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  • Manny Crisostomo /

    The John Santos Sextet performs on the Robert N. Miner stage at the SFJAZZ Center on Wednesday during a sneak peek of the new state-of-the-art building at 201 Franklin St., San Francisco. One of the center's many features is the particular attention paid to acoustics.

  • Manny Crisostomo /

    Randall Kline, SFJAZZ founder, answers questions about the new center last week.

SFJAZZ opens a state-of-the art facility this week

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8AANDE

Randall Kline seems remarkably contained for a man on the precipice of realizing a dream.

This week, Kline, the executive artistic director and founder of SFJAZZ, oversees the opening of the $63 million SFJAZZ Center, the first free-standing building in the country created expressly for the American-born art form.

The 35,000-square-foot, three-story, glass-and-concrete center features a state-of-the-art, 700-seat auditorium named after late benefactor Robert N. Miner (founder of Oracle) and an 80-seat multipurpose performance space called the Joe Henderson lab.

It also has rehearsal rooms, a digital-learning lab, a Charles Phan-operated cafe, three bars, three commissioned murals from Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet, a ground-floor lobby, retail shop, box office and, on the top floor, administrative offices.

"We tried to come up with the greatest things you could have in the formality of a concert hall but still be relaxed," Kline said. "And we do it on both sides of the stage – from audience to artist."

The facility, in the Hayes Valley section of San Francisco, was designed by award-winning architect Mark Cavagnero, acoustician Sam Berkow and theater designer S. Leonard Auerbach. Cavagnero has designed a variety of buildings in the Bay Area, including the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the Oakland Museum and the Headlands Center for the Arts.

Though Kline takes no official credit, he hand-held the project from the beginning, and it wouldn't exist without him simply because there would be no SFJAZZ without him.

Kline, who was born and raised in Massachusetts, is a lapsed bassist who became enamored of jazz while taking classes at San Francisco State University. He produced a few jazz shows in college, then took a job at the San Francisco nightclub the Boarding House.

Though his early Jazz in the City festivals lost money, he figured out how to raise funds and kept the event going while learning to tailor programs to fit audience tastes. Kline saw there was an appetite for the avant-garde, the mainstream and even world music – just not all on the same bill.

The festival also embraced area jazz stars including Bobby Hutcherson and the late Joe Henderson, giving them overdue respect and artistic standing.

The jazz festival concept grew steadily under his guidance, becoming a two-week fall event, adding a spring season, developing an expansive educational component, commissioning artists and creating its own house band, the SFJAZZ Collective.

Along the way SFJAZZ became one of the foremost jazz presenters in the world, and, with the opening of this center, arguably the preeminent jazz organization anywhere.

A wide-open idea

Kline has thought about this building for a long time.

On a recent afternoon, he cheerfully led a tour through the ubiquitous gray dust and random debris of construction, dutifully pointed out loose rolls of wire and coiled tubing strewn across the unfinished floors.

"We looked at a lot of forms, from Greek amphitheaters to New England meeting houses. Any place where people gathered together," Kline said.

He proudly pointed out the jazz center's signature design concept, the glass casing of the block-sized building, which creates a sense of transparency from numerous vantage points.

"I wanted to make something that would be timeless," Cavagnero said in a separate interview.

"Never feel dated, never overwhelm the outside world. It should feel effortless. It's designed with nothing down the middle. Everything is at the edge."

Anyone passing on Fell or Franklin streets can see into and nearly through the structure, while from the inside, people can easily view the sidewalks and streets, so the outside and inside meld together.

"It's an urban vibe," Cavagnero. "Everything is open to the street, inviting the public to come in and experience the performances."

One of the early models was a theater in the Netherlands designed by the famous Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger. It connects to a public market.

"That theater felt part of the public space, and we tried to create that communal feeling as well," Kline said. "The openness emerged more and more as we started getting into the project."

A long history

San Francisco has long maintained strong ties to jazz from its African American club scene in the Fillmore District (often called "the Harlem of the West"), home to places such as Bop City and Plantation Club in the 1940s and '50s, and later the Blackhawk and Keystone Korner.

The idea of SFJAZZ having its own space has been around since the mid-1990s, when it became apparent the organization had taken root in the city.

Kline began seriously talking about the idea with his board in 2000. Together they explored options, from adapting an existing building to buying land and creating something original.

"There (was) no money for it at this point," Kline said. "Just the idea that we should pursue it. I prepared things for the board about what might be in the facility and what the ideal place might look like."

Eventually Kline came across photographs of a community music center down the peninsula in Mountain View, which to his mind "looked exactly like the sort of building we ought to build," and he soon met its designer, Bay Area-based architect Cavagnero, and realized he'd found a kindred spirit.

"I got on his website and he's got a John Coltrane quote on his splash page, and I thought 'OK, good sign,' " Kline said.

Hooking up with Cavagnero was a turning point for Kline, as the internationally acclaimed architect and jazz lover basically agreed to work on spec and created sketches of the space the two began dreaming up.

"It wasn't just 'Build a theater' – it was 'Build a beautiful theater,' a beautiful theater means a lot of complex things," Kline said.

"What kind of flexibility? What kind of sound? What kind of look? What's it going to feel like? What do contemporary audiences want from an auditorium? Could it be something of the time we live in?"

The performance space they ended up with has no proscenium arch framing the stage, and the audience sits on all sides, though the interior is not symmetrical. There is steep rake in the second tier of seating so no one can be more than 45 feet from the stage.

Seating can be configured to hold 350 to 700 people, and there are removable rows of seats for standing room or dancing. Theater seats have cup holders for beverages from the three bars serving the complex.

The wall and ceiling panels are based on computer models for optimum absorption and dispersal of sound.

"You walk into this theater and you can anticipate moments of magic," Kline said. "You can anticipate what might happen in that room."

Final push for dream

Once the available land had been identified, Kline took the sketches to his anonymous lead donor and asked for $20 million to start the process.

Though he came back with a "yes" from the donor, it was not the same thing as a green light from his board, which would have come with $20 million as well.

Kline recalls the board saying: "Why should we do this? You do quite well without your own building."

There was a simple answer in the pragmatism of controlling the environment and having a specifically designed sound system and acoustics to provide an optimum listening experience.

But for Kline, the stronger play was about SFJAZZ as an institution. He has made no secret of his admiration for organizations based just a few blocks away, the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera.

He's seen how they make smart business and good art go hand-in-hand. He also has noted how these groups have the most sophisticated marketing, strongest fund-raising machinery and most innovative audience-development strategies.

He wanted the same for jazz. And the board eventually agreed.

"Symphonies spend millions to build these beautiful concert halls so that the music can best be appreciated. I thought jazz deserves that," Kline said.

Now others can appreciate it. National Public Radio will broadcast Wednesday's opening night concert featuring Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Esperanza Spalding and the SFJAZZ Collective.

Other opening week concerts will feature tributes to Tyner and Hutcherson and spotlights on the collective and the five resident artistic directors: Regina Carter, Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, John Santos and Miguel Zenón.

Each artistic director will have a separate, multinight residency this spring, playing with ensembles of their choosing. Veteran bassist Dave Holland, percussionist Zakir Hussain and creative young pianist Brad Mehldau will also each have residencies at the center.

Vocalists Ute Lemper, Dianne Reeves and the venerable Tony Bennett are all booked into the center as well.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Marcus Crowder

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