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New SF Jazz Center Walking Distance from Castro

Photo courtesy of Henrik Kam


The Joe Henderson Lab was constructed with the needs of musical diversity in mind.


Interview by Wendy Oakes

The highly anticipated SF Jazz Center on the corners of Fell and Franklin streets opened its doors on Jan. 21. Neighbor to the Castro, Hayes Valley, is already home to many of the city’s cultural treasures. The stunning new performing arts locale adds to that total picture by bringing jazz and its own fascinating creative vision to the community. I spoke with Marshall Lamm, who has been the publicist for SF Jazz since 2005.

Wendy:

For 30 years SF Jazz has been finding homes away from home in which to perform. Now you have your own center, and not only that but a self-designed center that you’ve built specifically to your needs. Obviously that’s going to change quite a lot for you. What are some of the things that you hope it will be recognized for?

Marshall:

First and foremost we hope that being in Hayes Valley, being in an urban environment where people live and go to school and work, that we can be a good neighbor. For 30 years, having rented every conceivable venue where you can do live music, from the Swedish American Hall to Bimbo’s to Davies - now, being centered there with 40 full-time employees, that we can contribute to the vitality and value of living in Hayes Valley. It’s so nice to be able to go to a place where if you want you can go downstairs with your computer and work in the cafe, where you can be in a place that’s a community center, where it has a way to increase your creativity and your productivity, and share with people who live in the neighborhood. I hope in the future people will look back and say, “We can’t imagine Hayes Valley without SF Jazz.”

Wendy:

On that note, you have some bordering neighborhoods, one of which is the Castro. Is there a personal invitation that you’d like to extend out to folks there?

Marshall:

From the Castro it’s walking distance. You don’t have to get on BART, you don’t have to drive, you don’t have to park, you don’t have to take the bus. You just walk down Market Street. There have been many ideas at SF Jazz about, “Why don’t you open in the Richmond?” or “Why don’t you open in North Beach?” There’s a long history of jazz in North Beach, but to have it centrally located like it is — it’s a neighborhood spot and I hope when people think, “What do you want to do tonight?” they think about it. With it being centrally located, that won’t be a reason not to come.

Wendy:

For a building that literally just finished the construction process of the lobby and auditorium, it has such a warm feeling to it. It’s glamorous and brilliantly thought out at every level - aesthetics and everything else. For all it’s grandeur it really exudes a welcoming vibe. I was talking to one of the volunteers on opening day; she told me that that was because you could feel the love that was put into it.

Marshall:

Yeah, no one does this for the money (laughs). We do it for the emotional reward. The volunteer you spoke to, and what you just said, it’s been reiterated from so many other people, people who were ready to be critical. If you just think about it from one particular corner, the corner of Linden Alley and Franklin, you have Nojo, the Japanese restaurant right there. So, if you’re sitting in Nojo having dinner there’ll be a time when you can just look over and see a concert going on in the Joe Henderson Lab. It opens onto the street surrounded by glass — you can see music happening. When you compare it and contrast it to other performing arts institutions, you have to go up some stairs, through a door, up some other stairs, another door, around the corner, finally, finally you’re in your seat, 40 yards away from the stage. There’s that level of accessibility that I think is really cool. It’s a really hip way to introduce people and a really hip way to see and feel that vibrancy.

Wendy:

Definitely, and it’s also wonderful from the inside looking out onto the vibrancy of the city.

Marshall:

I was curious what that feeling would be like. I’ve been through that place for the last 18 months in a hardhat, you know. I was curious how you would feel seeing people looking [into the Joe Henderson Lab]. You feel like you’re in some place that people want to come into. It was a feeling that felt natural.

Wendy:

It’s a feeling of all being part of something special.

Marshall:

You’re communing with jazz; you’re communing with your neighbors, you’re communing with like-minded, interesting, creative people.

Wendy:

Exactly. You were talking about the Joe Henderson Lab which is designed to be versatile and accommodate classes, performances and rehearsals. All of the center has a lot of versatility built in to it, an obvious example being the Robert N. Miner Auditorium. It’s designed to be flexible, not only in terms of the seating — it can provide an open floor for dancing or additional seats depending on the event — 300 to 700 from what I understand. On the acoustics side, and the acoustics are magnificent in there, the interior is completely reflective, which can be used in some instances but you also have hanging speakers for amplified shows. Would you expand upon that?

Marshall:

What they wanted to do was create a room that had that feeling of a performing arts center: big room, big stage, a lot of square footage but also had that real intimacy of a smaller jazz club. One thing that’s going to be really interesting: the first four-day run is Dave Holland, the great jazz bass player. To hear him, I’ll bet it’ll be acoustic or a couple of the songs will go through the P.A., and the next night is a duo, and the next night is an acoustic jazz group, and the next night will be a little louder with electric guitar, so it’ll really show off the room. Thursday with Adam Theis and the Realistic Orchestra and the Montclair Women’s Big Band - you have 24 players onstage. You’ve gotten to hear so much live music in your time that you know, you could definitely see a train wreck happening in certain venues. The SF Jazz room is designed to accommodate the music today that’s been booked, but you never know what’s going to happen in the future. That was all taken into consideration.

Wendy:

Your entire program for this coming season is just as diverse as it gets from Regina Carter to Zakir Hussain to Bill Frisell to Tony Bennett.

Marshall:

It’s great that you say that because the word ambitious was always used before this place opened. You know, like, “You guys are nuts - there’s no way!” We’re going to find out real fast what San Francisco and the Bay Area thinks of this.

Wendy:

How did you become involved with SF Jazz?

Marshall:

I started working in the music business in New York in 1993. I was a publicist at Verve Records; I was also a publicist at GRP Records - both jazz labels. GRP - in their catalog, had the rights to all the Impulse Records, Decca, Chess, Commodore, Blue Thumb Records at one point. So, I was always running around to all the jazz conferences; I went to college in Austin so I’d be going to SXSW since it began. At that time not very many people were 23, 24, 25 years old in the jazz business. A lot of them would congregate together and I got to be friends with Jason Olaine who was the booking agent at Yoshi’s when they were on Claremont Avenue. We became fast friends. I ended up starting a label called Astor Place Recordings. I did the David Murray Grateful Dead record; I did Conrad Herwig’s ‘The Latin Side of John Coltrane’. You know I got kinda tired of living in New York - it’s really cold. When Yoshi’s moved to Jack London Square in 1997, Jason asked me to come out here and be the publicist, which I did. I was there until late 2005. I’d always had my PR Business; I had a record label; I’d always done a little work for High Sierra [Music Festival], and then I started my own company. One of the first people to call was Randall Kline [ Executive Director of SF Jazz]. I’ve been working with Randall and SF Jazz ever since, on the [Jazz] Collective’s touring, their records, all the SF Jazz shows, and now all the press around the SF Jazz Center.


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