Recession, what recession? While arts organizations across the country are shutting down, downsizing and struggling simply to stay afloat, SFJAZZ announced on Thursday that it was building an unprecedented stand-alone complex, the first in the nation dedicated exclusively to presenting jazz. With half of the $60 million budget already locked up, including a $20 million anonymous donation, the non-profit organization that produces the fall San Francisco Jazz Festival and expansive Spring Season concert series has further elevated itself as one of the world’s leading jazz presenters.
Two days after the center announcement, which had been rumored for months, SFJAZZ threw itself a lavish party at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Billed as a tribute to vibraphone great Bobby Hutcherson, who has played an essential role in the organization since its early years when it was known as Jazz In the City, the annual gala highlighted the way SFJAZZ has marshaled support from the city’s cultural establishment. Luminaries in literature (Amy Tan, Tobias Wolf, Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler), politics (Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom), sports (Orlando Cepeda, Ronnie Lott) and of course music filled the hall.
More than anything, the gala showcased the organization’s signature ensembles. The SFJAZZ High School All Stars, a combo that selects the best players from schools throughout the Bay Area, sounded confident and polished. Drummer Malachi Whitson, a junior from Richmond’s Middle College High School, was presented with the inaugural SFJAZZ Student Scholarship, an award selected by a vote of fellow band members based on superb musicianship, leadership and direction.
The SFJAZZ Collective provided the musical highlight of the evening with a luminous version of Hutcherson’s sing-song “Little B’s Poem.” A founding member of the Collective, Hutcherson sat in for the piece, taking the place of current Collective vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Regular collective members, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Matt Penman, pianist Ed Simon and the sole remaining founder, altoist Miguel Zenon, were joined by ringers David Sanchez, Greg Hutchinson and Andre Hayward (filling in for tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, drummer Eric Harland and trombonist Robin Eubanks, respectively).
The evening’s emotional high point was Harris’s emotional presentation of the lifetime achievement award to Hutcherson, which included a story about wooing his future wife by playing her Hutcherson’s ballad “Til Then” from the classic Blue Note album “Oblique.”
“She thought I was so hip and sensitive,” Harris said. “Thanks Bobby!” The vibraphonists gave a musical display of their emotional bond with a lovely rendition of “Body and Soul” backed only by Penman’s slippery bass.
SFJAZZ founder and executive director Randall Kline basked in the moment, seeming not at all fazed by the $30 million that still needs to be raised. He announced that in the 48 hours between the unveiling of the center’s plan and the gala, SFJAZZ had collected another $1.6 million.
Slated for a lot at 205 Franklin Street in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, blocks from the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Symphony Hall, and the Herbst Theatre, which SFJAZZ often rents as a venue, the 35,000 square-foot transparent structure will include a state-of-the-art, 700-seat auditorium, rehearsal studios, a black-box theater with about 80 seats, digital lab and sidewalk-level restaurant/café. Designed by award-winning San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero, of Mark Cavagnero Associates, the center dwarfs all previous initiatives by SFJAZZ, which runs on an annual $6 million budget.