A Night Out with SFJAZZ

Saturday night, I slipped on my little black dress and listened to live jazz for the very first time. I had two press tickets to see the SFJAZZ Collective at the brand new SFJAZZ Center on Franklin Street (near City Hall). The new SFJAZZ Center, which is the first freestanding building for jazz in the country, had its grand opening on Monday, January 21. Saturday’s performance was part of its Grand Opening Concert series, which continues through February 3rd.

Initially, I was wary of actually getting there. It’s in Hayes Valley – not an area I am familiar with, but know not to roam around by myself at night. I decided to drive. Luckily, my friend and I easily found parking in an Inpark garage only three blocks away on Grove Street (between Franklin and Gough). It was a $15 flat rate fee – not too bad for convenient city parking.

The SFJAZZ Center is a modern building with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street, grey interior walls and low lighting. It looked different than when I saw it under construction a couple of months ago (read my blog about the tour here). The first thing I noticed when I entered the Robert N. Miner Auditorium was the pink, purple and blue lights cast onstage. The cool color palette complemented my anticipation of the relaxing sound of jazz.

Our seats were close to the stage with a fantastic view. But looking around, there weren’t too many bad seats. With nearly surround-stage seating, everyone seemed to have a great view of the stage. The only places I wouldn’t want to sit were in the balcony (too high up) and behind/above the stage (there is only one row here). Feet space was a little cramped – in order to walk down our row, people had to physically stand up to make room so we could pass. But once we were seated, it was fairly roomy and comfortable.

Soon, the lights dimmed and Executive Artistic Director and Founder Randall Kline appeared on stage to give a welcoming speech. He emerged after almost every song throughout the show, which had the potential of disrupting the musical flow. However, his appearance gave the evening a more intimate touch. His passion for jazz and excitement about the new SFJAZZ Center was endemic and he was well-received.

The first set featured the SFJAZZ Collective, John Santos, Miguel Zenon, Jason Moran, Mary Stallings, Eric Reed, Bryan Bowman, Joshua Redmond, Eric Harland and Regina Carter. They performed both original songs and covers, including Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” My favorite performance was by singer Mary Stallings. Dressed in a flowing white shirt and billowing cream-colored pants, she looked almost ethereal beneath the pale blue light. Her soulful voice was powerful and alluring, yet calming.

There was a 20 minute intermission, during which I waited in a long line to use the restroom.

In addition to hearing more of the SFJAZZ Collective in the second set, we heard from two of jazz’s legends. Kline first introduced Bobby Hutcherson as “the man who began every performance with a hug.” And Saturday night was no different. Hutcherson walked onstage – albeit slowly and with a slight gait – and embraced Kline in a big hug, catching him off guard. The crowd erupted in laughter and applause. Then appeared his duet mate, pianist McCoy Tyner, who also ambled to his instrument. They looked like old friends reuniting; it was a touching scene. Both musicians probably reach far past age 70, yet possessed an unspoken energy. When they started playing, their physical frailty was irrelevant. At the end of their song, there was some amusing confusion. Kline reappeared, most likely to introduce the next song, but Hutcherson and McCoy went right into another song. Kline slipped away as we were treated to a second – and, it seemed, unplanned – song. The evening ended with a rendition of Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” (which my friend couldn’t stop humming as we left the building).

Though we were probably the youngest members in the audience, the energy was tremendous and infectious. During the songs, some sporadically called out yeah! and others uttered light chuckles. As an amateur jazz listener, I was initially surprised by these reactions. But then I realized that this is the beauty of music – sometimes it’s so moving that it provokes inexplicable and erratic responses.

All in all, I had a great experience at the SFJAZZ Center and highly recommend it. We are fortunate to add SFJAZZ to the great live music venues close to home.