SF JAZZ Festival Lineup: Heavy on Big Names, Light on Surprises and Local Talent

Announced this week by SFJAZZ, the lineup for the 30th Anniversary San Francisco Jazz Festival sounds ringingly similar to the lineups of previous San Francisco Jazz Festivals: a combination of jazz legends (Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman), younger innovators (Don Byron, Jacky Terrasson), vocalists (Dianne Reeves, Eliane Elias), and leading exponents of Latin jazz (Arturo Sandoval, Septeto Nacional). It's a stunning group of artists -- one that any jazz organization would be proud to attract, and one that almost any jazz fan would want to see and hear. Yet there are two nagging problems with this lineup. One is the familiarity of the above-described annual formula. The other is that, despite culling admirably from the global spectrum of jazz, the festival devotes hardly any programming to the Bay Area's own vibrant jazz history and current pool of talent.

Outside of Lavay Smith and Mary Stallings (as well as two performances by high school students), there isn't a single artist booked for this year's festival who has a Bay Area association. Where are Wil Blades, Taylor Eigsti, or Denny Zeitlin? All are accomplished musicians with international reputations. All hail from the Bay Area. And those are just a handful of the great keyboard players we have around here.

Where is the jazz? An artist's conception of the SF Jazz Center.
It's possible that certain current events have influenced this safe, predictable festival schedule, namely that SFJAZZ is in the midst of constructing the SFJAZZ Center at Franklin and Fell in Hayes Valley. Planned as a fully-functioning concert venue and educational facility, the Center is being funded by a $60 million capital campaign and will open in January 2013.

Although designed to ensure organizational sustainability, capital campaigns can negatively affect innovation. When raising larger-than-usual amounts of money, an organization often becomes quite interested in appealing to as broad a cross-section of the public as possible. Once the money is raised and there are major donors to satisfy, it can be hard to shift away from the more mainstream approach.

Nonetheless, the symptoms visible in the 2012 festival lineup are not necessarily new, and may have nothing to do with the SFJAZZ Center. It's worth pointing out that the San Francisco Jazz Festival is not really a "festival" at all, but a season of concerts using the symphony model, spread out over several months (August 27 - December 7). The concerts take place at multiple non-club venues and are not cheap; most shows start at either $25 or $30 and go up from there.

Is SFJAZZ showing the effects described in our post last week about the changes happening in the S.F. music scene as a result of the city's growing affluence? It's possible. Jazz has always defined itself by pushing boundaries, by creating joy out of the unfamiliar, and by constantly redefining the very art form through experimentation and exploration. In many ways, these are qualities that can be applied to San Francisco itself, which is a constantly-evolving riff on the notion of what a city is or might be.

But what does the San Francisco Jazz Festival say about San Francisco? What does it do to showcase the city's contribution to the art form? Despite an impressive list of participating artists we would happily pay to see, this festival could take place in any city in the world.

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Casey Burchby @TheBurbach, and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.

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