they would snatch up all the jazz musicians on their way to Japan. And you know that would have tied my hands. That would be like a death sentence to Yoshi’s. So i said I could not afford to let this opportunity go. Of course I had all kinds of dreams to come to San Francisco. But San Francisco kinda scared me. I use to go to Keystone and it closed. The owner Todd Barkan. There was one time when Yoshi’s on Claremont was having trouble and I got together with Todd and changed Yoshi’s to Yoshi’s Keystone Korners. It didn’t work out. Jazz is a tough business..No question about that.
ED: Howard Rumsey use to run the Lighthouse, John Levine was the owner--Howard was a bassist and played nightly set with his allstars. And the Lighthouse folded and he opened up Concerts by the Sea, And then I know you remember Shelly Manne with his Shelly’’s Manne-hole a wonderful club. The lighthouse and the Manne-hole were the top two clubs in Los angelesand the Hermosa Beach area. they jfought for the talent but the talent would come in and slit their time...L.A. is dead now. Terrible. Ruth Price has her Jazz Bakery Moveable Feast of Jazz performances renting venues since closing 3 years ago; but says we’ll be opening in Culver City soon. So I contribute to her cause for the new Jazz Bakery.
Kaz: Yes. You really really need support--financial support.
ED: Herb Alpert has given a lot of money to UCLA’s Jazz Studies---4 million and also supports Ruth Price. And money left by David L. Abel a prominent piano dealer supports Friends of Jazz. He would always provide a Grand piano for Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal’s performances wherever they played.

ED: Is there a difference between the clientele in Oakland and San Francisco?
Kaz: I tend to think so. .

ED: In what way?
Kaz: Oakland people seem to be a little more loyal and you can count on them. If you do certain shows, they will do well---they will keep coming back. But San Franciscans are different probably because there are so many different opportunities for having fun.

ED: You say the San Francisco clientele is not as loyal since there are so many opportunities (places of entertainment).
Kaz: Yes, since there are so many opportunities (places of entertainment). We have to compete with so many other nightclub owners and music presenters here in San Francisco. The Flllmore auditorium is right there and a whole bunch of other places.

ED: Down the street, I saw a place--
Kaz: Yes, it‘s The Lasalle. No, they are not really competition because our venue is much bigger with the seating. Ours is larger and the Fillmore seats a thousand or more and the Great American Music Hall. And then the San Francisco Jazz Club is having their permanent house next year. That will have a pretty big impact on jazz operations.

ED: Is that the SFJazz organization?
Kaz: The SF Jazz festival. So far, they have been presenting their stuff thru rented auditoriums.
ED: I remember Joshua Redman was important in starting it.
Kaz: Oh yes. So it’s a lot more difficult and more complicated to do business here, compared to what we have to do in Oakland. You know to do business here it’s so competitive what we have to do over here. Oakland is so simple and I always look back around 1980’s and 90’s when we could do 5 day runs. Tuesday thru sunday with Mccoy Tyner. We just have to worry about Monday or Tuesday. Those were the times when it was so much fun because we don’t have to book so many acts. They covered the week.. (coincidentally John Pizzarelli opened for two nights) That’s like a dream---those were wonderful golden days those acts would fill up the place on a single show.
ED: I talked with trumpeter Jimmy Owens who started a Emergency Musicians Fund and Edith Bronston’s LA Jazz Foundation to assist musicians in need. Jimmy Owens said the need to start was because New York club Owens don't pay into the musician’s pension.

ED: Are you pressured to provide additional monies for the musicians pension?
Kaz: No not in the whole time I’ve been operating. There is no California head tax on customers coming in.

ED: Is running two clubs a challenge?
Kaz: Yes running 2 clubs is a challenge. It is always a huge challenge---but we are siamese twins(Yoshi’s Oakland and SanFrancisco). And we have to find a way that both can stay in business and grow and be very very smart about it. We have to be very smart about booking so that we don’t cannibalize each other and having both venues standing on two feet. So far, we have been successful..

ED: Is that why you have had diversified artist like Whodini, Mos Def and The 2 Short Band?
Kaz: It’s not that we really want to branch out; so far it’s just a necessity staying here (in San Francisco) doing business and still do jazz. And that’s the way it is---so jazz lovers don't get distraught looking at a calendar. This is a jazz club and we still have our roots in jazz. And we will never forget that. When there is an opportunity to present jazz---we’ll grab it.

ED: Is there a joy in running both clubs?
Kaz: (Laughing heartily) Well, I will try to find joy.

40 years is truly a cause for celebration especially running not one but two jazz clubs. Kaz and Yoshi will be joined throughout August by many artists returning to help celebrate this monumental occasion. Joey DeFrancesco, Larry Coryell and Jimmy Cobb will help celebrate the 40th with a tribute to Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery; The Crusaders will perform--- Yoshi’s was their Bay Area home away from home. Ravi Coltrane and Chic Corea who opened Yoshi’s San Francisco in 2007 will return celebrating Yoshi’s San Francisco 5th birthday. And Benny Green will return to Oakland’s Yoshi’s where it all begin for him when he was at Berkeley High and was discovered by Art Blakey and Betty Carter.

Yoshi’s Jazz Clubs have provided musical blessings to aficionados covering the east and west waterfronts of the Bay Area. You can assuredly say Yoshi’s has secured the front and the back of jazz in Oakland and San Francisco for many more years to come---and to Yoshi’s---have a very Jazzy Happy Birthday.

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Ed Hamilton