By Don Heckman
As it begins its 27th season, the San Francisco Jazz Festival — SFJAZZ — has become well-established as one of the world’s most far-reaching, creatively diverse musical events. Now encompassing three seasons – with around 100 annual concerts in Fall, Spring and Summer – it is the imaginative offspring of Executive Director Randall Kline, who has been there since the Festival took its first toddling steps toward the future. I spoke with Kline last week, while he was at San Francisco International Airport waiting to board a plane for a brief, one week trip to Italy “before,” as he put it, “the onslaught begins.”
DH: Randall, let’s talk about this year’s Festival as a kind of template for the way the Festivals are produced. How did it all come together?
RK: (Laughing) A miracle, I guess. But seriously, the fact is that the process now has a rhythm to it, and the rhythm has to do with a lot of things. Seeking to come up with a well representative program takes a while to develop. So in the early stages you’re sort of flailing around. You talk to lots and lots of people — seems like billions, sometimes — and then slowly it starts to take shape. And it’s kind of the same every year. You reach a point where you say, “Oh, this isn’t so great.” And then, about three quarters of the way through, there’ll be like one or two bookings that sort of make the difference. Things start to emerge and then something comes along, and you say, “Oh, yeah, that makes things interesting.” And there’s the impact that the sheer bulk has, too – we’re doing close to forty shows – and once you start looking at all of those shows, it starts opening your eyes and you begin to think, “Hey, this could work.”
DH: What got you past that point of apprehension this Fall?
RK: There were little things — things that started streaming in at the end. Like there was an Omar Sosa booking, and then a kind of Cuban theme sort of emerged, with Alfredo Rodriguez and Omara Portuondo. Then there was the very last booking. It was going to be Keb’ Mo’ and Koko Taylor, but she passed away just before we were going to advertise the gig – right at deadline, just as we were going to press. We added Solomon Burke at the last minute for a double bill and everything suddenly clicked.
DH: Producing this Festival is really a year round process, isn’t it?
RK: It’s a year and a half process, basically. And we go through this twice a year, for both the Fall and the Spring programs.
DH:. Yeah, I can remember when you made the decision to do the Spring season, and I thought, “My God what is Randall doing? A Fall festival with a ton of concerts isn’t enough? What’s next, Summer and Winter?” But you’ve made it work.
RK: I hope so. The Fall itself was a regular performing arts season, basically, but kind of compressed, with forty or so shows. And what we do in the Spring is to un-compress it a little bit and stretch it over those four months. Adding that level of presenting involves a huge number of concerts, especially since we really do have a Summer season, as well, with free ouotdoor concerts. All of which adds up to over a hundred concerts a years. And that includes a lot of schlepping stuff around, since we do the Festival at so many different venues.
DH: Very different from what it was like back in the distant past of your first year, right?
RK: Oh, yes. We did two shows at the Herbst Theatre in year one. It was called Jazz in the City at that time. It was a very different character, and was not a success. The same sort of programming esthetic was present, but the diversity was more like festival style programming. An avant-garde group on the same bill with African drummers and a thirties’ vocal group, or an Afro-Cuban group. A lot of diversity on those programs. What we learned — and what made it not work that first year — was that most audiences like what they like, and their focus can be kind of narrow.
DH: You’re saying that your approach did not produce what your audiences wanted to hear?
RK: Right: But not so much the programming as the setting. We scared people by doing that kind of programming in a concert hall situation. It works better in one of the bigger outdoor festivals like Monterey, where — if you don’t like something — you just have a good picnic. You don’t have to listen. So we just decided to basically take a theme approach. If we do a night of Brazilian music, that’s what you’re going to hear. Or if we do a double bill, we do it thoughtfully and try to make it work programmatically.
DH: How did you manage to survive that first year?
RK: Well, we lost money. It was really a bit of a disaster.
DH: Yet you went on.
RK; Yes. Because we learned how to be diligent about fund raising. We chose a good model. I looked at the San Francisco Symphony – this great example in our own back yard – and I thought, “How do they do their funding for symphonic music, and can we apply the same approach to jazz? So we did the non-profit thing. The first grant came from the city of San Francisco — $10,000. And then another foundation member who sat on the same city advisory panel called and said, “I like your ideas. If you send us an application, we’ll come up with $10,000.” Out of the blue. And I don’t know how we would have gone on without it.”
DH: So even after the problems in the first year, you still believed the concept of doing a Festival with diverse, but themed programming, was viable?
RK: Yes, because the fund sources we found believed in what we were doing, and were willing to take the chance to continue funding the second year. And that’s really what got us on the right road.
DH: Did the idea of using the Jazz at Lincoln Center program as a model ever come up?
RK: Not directly. But they’re a good model in one sense — in that they forged an institution as a New York entity. I felt that we had the opportunity to take a similar approach in our own area – to do something in San Francisco, the way we would do things in San Francisco.
DH: But isn’t there a similarity in the in the SFJAZZ Collective? Like Jazz at Lincoln Center – you have your own touring band to sustain international interest in the Festival.
RK: True. But, again, the model for that wasn’t really Lincoln Center. It was back to the symphony model. Which was: How do you start an ensemble that can represent the art form? The standard institutional model for jazz has always been the big band. But from our perspective, we thought we should do something that was a little different with the Collelctive. Which is what we did. And the response has been great.
DH: Given that decision to follow your own, uniquely San Francisco path, how broad can you go with the programming for the Festival?
RK: There’s a phrase we use – “We present jazz; music that jazz has influenced; and music that has influenced jazz.” Which allows for a lot of connections. We’ve done the Bach cello suite, the complete cycle, twice. We worked with Kronos Quartet quite a bit over the years. We’ve done Philip Glass pieces and we’ve had performers from all over the world. So we’re open to all sorts of connections.
DH: That’s a fascinatingly omnivorous view of jazz, obviously. I wonder how it fits into the jazz-is-having-hard-times theme that some of the media – especially pop-oriented newspaper editors – have been chewing on lately. As someone who is realistically involved, on a daily basis, with the condition of jazz, what’s your view of that theme and does it impact your work with the Festival?
RK: I think the truth is that it isn’t just jazz that’s struggling. I think it’s all of our culture – newspapers are right up there, as well as literature and all the fine arts and popular arts. Everything is dispersing in different ways, getting knocked down off the big pedestals into lots of interesting little things.
DH: Do you mean a dumbing down?
RK: No. I think it has to do with the way we consume things. The whole digital revolution of being able to pick from thousands and thousands of things at our fingertips. That process immediately sort of flattens everything – to quote Thomas Friedman – and everything is getting flattened out, getting squashed. The clubs are disappearing – and not just the jazz clubs. So, bottom line, don’t think any of it is anything endemic to jazz. We’re right in the middle of a huge change. I’m old fashioned in the sense that I don’t think you can replace the kind of live, visceral experiences we offer at the Festival. People still want to be with other people, too. In a concert hall. Reading a newspaper in a café. But it’s changed radically how people get to those experiences.
DH: So let’s sum up here. Given where you started 27 years ago; given your tendency to be somewhat conservative when making forecasts, when will you be ready to actually acknowledge that SFJAZZ has become something viable enough to have a real future despite the “huge change” in our culture you’ve just mentioned?.
RK: (Laughing) Oh, maybe I’ll get to that point in another ten more years or so. Just kidding. It was actually around the tenth year that I began to realize that things were starting to change a lot. And in 2000, when we started the Spring season, changed the name to SFJAZZ, we realized that we could be, and were going to be, a year around presenter. The model was working. Then we established the SFJAZZ Collective, and now we’re comfortable enough to sort of start thinking about the next phase.
DH: Which will be what?
RK: We hope it’s going to be a facility of our own. We haven’t announced anything yet, and I can’t say any more than that at this time. But stay tuned..
DH: Sounds very intriguing. I’ll definitely stay tuned. Thanks for taking the time to talk. Look forward to seeing you at the Festival.
The San Francisco Jazz Festival — SFJAZZ — kicked off its 2009 Fall Season on Oct. 10 and continues from Oct. 20 (beginning with Omara Portuondo) through Nov. 21 (concluding with Keb’ Mo’ and Solomon Burke). The richly diverse schedule includes, in addition to the names already mentioned above, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Melody Gardot, Gal Costa, Mark Murphy, Ravi Shankar, Yasmin Levy, Dee Dee Bridgewater, James Cotton, John Handy, Sara Tavares, Pat Martino, Larry Goldings, Savion Glover, Milton Nascimento, John Abercrombie, Ornette Coleman and more. For information about SFJAZZ, click here.