Festival grew over years from flop to tops in field Jazz: The debut of the San Francisco Jazz Festival 15 years ago was a mess, but today the event is regarded as unrivaled.

September 21, 1997|By Howard Reich | Howard Reich,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Fifteen years ago, an aspiring San Francisco impresario scraped together $27,000 to put on an unassuming little jazz festival.

The turnout was puny, the shows started late and the technical problems proved too numerous to count.

"It was a flop," remembers Randall Kline, to this day the driving force behind the San Francisco Jazz Festival. "The execution wasn't too great, everything seemed to go wrong, and it was all a little depressing.

"But in spite of all that, everyone who worked on that festival was convinced the idea was good."

They must have been right, for as the San Francisco Jazz Festival prepares to launch its 15th anniversary season Oct. 22 through Nov. 2, it stands unrivaled as the most intelligently programmed and creatively staged jazz soiree in America.

Last year, the New York Times called it "possibly the country's best jazz festival," while the Los Angeles Times dubbed it "perhaps the most attractive jazz gala not just on the West Coast but anywhere in the country."

So what's so great about San Francisco's jazz bash, and why does it dwarf its counterparts across the country?

Kline and his staff book the event imaginatively, presenting jazz artists in settings that add meaning and context to the music at hand. Thus the San Francisco fest has presented clarinetist Don Byron's klezmer music in a synagogue; the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra (an Afro-Cuban band) at Bimbo's 365 Club, a plush, '50s-style Latin room that Ricky Ricardo would have been proud to call home; and a 25th anniversary re-creation of Duke Ellington's "Concert of Sacred Music" in Grace Cathedral, the same glorious space where Ellington first unveiled his sacred music in 1965.

That the San Francisco event also has commissioned major works by drummer Tony Williams, reedist Anthony Braxton and multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman, among others, also has made this festival the standard by which others are judged.

The central question, though, is how Kline and company turned a fledgling, two-day event with a minuscule budget into a behemoth with an annual budget of approximately $3 million.

"Basically, Randall and Clinton Gilbert, who co-founded the festival, picked themselves up by the bootstraps after that first, disastrous year and started all over," recalls Ann Dyer, a noted San Francisco jazz singer and staffer at the festival.

"They realized that instead of programming a lot of different musical styles on a single concert, they needed to present themed evenings devoted to one concept or style. That's how this idea of matching the artist to the right venue came about, and it took off right from that second year."

There's one other ingredient that remains essential: money.

"One principal reason for San Francisco's success is that Kline and a couple of his assistants have learned the fine art of getting grants and financial support from the local business community," says veteran San Francisco Examiner critic Philip Elwood.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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