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Kind of Blue

Will the Bay Area's jazz scene ever live up to its ambitions?



By all accounts, Ambrose Akinmusire appeared poised to become a star. The Oakland-raised jazz trumpeter came up in the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble at a time when the public school was known for its art school-level music program. Led by director Charles Hamilton, the ensemble was famous for arriving to band competitions in sloppy gear — baggy jeans and Bob Marley T-shirts — when everyone else wore tuxes, and creaming all the other schools. It was at Berkeley High where Akinmusire's playing caught the ear of saxophonist Steve Coleman, who helped launch his career.

But to make it big, Akinmusire had to move to New York. He relocated there in 2000 to attend the Manhattan School of Music, and after completing a master's program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, resettled there again. After four years of living on the East Coast, Akinmusire's efforts paid off: In 2009, Bruce Lundvall, the head of Blue Note Records, sent him an e-mail with a cryptic message: "We need to figure out how to sign you to Blue Note." Within eight months, they cemented a deal. Akinmusire's Blue Note debut drops this month.

That makes him one of the most successful prodigies to ever emerge from Berkeley High School, or, for that matter, from the Bay Area at large. It also places Akinmusire in a long lineage of locally produced jazz musicians who feel they have to move to the Big Apple to find success.

"It's the mystique," said SFJAZZ spokesperson Marshall Lamm about New York's appeal. "It's where you gotta go, and play all night, and woodshed, and struggle. There are a lot more jam sessions. There are a lot of opportunities to play with people from all around the world."

New York may have the reputation of being a jazz city, but the Bay Area is notable for producing talent, most notably, from Berkeley High. Over the four decades that Phil Hardymon and his successor, Charles Hamilton, led the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, it produced such talents as Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, Charlie Hunter, Dave Ellis, Julian Waterfall Pollack, and the old standard-bearer, Joshua Redman. Many of them are now nationally known. Lamm said that any star coming out of that band will have the whole Berkeley High imprimatur attached to his name. "If you were the first-chair tenor player at Berkeley High, then you're the rookie everyone's looking at," he said.

The Bay Area is also home to a world-famous jazz club. Originally founded in Berkeley in 1973 and later relocated to Oakland, Yoshi's became a destination for jazz, bringing such names as Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Branford Marsalis to its stage. Then, in 2007, it opened a sister location in San Francisco with the aim of reviving jazz in the city's Fillmore district.

And yet, the Bay Area's jazz scene seems to never be able to live up to its ambitions.

After receiving roughly $7.2 million in financial bailouts from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, Yoshi's has been forced to shift its focus to more profitable genres — namely, old soul, rock, and hip-hop — to pay for its $15 million construction bill. And that's just one domino to fall as the Bay Area's jazz scene struggles to sustain itself. In 2008, three other Fillmore jazz clubs — 1300 on Fillmore, Rasselas, and Sheba Lounge — also sought bailouts from San Francisco. Two years ago, Coda was supposed to be a bright hope, but owner Bruce Hanson said the business model was untenable in a bad economy. The venue shuttered at the end of 2010, and its replacement, Brick and Mortar, has a more world- and funk-oriented lineup. Jazz at Pearl's closed in 2008, and another North Beach jazz club, Enrico's, closed about three months ago. Bruno's, the Mission District venue which used to be known for booking a lot of live jazz, switched to a more cost-effective all-DJ lineup. And in Berkeley, Anna's Jazz Island closed last year, and Randy Moore had to end his jam session at Nick's Lounge after the bar was sold.

And yet, we're also perennially on the cusp of creating a jazz renaissance. Two more big venues are slated to open. SFJAZZ will unveil a palatial, $60-million center (all privately funded) in the fall of 2012, right at Hayes and Fell streets in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the historic Preservation Hall of New Orleans plans to open a new offshoot on 19th and Valencia streets, hopefully in the fall of this year — although judging from the current construction site, the building has a long way to go. Also, it's worth noting that the Jazzschool in Berkeley recently became offering a bachelor's degree in music, which means that graduates of Berkeley High or Oakland School for the Arts have less reason to move back east if they want to go to music school. Berkeley parents are stepping up, too. Faced with school budget cuts and the 2009 retirement of beloved director Charles Hamilton, they formed a nonprofit organization to fund Berkeley High jazz programs. It pays for musicians like Dave Ellis to come in and lead the ensemble three days a week.

In other words, the Bay Area is abstractly interested in the idea of having a jazz scene. People are willing to pour money into it, devote big buildings to it, and form nonprofits to help buttress it. Just three weeks ago, jazz drummer Scott Amendola premiered his orchestral piece "Fade to Orange" at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. He was commissioned to write it for Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra, which goes to show that local arts boosters are still willing to take a chance on jazz.