The rich jazz history of San Francisco was written largely in North Beach. From the 1950s through the mid-'70s, clubs like the Keystone Corner and the Jazz Workshop were regular stopovers for everyone from Miles Davis to Charles Mingus; greats like Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, and others all released stellar live albums recorded at some of the neighborhood's many jazz haunts.
But it's a history that today largely exists in memory only. Although a few jazz clubs have opened in North Beach in the last few years (most notably the Black Cat), venues that attract the kind of touring talent that once graced the neighborhood are mostly absent, and the current performance diet of the local jazz musician consists largely of background dinner music and neo-swing/rockabilly gigs.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Jazz Festival has grown into an internationally recognized event, but it does little to nurture local talent. Last year's festival, for example, showcased almost no local artists (unless one counts Charlie Hunter, who now lives in New York).
Enter the North Beach Jazz Festival, a decidedly more grass-roots and local-talent-oriented event that began five years ago with a single concert in Washington Square Park and has now grown enough to spread out over eight nights this year, from July 25 to Aug. 1. In 1995, Alistair Monroe, then 24 years old, and Herve Ernest, then 25, organized a one-day concert in Washington Square Park that featured a lineup of local jazz musicians Monroe knew mostly from booking jazz at the nearby North End Cafe on Grant. Despite a rainout that postponed the original event for a month-and-a-half, the concert was a success, one that Monroe says made him and Ernest "fall in love with the project."
The festival grew into a larger concert in the park the following year, and by the next year spread over five days and multiple locales. Last year, the festival added events at Coit Tower and several other venues, and this year it will cut its highest profile yet: The stellar opening night event at Coit Tower features legendary vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, vocalist Ann Dyer, Marcus Shelby's tribute to Duke Ellington, and vocalist Paula West, all against a multimedia backdrop provided by lighting design company Lunatech that promises to push the evening beyond the bounds of the ordinary.
It's quite a leap for a festival with such low-key and casual beginnings. Monroe, who says he only started booking jazz at the North End because "working there was boring," says the idea of putting a show on in nearby Washington Square Park snowballed when he met Ernest. "I met Herve through his brother, and I kind of said, 'Hey, if you're not doing anything, we could put this thing together,' " he recalls. Apart from the obvious hook provided by the history of jazz in North Beach, a more immediate spark seems to have been the sorry state of North Beach's -- and the city's -- jazz scene. "There was no jazz scene in North Beach," says Monroe. "At that time, I think the Jazz Workshop closed in '90 or '91, and the only place to go hear jazz in North Beach was Jazz at Pearl's. So I was like, 'Why isn't there more music around here?' "
Ernest was disappointed after moving to San Francisco from New York City, where he had been introduced to jazz largely through "Giant Steps," a popular roving nightclub of the mid-'80s to early '90s that featured a collective of acid jazz DJs and musicians. "When I moved out here, I realized that there was not a lot of young kids that get into jazz in a traditional way," he says. "I felt that there wasn't really an entry point to get into jazz like there was for me with 'Giant Steps.' "
Ernest and Monroe's desire to introduce a new generation to jazz ("If we don't find a way to get young people into jazz music, it will die," Ernest proclaims) explains a lot about the character of their festival, from the types of music featured to the low ticket prices (or nonexistent ones -- of seven events this year, four are free). It's most evident in the lineup for the July 27 "Jazz Forward" show at the 7th Note Showclub, the festival's most genre-straddling bill. A showcase last year called "The Other Side of Jazz" featured legendary techno DJ Carl Craig and drew a diverse crowd that Ernest estimates at 1,100 people; this year's version continues the trend, with acts ranging from the futuristic electronica of Spacetime Continuum to the hip hop/spoken word of Ursula Rucker and several local DJs spinning "dance floor jazz" on two floors.
It's not the only evening that will push the envelope as far as the definition of jazz is concerned, but it is one aspect of the festival that more traditional jazz fans may disagree with. Ernest says he is well aware that an evening like "Jazz Forward" may be a bit much for some. "But what those people have to realize is that this music has been integral in opening the eyes and ears of a whole new batch of listeners to jazz," he says. "It's not that we're saying that this is what jazz is all about, but there are a lot of people who are being introduced to jazz through this new stuff.
"You know, I think there are two missions of the festival. One is creating a renaissance and celebrating the history of jazz in North Beach, and the other is in furthering and embracing jazz in all its colors for a new generation of jazz listeners."
Of course, celebrating the history of jazz in San Francisco and embracing jazz in all its colors sounds like what is ostensibly the mission of another, better-known, and more established jazz festival that holds court in the city every year. While Ernest and Monroe deny any implicit competition with the San Francisco Jazz Festival ("We never started out as competition for S.F. Jazz," says Ernest. "It was more that we wanted to do something in our own back yard"), they're also not shy about drawing a comparison, and it's abundantly clear that what the pair perceived as that festival's failings had an enormous impact on their desire to start their own.
"The San Francisco Jazz Festival didn't really speak to us," says Monroe. "It didn't reach out to us, and it didn't reach out to all of our friends. So what we wanted to do was have a jazz festival that spoke to people on the grass-roots level. That's just the kind of people we are. I think it's pretty rare for festival producers to really be out with the people. I mean, can you imagine Randall [Kline, executive director of the SFJF] cruising around drinking brews on the street?"
Adds Ernest, "When you look at who's playing [the North Beach Jazz Festival], it's like, would the San Francisco Jazz Festival ever book these people?"
(Actually, Ann Dyer and Marcus Shelby have played SFJF-sponsored events, and Bobby Hutcherson performed at last year's festival.) While it would be a stretch to call the North Beach Jazz Festival a threat to the SFJF, it's clear that the North Beach fest is providing something that S.F. Jazz has rarely opted to offer -- an attractive and affordable lineup for younger jazz listeners and an important showcase for local jazz musicians.
Which doesn't mean that the North Beach Jazz Festival is light on world-class talent. In addition to Bobby Hutcherson, famed Latin jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez (Broadway Studios, Wednesday, July 29), and Cuban saxophonist Yosvanni Terry (Saturday, July 31, Washington Square Park), there's vocalist Dyer, a local talent who has just garnered recognition and praise with her latest self-released recording, Revolver: A New Spin. A startlingly innovative reworking of the classic Beatles album that pits Dyer's enchanting voice against a backdrop -- courtesy of her group the No Good Time Fairies -- that includes violin, tablas, accordion, and karna (an Arabic flute) in addition to more traditional jazz instrumentation, the record marks Dyer as one of the jazz world's more adventurous vocalists.
Fittingly, Dyer's description of what led her to interpret Revolver seems to dovetail perfectly with Monroe and Ernest's aims for the North Beach Jazz Festival. "I came out of a straight-ahead jazz legacy," says Dyer, "and there came a point where I felt there are certain parts of my personality and of life that I wanted to go outside of that legacy to find inspiring material to talk about. So that's what drove me to start looking outside of, you know, the American songbook, even though I still love a lot of that material. I personally don't believe in limiting yourself to one particular genre."
Dyer, who was one of the few local artists featured at last year's San Francisco Jazz Festival, takes a broader view of the two festivals. "I don't see [them] as competitive. I see them more as complementary, and I love the North Beach Jazz Festival. I love the grass-roots character of it, and I love the fact that families come, and that so much of it is free."
Both Monroe and Ernest say they want to broaden at least the spirit of the festival beyond its once-a-year status to provide more performance opportunities for local jazz musicians; Monroe sounds excited when asked what the festival could be like in the future if he had the resources to do anything. "North Beach would be a musical park. In years down the road we'll have bands on every street corner, and we can really expand and do all those fun, creative things. But," he adds quickly, "there's a lot of work to do."
The fifth annual North Beach Jazz Festival runs from Sunday, July 25, to Sunday, Aug. 1. Consult music listings for details on performers, venues, and ticket prices, or call 267-6943.