Tough times jeopardize city’s jazz club culture

The Roy Hargrove Quintet serenades the crowd at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in San Francisco’s iconic Fillmore District on Jan. 19.

By Emily Daly
The Guardsman

When one thinks of jazz, New York and New Orleans come to mind, but San Francisco has always managed to keep a place on that list as home to the historic Fillmore district, Yoshi’s Jazz Club and numerous venues devoted to jazz.

But the Jan. 1 closing of the Mission jazz venue Coda has club owners and patrons questioning the vitality of San Francisco’s jazz scene.

Marshall Lamm, publicist of the non-profit organization SFJAZZ, said venues are having trouble because not enough people are going out and spending money on tickets.

“It’s important to give value to people who buy tickets,” he said, adding that despite the economy, music fans don’t mind spending money on live music. The problem is that venues are just too expensive.

Jazz at Yoshi’s is still thriving, although the club’s Director of Marketing Jana Jackson admitted the venue has started incorporating hip-hop, blues, world music and comedic acts into their program.

Due to the state of the economy, she said the current climate in San Francisco’s jazz scene is “all about survival.”

“We just try to bring acts in that we think people will traditionally love, as well as new acts that people might not expect in our venue,” Jackson said.

“Both local and national acts have their followers,” Jackson said. “But people love to see shows from people they wouldn’t normally see.”

Smaller clubs are dealing with the same issues.

“The economy is bad and we have had to tighten our belts like anyone else,” Savanna Jazz owner Pascal Thiam said. Thiam plans to keep the venue jazz-focused, but explained that “people don’t really want to hear musicians wailing on their instruments for hours.”

Jam sessions at the club are still popular, but sessions featuring vocalists attract more listeners than those for instrumentalists, Thiam said.

Though people may not be as willing to pay money to see jazz acts, that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in learning about the art form. David Hardiman Jr., a City College instructor who teaches a jazz/rock improvisation workshop and a jazz history class, said he noticed a recent increase of students taking jazz-related courses.

For those that think San Francisco’s jazz scene is indeed dying, a new addition to the city might soon show them signs of life.

The new SFJAZZ center is expected to open in the summer of 2011 in Hayes Valley, near the buildings that house the San Francisco Symphony, Opera and Ballet. Although it may seem that city residents aren’t as enthusiastic about spending money on live music, an anonymous donor gave $20 million to the project.

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