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Making a Noise 

Oakland doesn't have to prove it has a jazz scene. Getting the bay to listen, though, is a challenge.

Wednesday, Jul 19 2000
Gertrude Stein, who spent the 1880s living in Oakland as a child, revisited her old neighborhood decades later, and, finding everything changed, remarked innocently, "There's no there there." It's a soundbite from which the city has never entirely recovered, and one that Sally Holloway is well aware of. Over dinner last April, Holloway -- founder and longtime director of the Russian River Jazz Festival -- remarked to jazz writer Nina Hodgson, "Why doesn't Oakland have a first-class jazz festival? It has a marvelous jazz history, going back to the turn of the century, and a wonderful presence on the scene today. It really deserves to have its own no-kidding world-class jazz festival."

That conversation started a path that's led to the first annual Oakland Jazzthere Festival, spanning three days and two stages at the Oakland Convention Center and the outdoor City Center Stage for a series of free shows. A group of organizers began meeting weekly to establish ties with city officials, raise funds, gain support from local businesses, and line up performers. The festival was certified as a nonprofit corporation; saxophone giant John Handy came aboard as artistic director; mayor and jazz buff Jerry Brown wrote letters and opened doors. One co-founder was Robert Porter, a jazz trumpeter who for many years ran a weekly Sunday afternoon jam session at the Bird Kage, a small bar in North Oakland, where he mentored countless young musicians. A key figure in making the festival possible, he died last December. His memory will be preserved at the Bird Kage Invitational Jam Session on the temporarily renamed Robert Porter Homecoming Stage, one part of a lineup that includes Regina Carter, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson, John Santos, and others, mixing local and national acts.

So why now? "The timing was right," says Holloway. "Oakland is a community that's very much positioned for what we call the Oakland renaissance, because the high-tech companies are moving here like crazy, there's building going on here all over the place, and we have an administration that's very supportive of the arts. So a group of us said, 'Let's do it.' We're positioning this so that when people go to Oakland, they associate it with a sound. Oakland has a lot of Latin jazz, and a lot of blues and funk, as well as straight-ahead jazz."

Khalil Shaheed, one of the festival's performers, has been nurturing Oakland-bred jazz for over three decades. In 1994, he founded the Oaktown Jazz Workshops, held twice weekly year-round to train East Bay youths from 11 to 18 for a career in jazz. For each session, there are at least three professional jazz musicians in attendance, giving hands-on instruction. Five alumni of the program are now attending major music schools across the country on scholarships; two more will join them in the fall. At a recent rehearsal at the Alice Arts Center in downtown Oakland, Shaheed was showing a 14-year-old girl drummer how to play a certain passage, banging a drumstick on a cymbal, chanting "da da da" in time. A minute later he cautioned two brass players: "Your attack has to be together. You have to look at his hands, and when you strike together, it's going to sound better."

An Oakland resident since 1968, Shaheed has traveled the world as a trumpeter and recorded on about 20 albums. He now has his own jazz quartet, teaches at three jazz camps each summer, performs Sundays at Bluesville in Oakland, and heads the Open Mind Ensemble, an experimental improvisational group made up of some of the Bay Area's best jazz players. Under the name of the OJW Performance Ensemble, his youth group gives frequent public concerts, often featuring compositions and arrangements by the students themselves. "We have a pool of [professional] musicians who work with us," says Shaheed. "The teaching supplements our income, and it's something we do because we like kids, and we want to make sure the music is continued, preserved. And the only way we can do that is to make sure that it's available to youth."

As a homecoming of sorts, jazz singer Mary Stallings will perform twice at the festival. A native and lifelong resident of San Francisco, Stallings began singing professionally at age 15 with a boost from drummer Eddie Alley, now in his late 80s and still performing occasionally. With vibist Cal Tjader, Stallings recorded her first album in 1961, Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings. From 1969 to 1972, she sang with the Count Basie Orchestra, and later went into semiretirement to raise her daughter, R&B singer Adriana Evans. But during the '90s she recorded three albums for Concord Jazz, and now performs widely in Europe and the U.S.; last November she sold out New York's Village Vanguard for her six-day engagement, and will be returning to the famous nightspot in September to record a live album on her new label, Max Jazz.

In an immaculate Pacific Heights living room dominated by African and Asian artwork and a piano graced by two candelabra, Stallings speaks softly, but with a certain delight about her career. "I got away from the business for personal reasons," she says of her departure from the scene. "Then I was convinced to come out and sing with some of the guys one night, and there I was again. I didn't expect that to happen. I thought I was totally retired, but I came out to work with Dizzy [Gillespie], traveling with him. I would say that re-established me."

Despite the greater jazz opportunities in other cities, she has never been seriously tempted to leave San Francisco. "I have tried to wet my feet in other places, but there's nothing like home to me," she says. "I'm very dedicated to my family, I love my people, and if they'd pack up and move someplace else, maybe I would too, but I'm very grounded in my town." At the festival, Stallings will be a special guest with the 18-piece Count Basie Orchestra, using the arrangements written for her when she was a full-time singer with the band. The current director, trombonist Grover Mitchell, introduced Stallings to Basie, who died in 1984. "I think Grover Mitchell has done a marvelous job in keeping the music as it was," she says. "Because people want to maintain the Basie feeling and the Basie sound."

Jazz, she argues, is going through something of a revival, not only in the Bay Area, but worldwide. "You go to parties, and jazz music is the music that is most requested," she says. "You do a casual or a wedding, everybody wants jazz. I don't care what kind of event takes place -- they want a jazz piano, or jazz piano with vocal, or they want a jazz trio. As long as it's jazz music being played. I don't care if you're just donating your time at Christmas at one of the hospitals or whatever, they will ask: 'Is there going to be any jazz?'

"I think there's a great interest in the music, and that's why you have so many young people who are trying to play it or sing it now. ... So many people are producing their own music and selling it through the Internet. Because record companies pick a few, and they don't support you like they should. People are disenchanted, so they do their own thing."

Although some musicians sound better in the studio, she says, "I think my best work is live, because it's like the people are the ones who give me the energy, the spirit, that I need. We work together. The audience works with me, and I work for them. Because everything for me is in the moment."

About The Author

Max Millard


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