In 1983, buoyed by a $10,000 grant from a city arts fund, a new concert presenter in San Francisco put together a festival called Jazz In The City. Fast-forward 30 years, and that organization — now called SFJAZZ and presenting more than 100 concerts a year — has raised $64 million, largely in private donations, for a new state-of-the-art performance space and permanent home. The SFJAZZ Center held a grand-opening ceremony Monday, and will celebrate Wednesday night with an all-star opening-night concert. NPR Music, with WWOZ and WBGO, will be on hand for a live video webcast.
Two of the artists who performed at the very first Jazz In The City festival in 1983 — in the same band — are now on staff at SFJAZZ. Pianist Rebeca Mauleón and percussionist John Santos played together in Orquesta Batachanga, a group Santos directed. They've both played in many SFJAZZ concerts since, among other roles within the organization. Now, Mauleón is SFJAZZ's Director of Education, while Santos is one of five Resident Artistic Directors.
On the eve of the SFJAZZ Center's opening night, I asked them both over email to reflect on their time with the organization, and what it's meant to the San Francisco scene.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: Tell me about your jobs and responsibilities at SFJAZZ.
Rebeca Mauleón: I am the Director of Education, and my principal role is to oversee all aspects of SFJAZZ's education programs, including developing new programming, working with our partner organizations to broaden our community relationships, and explor[ing] ways in which our organization can reach new audiences. My priority has been to develop new initiatives while also ensuring that SFJAZZ education can reach those who may not have any through-line to jazz music; it's not just about "audience development," it's about access to the music. There is no greater responsibility for any cultural organization than to ensure that the art form we so ardently promote will live on in the next generation. The work we do to develop the future music-makers and educators will, we hope, have a lasting impact on how the arts are embraced in our society.
John Santos: Resident Artistic Director is a two-year position (through 2014) that entails curating a week in each year and some education/outreach-type activities such as pre-concert talks, lectures, publicity (interviews/advocacy) and working with the SFJAZZ High School All Stars.
PJ: How did you get involved with the organization in the first place?
RM: I actually performed at the very first festival in 1983, when it was known as Jazz In The City. Over the years, I would play at a number of festival shows, then went on to serve a brief term on the Board of Directors. I was also the recipient of an SFJAZZ Beacon Award in 2008, so I guess you could say I have seen the organization from a variety of perspectives. Joining the staff in 2011 was a wonderful way to continue my relationship with the organization, and I am thrilled to see what the future holds as we take this step in our amazing new facility.
JS: The group I directed at the time, Orquesta Batachanga, played at the first festival in 1983 (Rebeca Mauleón was the pianist). I've played the festival countless times over the years with the groups I directed (The Machete Ensemble, The John Santos Sextet), as well as with other artists and groups (Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Martin, Joe Henderson, Omar Sosa, Steve Turre, Maria Márquez and others). I've produced a variety of shows for SFJAZZ, such as The History of Afro-Cuban Music with Cachao, Santana, Walfredo De Los Reyes and the Coro Folklórico Kindembo, and various tributes to local master musicians such as Armando Peraza, Francisco Aguabella, Benny Velarde, Orestes Vilató, Carlos Federico and Pete Escovedo. I've offered a large number of educational presentations through the festival, and for the last five years have presented a six- to eight-week lecture series on the Afro-Caribbean roots of jazz, co-sponsored by SFJAZZ, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival and the Museum of the African Diaspora (at MOAD). I've also been a consultant to [founder and executive artistic director] Randall [Kline] over the entire period and served for some 14 years on the Advisory Board while it existed.
PJ: I think most observers sense that the opening of the SFJAZZ Center is in some way a good thing. Do you agree, and if so, how so?
RM: Absolutely! Creating a forum for artists, educators and community to intersect is the dream of every arts institution, and the opening of the SFJAZZ Center represents a shared vision among all of us to provide a home for jazz — a place where it will thrive, evolve and expand. In many ways, the validation of the arts by any society is its self-preservation; there can be no greater good than to provide a space for art to grow.
JS: I most certainly agree. It gives a much deserved and often neglected boost in respect and dignity to our national art form, and calls attention to the fact that jazz has evolved and must continue to evolve by honoring [its] roots while acknowledging the international influence of and on jazz. SFJAZZ has always been in the forefront of that movement.
PJ: In talking to other Bay Area musicians, do you notice any common responses to the SFJAZZ Center opening? Are they concerned that SFJAZZ won't represent their interests or support their careers?
RM: As a working musician for over 35 years, I can tell you that the Bay Area music scene has always experienced an ebb and flow, as do all local artist communities. One of the central goals of making the Center a reality was precisely to provide more opportunities to present and cultivate our local artists, not only through increased performance opportunities, but also by providing as much education as possible. Our teaching artists are some of the most creative and dedicated professionals anywhere, and it gives me great satisfaction to share the wealth of our local artists with the world. The Center is a home for everyone, and we intend to see our Bay Area musical community find ways to reach new audiences.
JS: There will always be musicians and others who feel that way for a variety of reasons, but I have noticed SFJAZZ fever, with the contagious excitement, joy, emotion and sense of historic proportion that has largely changed that attitude among the vast majority of those with whom I have communicated.
PJ: You folks are both Afro-Latin jazz musicians in a hotbed of that style of music. How can SFJAZZ best contribute to the Afro-Latin jazz community?
RM: First of all, it's not really about labeling the music we play or targeting any particular group of musicians or audiences. Yes, the SFJAZZ Center is poised to serve many "constituencies" — what we want is to diversify those who have access to our music, be it based on ethnicity, musical genre, geographic location or economic factors. Everyone can come to jazz, and there are many aspects to what makes the music what it is. While Afro-Caribbean music is one of the key components to the history of jazz's evolution, it is the entire story that I hope to see reflected in our organization. My focus as a professional musician has certainly emphasized the Caribbean part of the story — it is my particular passion — but jazz musicians of all persuasions need to know that SFJAZZ is about all of us, and my role as head of our Education Department is to ensure that every perspective is honored and shared.
JS: By simply continuing on the path forged over the last three decades of inclusion of Afro-Latin jazz in the eclectic programming, both in programming of concerts and in education.
PJ: What will it mean to have this new building in the Bay Area? How are you planning to use it?
RM: A new home for music with a state-of-the-art hall (as well as devoted educational spaces) is the dream of musicians and audiences alike. And for San Francisco to add another building in the hub of our cultural corridor represents many things: from jobs and improvements to our surrounding neighborhood to enhanced networks with many arts and education organizations. Having a space to gather, to play, to sing, dance, learn, discuss, celebrate — these are incredibly meaningful! Our plan is to see the building serve as a nerve center of creativity, to honor America's classical music and its musicians, and to nurture future generations of art makers as well as appreciators.
JS: It makes perfect sense to have the Center here in arguably the most progressive (not to mention most beautiful) community in the world with our well-documented long history of musical and cultural innovation. I look forward to presenting, performing and attending many a show there forever, and having my family know the Center as an often-visited community space.