Jazz comes to Franklin & Fell
by Roberto Friedman
Arts appreciation is Out There's religion, and the concert hall is our synagogue. So the opening this week of the SFJazz Center in Hayes Valley was righteous cause for spiritual celebration. The Center is the first free-standing institution built for jazz education and performance in the U.S., and its concert hall is a veritable jewel-box, perfect for communing with jazz, our national art-form.
OT was in the house for the press opening. First came a panel of SFJazz executive artistic director Randall Kline , architect Mark Cavagnero , acoustician Sam Berkow , theatre designer Len Auerbach , contractor Ed Conlon , Latin percussionist John Santos , and chef Charles Phan , who will run the cafe. Then Santos and his band played "All the Things You Are," and pressers were invited to move around the auditorium to test out the acoustics. OT found a vantage point where we could look down at the pianist's hands as he played, quite the catbird seat. Kline said one goal for the room was to offer "the focus of a concert hall, and the informality of a club," and there's clear promise of that here.
Santos, one of SFJazz's resident artistic directors, referred to the room's "spiritual connection," pointing out the music's roots in church and gospel, and predicted, "There's going to be a lot of crying moments in this room, I can tell already."
The building's large amount of glass brings the surrounding neighborhood into the concert space, and vice versa. Kline said the design was going for "welcome, warmth and community," and architect Cavagnero referenced Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple as a model. Count us in as part of the congregation, already looking forward to performances by lesbian jazz pianist Patricia Barber (3/3), resident artistic directors Brad Mehldau (4/25-28) and Jason Moran (5/2-5), among a wealth of others. Whet your appetite at www.sfjazz.org.
British movie star Minnie Driver was special guest in the house when the Mostly British Film Festival screened its opening-night attraction Hunky Dory at the Vogue Theatre in San Francisco last Thursday. In the film, she plays a drama teacher at an English working-class school who stages a student production of The Tempest complete with musical interludes. The numbers included lots of early David Bowie ("Life on Mars," "The Man Who Sold the World"), the schoolboys were adorable, and the sold-out audience was enthusiastic. Opening night benefited the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, helping to preserve neighborhood SF cinemas like the Vogue and the Balboa. More power to them!
Our big cultural week wrapped up last Saturday night at the Fillmore, where we went to see Nigerian pop musician Femi Kuti with his big band the Positive Force perform from their new album, No Place for My Dream. Kuti and co. are plumbing the essence of Afrobeat, the music pioneered by Femi's legendary father Fela Kuti in the late 1960s. Femi played a key role in celebrating the recent opening of the Kalakuta Museum, which honors his father and his music in Lagos, and was instrumental in bringing the hit Broadway show Fela! there.
At the Fillmore, Kuti was fierce on vocals, tenor and soprano sax, and his band's energy never flagged under the Afrobeat sun. Live music is our salvation, amen.
Sunset Boulevard is being shown as part of producer Eddie Muller's Noir City 11 at the Castro Theatre this week. It may interest you to know that director Billy Wilder first discussed the iconic part of Norma Desmond with Mae West. West had not made a movie since 1943, and it had not done well at the box office. She was 57 or 58 when Sunset was made, and she declined, saying, "No one would believe me as a has-been." West also rejected the idea of having to keep a young lover. As far as she was concerned, she was more than desirable enough. Mary Pickford also turned the part down, feeling it focused too much on the young man. Norma Shearer also passed. Luckily, Gloria Swanson accepted the role, and the rest was film history.