- Photo by Lance Yamamoto
- Karen Van Leuven and Robert Bradsby walk through their future jazz venue.
For years, Robert Bradsby and Karen Van Leuven hosted jazz concerts in their living room on the Oakland-Piedmont border, relying on a mailing list, word-of-mouth, and approximately 60 folding chairs. In 2012, they leased a former seniors' dining room at 2147 Broadway and formalized their familial events with a venue, the Sound Room.
Bradsby and Van Leuven, lifelong jazz fans who are married, established the nonprofit Bay Area Jazz & Arts along with the venue, and they've since run the 72-seat Sound Room on a volunteer basis, serving food to cover costs while giving door money to performers. Repeatedly ranked among the world's finest jazz venues by Downbeat magazine, the Sound Room is a favorite among patrons and artists alike, filling the void left by the closure of local clubs such as Kelly's and Anna's Jazz Island.
"Where else do they do mostly jazz in Oakland?" said Van Leuven recently, while Bradsby swept the floor ahead of a rehearsal rental that evening. "Musicians say it's comfortable, a place where they feel respected and where people really listen."
But within a few years of opening, the volunteer owner-operators started to doubt the long-term viability of their space on Broadway. Oakland has one of the lowest commercial vacancy rates in the nation, and nonprofits have been particularly threatened by intense competition for downtown real estate. In 2015, developers Lane Partners and Strategic Urban Development acquired the property housing the venue, which is now slated for demolition to make way for a commercial-residential project called Eastline.
As the Express first reported last August, the sale prompted Bradsby and Van Leuven, respectively an architect and nurse practitioner, to use their equity and retirement savings to purchase a long, red brick building nearby at 3022 Broadway for $1.4 million. Now they're hoping to raise $100,000 via GoFundMe to finish renovations and open anew by the end of the year — hopefully in time for the Sound Room's six-year anniversary come Nov. 10. Not reaching the goal might delay the opening, though Van Leuven said they could open the cafe section for smaller shows before construction is complete.
At first, Bradsby said, they estimated a $400,000 construction budget, but that figure has risen to $600,000 following delays. "We don't have money to expedite permitting," he said, noting backup at the city's building agency. The Eastline project has lagged as well, enabling the venue to extend its lease through November. The goal is to not interrupt programming. "We have day jobs, we book this venue," said Van Leuven. "Any time we bring in money on a show I think about it in terms of what it allows us to get done."
Plans for the future, 3,000-square-foot space include a cafe that's open to the public by day, with a piano for soloists or small combos to perform in the evenings; and, behind that, a performance space that's twice the size of the current Sound Room. There's an enclosed parking lot in the back, Bradsby noted; performers have experienced car break-ins during shows downtown. When Bradsby and Van Leuven bought the building, it was an automobile repair shop, and for the past year they've overseen a dramatic renovation.
According to the GoFundMe, construction costs include a seismic retrofit; utility connections for water, gas, and electric; and fire sprinkler installation. Also, a small back patio will separate the building from a separate structure containing bathrooms. Bradsby has lent his skills as architect and construction manager for free, overseeing design and permitting himself. With the nonprofit, the website notes, contributions are tax-deductible.
When Bradsby and Van Leuven threw their first house show, famed local jazz vocalist Kenny Washington showed up to run sound, and construction of the new venues has similarly relied on community ties. Marina Crouse offered to be their sound consultant. A civil engineer regular offered help; a contractor regular offered a "friends and family" rate on sprinklers. They're also considering a membership program for supporters to make recurring contributions to the venue.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Marina Crouse previously collaborated with Miles Davis.