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Death of Jazz Club Underscores a Changing Scene

A Classical Revolution performance at Coda Supper Club on Tuesday, December 28, 2010
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A Classical Revolution performance at Coda Supper Club on Tuesday, December 28, 2010
 
The closing of Coda brings home the lack of local booking possibilities for jazz musicians

As another holiday season under a stagnating economy draws to a close, it is hardly surprising that San Francisco would lose that rarely profitable of ventures, a jazz room.

But Coda, a bar, restaurant and club in the Mission District, did not seem like it was going under. In just a year and a half, it had established itself as one of the most interesting jazz-based schedules in the Bay Area. Acts like the Jazz Mafia tapped into a vibrant younger music scene, and salsa Sunday bookings and Latin jazz nights sold out. Stevie Wonder dropped by for a set; Liz Phair covered Velvet Underground songs.

Two weeks ago Bruce Hanson, the club’s owner, shocked staff members and promoters with the news that Coda would close after a New Year’s Eve blowout featuring Rayband and 8 Legged Monster.

Hanson blamed poor economic timing, not the business model or the musical genre. “Maybe if we opened today, we’d make it,” he said.

Though Anna’s Jazz Island in Berkeley and Pearl’s in San Francisco both folded in recent years, jazz-booking cafes, cabarets and smaller barrooms persist.

And Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese Restaurant, with locations in San Francisco and Oakland, still attracts stars like Roy Hargrove, slated for January. Its schedule, though, is increasingly filled with less jazzy headliners like the Ohio Players and Public Enemy.

The booking strategy, said Jason Olaine, Yoshi’s San Francisco Jazz Club artistic director who used to work in the Oakland location, “is about survival.”

Yoshi’s in San Francisco has also benefited from substantial public support — the city gave it about $7 million in loans to open in the Fillmore District.

Coda’s death brings home the lack of local booking possibilities for jazz musicians. “I can only speak about my experience,” said Marcus Shelby, a nationally known bass player and band leader who moved to the Bay Area around 15 years ago. “But I used to have regular gigs — two, three, four, five nights. I’m not playing nowhere in San Francisco these days.”

But others point to a vibrant local jazz scene populated by small places like Red Poppy Art House and Jazzschool in Berkeley that foster experimentation across genres like world music, hip hop and chamber music. Shelby, speaking from Japan, said he saw great music all the time — just not in the smoky supper clubs of yore.

Kelly Patton and Joey Chang dance to a Classical Revolution performance at Coda Supper Club on Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
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Kelly Patton and Joey Chang dance to a Classical Revolution performance at Coda Supper Club on Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

His income, like many jazz musicians’, increasingly comes from commissions, grants and teaching.

“Schools now give young players a place to play and learn, rehearsal spaces, instruments, things that clubs used to provide,” said David Ake, music professor at University of Nevada, Reno, and author of “Jazz Matters.”

Ake cautioned that the movement toward jazz’s being seen as “America’s classical music,” came with costs — less lively venues, more formal presentation — as well as benefits.

The shift in financing and performance space is both profound and invisible.

“It’s always been a hustle,” said Sarah Wilson, a trumpeter and vocalist who recently played at Yoshi’s for a record release. “When I lived in New York, I remember when the Knitting Factory stopped booking jazz, and Tonic closed down.”

The audience applauds a Classical Revolution performance at Coda Supper Club on Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
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The audience applauds a Classical Revolution performance at Coda Supper Club on Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

 But Wilson said that a weekend workshop on grant-writing and business philosophy she attended changed her life. With four tracks on her last album financed by commissions, she said, she made more money over the past year than in all other years combined.

“Musicians need to be industrious,” said Charith Premawardhana, founder of Classical Revolution, a group devoted to finding traditional and not-so-traditional locations for classical music, who has also played with Jazz Mafia.

“They have to create opportunities to perform, for themselves and their friends, “ Premawardhana said, noting that the group will be performing in January at a Haight nightclub, Milk, that just started hosting live music.

But there is a rung missing in the jazz ecosystem when small and medium-size clubs like Coda go out of business. “San Francisco is too underground,” said Adam Theis, Jazz Mafia’s founder. “If it’s only the super hip who dig it out, it’s hard for the scene to support itself.”

Shelby said, “The musicians are already leaving,” and added that political leadership needed to help live music clubs like Coda.

As Coda prepares for its final show, the future does bring hope. Preservation Hall, the famed New Orleans club and band, has announced plans to open on Valencia Street in 2011.

And SF Jazz, a nonprofit that programs 100 or so events a year, including the SF Jazz Festival, is slated to open its $60 million permanent home in the fall of 2012. It is no coincidence that the location is in Hayes Valley, spitting distance from other major music spots like the opera and the symphony.

In a nod to both jazz history and the current night-life options, though, Randall Kline, founder of SF Jazz, said there would be a street-level space, holding around 90 people in addition to a larger concert hall. “It’ll feel more like a club,” he said.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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