Jazz and sushi might not readily rank in the pantheon of classic pairings alongside peanut butter and jelly, champagne and caviar or Abbott and Costello, but don’t tell that to Yoshie Akiba and Kaz Kajimura.
For the past 35 years, the two former U.C. Berkeley students and lifelong friends have turned the seemingly disparate duo of Japanese cuisine and one of America’s original art forms into Yoshi’s, one of the preeminent jazz venues in the world and a Bay Area staple.
Started as a 25-seat sushi bar in North Berkeley, Yoshi’s quickly outgrew its cozy confines and relocated to a larger space on Claremont Avenue in Oakland in 1977. More room allowed the owners—both avowed jazz fans—to incorporate live music into the mix. For the next 20 years, Yoshi’s earned a reputation as the Bay Area’s premier jazz club, hosting legends such as Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, McCoy Tyner, Branford Marsalis and Oscar Peterson. In 1997, spurred by an urban revitalization effort in downtown Oakland, Yoshi’s moved again, this time to a new 17,000-square-foot facility that enabled the owners to build a much larger venue and restaurant to accommodate the club’s growing popularity.
With the success Yoshi’s in Oakland has experienced over the last decade, many San Franciscans have wondered why their city couldn’t support a jazz club of the same caliber. Despite being one of the top four jazz markets in the country, San Francisco hasn’t had a major jazz club since Kimball’s closed more than 10 years ago. The once-vibrant club scene in the city’s historic Fillmore district that earned the neighborhood the nickname “Harlem of the West” was dead by the end of the ’60s.
All of that changed on Nov. 28 when Yoshi’s opened its second Bay Area location in the new Fillmore Heritage Center, a 75-million-dollar urban renewal project that also includes a Jazz Heritage Center, art gallery, screening room, 80 residential condominiums, parking facilities and a new French-soul fusion restaurant. The new Yoshi’s boasts 28,000-square feet, featuring a 370-seat restaurant with four private dining areas, two full bars and a two-tier, 417-seat venue with a state-of-the-art sound system designed by JK Sound.
“Tonight is a fantastic event but it represents something much bigger than this physical space,” Mayor Gavin Newsom said to a standing-room-only crowd at a private, black-tie party to celebrate the club’s opening. “There were days when this proud neighborhood could lay claim to being the epicenter of jazz in the western United States, the ‘Harlem of the West.’ Tonight, we try to reclaim that history. It’s too important to too many people to be lost.”
Festivities for the opening-night gala included proclamations from Newsom and a host of other state and local dignitaries, a Buddhist cleansing ceremony as well as remarks from the ownership team of Akiba, Kajimura and developer partner Michael Johnson. Entertainment was provided by none other than the Roy Haynes and Yoshi’s Birds of a Feather Super Group, an all-star band featuring drummer Haynes, saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Ravi Coltrane, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist John Patitucci and pianist Dave Kikoski that was assembled specifically for the occasion.
Peter Williams, Yoshi’s artistic director for the past eight years, says that while topping the first night’s bill will be tough, he intends to employ some innovative booking and marketing approaches to ensure that both clubs are successful.
“We feel like the opening of the San Francisco club provides an opportunity for some cross-marketing between the two locations,” Williams explained. “For example, Taj Mahal is playing with his Phantom Blues Band this week in San Francisco but will move over to Oakland next week to play in a trio setting. It’s good for the artist because they can stay in the Bay Area and not have to travel anywhere, but they get to stretch out and play at two different clubs in two totally different contexts for two different audiences.”
Looking ahead to the 2008 calendar, Yoshi’s San Francisco will host Stanley Clarke, Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny while Ledisi, Cyrus Chestnut and John Mayall are scheduled to play in Oakland. Both clubs will feature five nights of drummer extraordinaire Billy Cobham in April. Williams says he will continue the Yoshi’s tradition of presenting the finest jazz musicians in the world at both locations, but plans to augment it with other exciting acts that complement the clubs’ musical focuses. “Over the last few years, we’ve expanded into booking blues, Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban music as well,” he said. “Artists like Bettye LaVette, Mavis Staples and Otis Taylor aren’t from the jazz world but they’re certainly the types of performers that we could bring in and expect to be successful. That being said, jazz has and always will be the focus at Yoshi’s.”
Akiba agrees: “I want to bring the whole community together through jazz music. Art is a vital part of life and our future, and I believe Yoshi’s special combination—jazz and sushi—will bring a new energy to Fillmore Street and all of San Francisco.”