Jazz Mafia Founder Adam Theis on the Group's 10-Year Anniversary

Categories: Q&A
jazz mafia_7-29.jpg
Bill Evans
Jazz Mafia, with Adam Theis front and center.
Tonight at Mezzanine, Jazz Mafia celebrates its 10-year anniversary with a special concert featuring rappers Lyrics Born and Lateef (as Latyrx). Jazz Mafia was founded in San Francisco a decade ago by composer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Theis, and has grown from a loose group of collaborators at a regular Tuesday night gig into a sprawling family of more than 70 musicians that performs all over the world. With the group's progressive attitude toward jazz -- Theis wrote a hip-hop symphony, and Jazz Mafia members have performed with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Lyrics Born and Gift of Gab, along with many others -- Jazz Mafia has also helped invigorate the S.F. live music scene. We recently checked in with Theis to discuss what he's learned in the 10 years since founding Jazz Mafia.

What's surprised you most about the Jazz Mafia project?
The thing that has surprised me most is the incredible sacrifices that musicians I play with have made to each other and their bands, especially considering the level of their playing and how they could be making way more money doing more popular work.

How has the project turned out relative to what you envisioned when you started it?
In a way, it's kind of how I always dreamed. I always wanted to have a huge group of incredible musicians, all with really different specialized skillsets, all capable of their own solo careers but finding time to work together and create something beautiful that goes above what we could all create on our own. I feel like that has been accomplished in many ways, and it's unbelievable to me when I actually sit down and think about it, to be honest.

What have you learned these past 10 years?
- To say "Sorry, but I can't do it this time around, maybe next time."
- To focus more on writing, less on trying to fill my schedule with random gigs every night.
- That acoustic music is highly underrated.
- That you have to be willing to spend at least 10 years following your passion without big awards, accolades or real money. If you can't commit to that timeline, don't be an artist.

Do any particular Jazz Mafia shows stand out as being especially amazing?
 - Montreal Jazz Fest 2010 performing my Brass, Bows & Beats symphony in front of an awesome attentive crowd of 30,000 people.
 - Jamming with Stevie Wonder when he showed up at our gig a year ago -- I don't think any of us in the band would've rather met, let alone jammed, with anyone else in the world.
- Receiving the grant from the Gerbode/Hewlett Foundation to realize my lifelong dream to write a symphony.
- Performing my symphony to a sold-out audience at the Palace of Fine Arts the night of the premier.
- Performing and recording with many of my personal heroes: Lyrics Born, Ledesi, DJ Qbert, Mixmaster Mike, Kid Koala, Lateef, Chali 2na, Gift of Gab, Clyde Stubblefield, Bernard Purdie, and more.
- Our worst show: the time Mos Def was supposed to perform with Realistic Orchestra in Golden Gate Park and at the last minute decided he wanted to just keep it simple and do the set with his DJ only. I still have those charts in our books waiting for when he walks into one of our gigs and we can redeem ourselves -- that was a huge let-down to our music community and was really not fair to the band. (Plus, we never got paid -- about that check...)

What do you envision for the future of the project?
 Creating more of a launching pad for other like-minded artists who are doing amazing stuff but people don't know about. We were almost one of those crews that worked really hard, made killin' stuff, but faded out because of just not having enough of an audience. I'd hate to see that happen to any hard-working talented group. We also are booking more tours and focusing a lot more effort on getting our music out there around the world.

What effect do you think Jazz Mafia has had on the SF scene? If you had to describe your legacy at this point, what would it be?

Thats a tough one. I know that when we toured around the country and people saw our symphony, they would often get really excited and think that S.F. must be just crawling with awesome clubs and 40-piece hip-hop orchestras. Regardless of what folks here think of the current music scene, the fact that people think that about S.F., partly because of seeing us, really means a lot to me. I hope that our legacy would have to do with performing music that brought people together.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced faced so far?
Having to choose a show with one favorite artist over the other is probably one of the worst things I have to deal with, which isn;t that bad really, right? All the other work and difficulties are just part of the process and bring bigger rewards later.

What else should people know about Jazz Mafia? Anything you want to say to fans/listeners/the city at large?

We'd like to thank all the folks who've supported us through the years, especially the crazy fans who would come out on our regular Tuesday nights, which lasted for 10 years. Also, a very special thanks to the club owners/managers/bookers who took a chance on us and hopefully didn't loose too much money by booking us instead of a Top-40 DJ.

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