Most jazz venues probably wouldn't let skateboarders ride a mini-ramp in front of the stage during a show. But when pianist Jason Moran wanted to do it during his residency at the new SFJAZZ center, organizers said yes — allowing one of the strangest and coolest performances the Hayes Valley venue has yet seen.
So, later this fall, at his next SFJAZZ residency, the celebrated Moran will try a different experiment: combining raunchy adult comedy with live jazz.
"Jazz and comedy have a huge history," Moran says over the phone from New York. "Redd Foxx would sing Fats Waller songs, Richard Pryor would open for Miles Davis. The Village Vanguard had Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. But jazz, as it matured, kind of lost that. Comedians help remind us about what life is."
Joined by artists such as singer Cassandra Wilson, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and saxophonist Billy Harper, Moran is one of many artists rounding out SFJAZZ's second-season roster, which also includes residencies by guitarist Bill Frisell and violinist Regina Carter, and performances by the Buena Vista Social Club, Dave Holland, Maceo Parker, Eddie Palmieri, Dorado Schmitt & Django All-Stars, and many others.
The nonprofit SFJAZZ has hosted jazz events at various venues in the city since the '80s, and in January opened its new permanent home: a $64 million, 35,000-square-foot performance space, education center, and office headquarters on Franklin Street that provides a year-round calendar of jazz performances and events. "These are the greatest artists in the world and we believe we are presenting them in the best possible setting," says center director Randall Kline. "Both the artists and audiences love the connection between stage and audience and we are programming to take advantage of this intimacy."
The center doesn't offer the elbow-to-elbow intimacy of a small jazz bar, but that was never the intention: The goal was to provide pristine sound and get listeners just close enough to the stage to see the action. Large windows along the front of the building allow passersby easy viewing of music rehearsals and smaller live performances.
Eyebrow-raising programming — like Moran's skateboard-and-comedy collaborations — helps get audiences on the other side of the glass. In October, the SFJAZZ Collective, the center's resident band, will celebrate its 10th anniversary by performing a greatest-hits of its tribute composers, such as Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, and Horace Silver. "I've been in the band since the beginning, and when I started, I was the youngest, so it was very exciting," says Miguel Zenón, the group's alto saxophonist. "It will be fun to hear our stuff from early on, with other players, and go back to that feeling I had in the beginning."