SFJAZZ Center: Five Things We Learned on a Tour of the Construction Site

Categories: Only in SF

SF-Jazz-Main-Room.jpg
The main performance room of the SFJAZZ center, now about 55 percent completed.
In case you haven't heard, SFJAZZ -- the nonprofit group that presents a world-class jazz festival in San Francisco every year -- is building a brand-new home in Hayes Valley. Comparable only to Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, the SFJAZZ Center will be a 39,000-square-foot, $55 million performance venue, community space, educational facility, and neighborhood hangout -- and the only facility of its kind on the West Coast. Now under construction on Franklin Street, near Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House, the SFJAZZ center will add to the already considerable lure of the surrounding arts district.

On a recent tour of the center's construction site with the folks in charge at SFJAZZ and the building's architect, Mark Cavagnero, we learned lots of interesting details about the project. Here are five of them:

1. Expect it to open on time, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day (Jan. 21) 2013 with a big party.
Randall Kline, Executive Director of SFJAZZ, says there will be a two-week celebration of the building's opening with performers that will immediately make this brand-new stage a hallowed one, plus a focus during the second week on Bay Area artists. He wouldn't give up any names just yet, but a look at the caliber of artists SFJAZZ regularly books should give you some idea.

SFJAZZ Center Interior.jpg
An artist's sketch of the performance room

2. It's not just a fancy performance venue
This was perhaps the major takeaway from our tour: That the new building wants to be more than just be a swanky venue for high-level jazz performances. Kline, SFJAZZ, and architect Mark Cavagnero envisioned a jazz-focused community center, with a welcoming ground-floor cafe that will host nightly performances -- not just of jazz -- plus a cafe and bar where anyone can drop by and catch some live music. Everything about the building, from its huge glass frontage to the lighting ("This building will glow at night," Kline says), has been designed to beckon people inside, in stark contrast to the imposing facades of other nearby performance venues. There's even a door in the south wall so drivers and pedestrians outside will be able to see the piano sitting onstage inside the main performance room.

SFJAZZ Center Exterior 1.jpg
An artist's sketch of the exterior.

3. But the main room is going to be gorgeous, visually and sonically.
As you'd expect, the designers of the project spent a great deal of time and money planning the ideal performance space, even visiting acoustic meccas around the country. What they've designed is a giant concrete box with steeply raked seats and enough flexibility to host audiences from a couple hundred up to the room's full capacity of 700, and ensembles ranging from a trio to a big band. Given its use of drum kits and sporadic amplification, live jazz presents a few acoustic challenges not faced in say, a symphony hall or a rock club. But Kline says that with its baffles, custom Meyer Sound audio system, and retractable curtains, the final room will be as crisp hosting the Roots as Ornette Coleman. (And yes, it won't only be traditional jazz musicians who get to stand on this stage.)

SF-Jazz-Main-Room-2.jpg
The building is set to open Jan. 21, 2013.

4. It's a lot of building on a rather small site.
Cavagnero somehow managed to squeeze 37,000 square feet of performance spaces, practice rooms, a digital media center, classrooms, a ground-floor lobby, a second-floor lobby, and the offices of SFJAZZ onto a 16,000-square-foot lot that he calls "very tight." As a result, though, even the concrete husk of the building feels efficient. Nearly every space will have multiple uses -- even the space under the steeply-raked seats will be used for storage and practice rooms.

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Spaces under the seats will be used for storage and practice rooms.

5. SFJAZZ programming will change to fit the new digs
Details are still unreleased, but Kline's hope is that the new center will help him persuade top-tier artists -- the ones who could, say, sell out a night at Davies -- to instead play three or four nights inside the more intimate room at SFJAZZ. After opening, Kline says 90 percent of SFJAZZ-presented concerts will take place at its new headquarters. He's excited about having SFJAZZ's artistic directors (who include some of the Bay Area's best jazz musicians) perform multi-night residencies in the new hall, offering plenty of time for innovation and experimentation. Kline says Artistic Director Jason Moran is even working on a piece involving live skateboarders in the room -- a suggestion that drew a look of concern from Cavagnero, the architect now watching his vision come to life in glass and concrete.

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Looking out from what will be the second-floor lobby on Franklin Street.

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