NY to SF: Two Coasts…and Two Worlds

Originally published in 1999 or thereabouts on JazzWest.com so much has obviously changed, both for me personaly and for the scenes in general, but it was a pretty good snapshot of the times when it was written

There is a call from Saroyan. New York vs. San Francisco. My mission, should I choose to accept it: Compare and contrast the two jazz scenes, from the perspective of one who lived here…and there.

A little background: Your faithful guide is an ex-New Yorker who lived and gigged in NYC from the mid-1980s through the early 90s, and moved West to take a tenured gig running the jazz studies program at Los Medanos College, while continuing to work as a leader and sideman around town. I’ve been lucky enough to play with some pretty cool musicians on both coasts, including currently a quartet with Paul Nagel, John Shifflett and Steve Smith, and I’ve got a few CDs out as a leader on OWL and IGMOD. Guess that makes me as qualified as anyone to try, so here goes.

The first thing that comes to mind is the wonderful saying by an old professor of mine: “Don’t go into an Indian restaurant looking for an Italian meal.” Or, as I told a drummer friend contemplating the move from the Bronx to Berkeley: “Man, no matter how hard you try, you are no more likely to find the Vanguard on Mission Street than you are to find the Golden Gate Bridge crossing the Hudson.” Each city is sui generis.

(A cautionary note: The following thoughts are the broad-brush responses of someone who has spent considerable chunks of his adult life as a jazz player in both cities and enjoys both Italian and Indian food. They are not presented as definitive or empirical, and I have no doubt that the careful reader will be able to find anecdotal exceptions to these generalities.›

(I would also note that most of us probably have a great uncle somewhere who smoked two packs a day into his 90s with no ill health effects. All in all, great uncles notwithstanding, most smokers should probably still quit. All right? All right.)

If You Can Make It There…

In New York City, people do. In San Francisco, people are. Put another way, NYC is the city where “if you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere” (a particularly loathsome song, incidentally, that many jazz musicians play in order to pay the rent). SF is the city where you “follow your bliss.” That translates to the jazz scene in particular.

As did I, most young, hungry, and jazz-addicted musicians recognize that New York is still the Mecca of the jazz world. While the occasional challenger arises (LA in the mid-70s, the Bay Area in the early 80s and again — with the faux jazz “acid-jazz” — in the early 90s), NYC is widely acknowledged as the reigning and undisputed heavyweight champion.

There are many reasons for this, starting with the sheer, concentrated immensity of the city. Imagine cramming 8 million people into a space no larger than Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and Southeastern Marin. Now you start to get the idea of the extraordinary numbers of bodies jam-packed on top of one another. Add in the fact that NYC actually has a good and efficient and affordable public transit system. Instead of cocooning one or two to a car like we do, New Yorkers — of all classes, races and ethnicities — are interacting with each other in the most intimate of commuting spaces. Can you begin to see how different it feels there?

Weather? Here, we throw on the down coats when the cold snap takes it below 55 degrees. There? Well, let’s just say the weather is mainly nasty, brutish and extreme. You may like New York in June, but the rest of the time it’s either too damn cold or too damn hot and muggy. Other than the vaguely unsettling worries about earthquakes, SF does not pose the same sensory challenges as does NYC.

Related to this, most of the things which are enjoyable in NYC cost money. The restaurants are extraordinary, the theater is stunning, the music is world-class — all with an entry fee. Like the Bay Area, NYC is almost prohibitively expensive. Unlike the Bay Area, you can’t ride your bike down to the Marina or Zen out at Baker beach watching the waves (for fear of tripping on the washed-up syringes). The things (and they are many) which are worth doing in NYC all cost. A friend of ours who lives in Staten Island even laments that there is a $7 cover charge for her friends to drive over the Verazzano to visit.

All of the above is the general zeitgeist of NYC, which helps explain why this crowded, weather-challenged, financially extortionist city is designed for those single, childless and career-obsessed artists who have no issue living on Top Ramen, five to a one-bedroom apartment as they pursue, with varying degrees of success, the chimera of public acclaim for their art. The jazz folks who live in NYC are extremely serious about their music and want to be hailed as the best.

Drawing Distinctions from East to West

Across the continent, SF seems much more like a party town. When I first moved here it was right when the wave of acid jazz, new jazz (whatever you want to call it) was catching hold, and it was thrilling to realize that there were actually more venues presenting jazz than NYC at the time. Not just per capita, but overall. The rub came when I started playing gigs as a sideman at such venues as Harry’s on Fillmore, The Up and Down Club, The Jupiter in Berkeley, Cafe du Nord, etc.

The sad reality was a phenomenon I had rarely, if ever, encountered back in NYC: Nobody listens.

The blithe young silicon gulch-and-valley yuppies talk through the entire performance. The Yuppie magazine, San Francisco, went so far as to list Bix as one of the three best places to hear jazz, precisely because the musicians played unobtrusively, off in a corner, out of deference to the diners. Even at a serious venue like Pearl’s, where the owner virtually threatens the patrons with bodily removal if they talk during the performance, the crowd roars through the music on most weekends.›

(One exception has been Yoshi’s at Jack London Square, though even this seems to be deteriorating lately.)›I have always found the ubiquitous signs on NYC jazz club tables — “No conversation permitted during the performance” — to be simple and effective. I’ve not seen one sign to this effect in any Bay Area jazz club.

This is a serious distinction between the two cities. The average audience is far more committed and attentive to the music in NYC than in SF. This rubs off on the musicians. One loses that synergy between audience and musicians. A disconnect is created between the musicians and the audience — much like a comedian doing references to current events when the audience doesn’t follow the news. The lack of historical context combined with the lack of attentive listening tends to make for a very tenuous connection between the audience and the musicians.

At this point I must insert another disclaimer. I can already imagine the lathered-up responses being formulated in e-mails. “Hey pal, go back to New York if you don’t like it here.” “Mr. NYC chauvinist, we don’t care how they do it in New York.” “Who wants that hard in-your-face NYC style anyway?” and “What’s wrong with having a nice chat while the dinner music plays?”

Relax. Take a deep breath. At the risk of belaboring the self-evident, my wife, child and I have a wonderful life here and would not move back to NYC under any foreseeable circumstances. I have great respect and admiration for the fine players making their living in the Bay Area, and I’m fortunate to play with such superb Bay Area stalwarts as Steve Smith, Paul Nagel, Andr» Bush, John Shifflett, the CARMA Big Band and many others. My charge was to compare the jazz scenes, so just in case you’re wondering, I think the Bay Area is a far more civil, civilized and civilizing place to live than the frenetic, megalomaniacal and solipsistic hothouse of Manhattan.›

There. Feel better? I know I do.

Back to the task at hand. What I am describing is a climate in which the culture of the city does not honor the music for the important artistic form it is. I think this is consistent with a general approach to the arts in SF, one which has particular significance for the jazz scene. This is a town which loves to soak in the hot tub after a hectic day of wine-tasting, and the angst-ridden, intense, urban-fueled jazz developed in NYC by such luminaries as Bird, Diz, Miles, Trane, Herbie, Liebman, etc. — a model for jazz players around the world — resonates less with the mild, mellow, personal growth and “let’s go surfing” vibe of the Bay Area.

Again, there are clearly exceptions to this mode of being. Folks such as Susan Muscarella (a personal hero), John Gove, Deszon Claiborne, Scott Amendola, Andre Bush, Mimi Fox, the aforementioned Steve Smith and Paul Nagel, et al, not to mention many, many others (in case I left you out), are deadly serious about their music. Self-evidently, there are also many poseurs and dilettantes on the NYC scene. Many folks move there to get the imprimatur of NYC and would truly have nothing to contribute on their instruments whether they lived in Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Kansas.

My main thrust has more to do with the weltanschaung of the two towns. There is not a serious, educated jazz public in the Bay Area. In a chicken-and-egg sort of question, there are also virtually no venues where the music is seriously presented on a regular basis. Lastly, what jazz public there is seems fragmented over a huge geographical area, with no access to affordable and efficient transit.

Contrast this with the conditions in NYC. There, eight million souls live within a subway ride of all cultural offerings in Manhattan. Virtually every significant jazz club is centrally located in Manhattan, many of them in the Village, further easing the club-hopping jazz fan’s travel dilemma. Using the Gavin figure that jazz makes up three percent of all record sales, and adding in a couple of points to allow for the importance of jazz in NYC’s cultural fabric, 400,000 potential audience members are only a metaphorical D train away from clubs where serious listening to great artists is the norm.

Is There Any Hope for the Bay Area Jazz Scene?

What are the implications of this for jazz in the Bay Area? As I tell all my gifted students, there is only one jazz Mecca, one place wherein one can learn “the New York Swing” at the feet of master musicians on a regular basis. As Dave Liebman has observed, you can always hear when musicians have been through NYC by how they play time. You don’t have to stay there, but you need to go there.›

(Hold off on those angry e-mails, folks. I know your Great Uncle smoked three packs a day and lived to the age of 97. We’re talking generalities here.)

As for the Bay Area, there are many hopeful signs. Yoshi’s tenaciously continues to present the stars of the jazz world in an elegant and serious setting generally recognized by jazz lovers from around the world as our country’s finest jazz night club. (One does hope that this magnificent club, partly built with local tax dollars, can fit a few more Bay Area acts into the mix.) In addition, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz and Pete Douglas’ Beach House, as well as the creation of San Francisco’s Fillmore Jazz Preservation District, with a new Blue Note and Rasselas, are positive portents.

Susan Muscarella’s Jazzschool in Berkeley is a well-designed and superbly-run institute for jazz students of all levels, and if the new building (set in the heart of Berkeley’s flourishing Arts District along Addison Street, next door to the venerable Berkeley Rep) comes through, I’m sure the school will commit to presenting more performances by the wealth of talent living in the Bay Area. Journalists such as Lee Hildebrand, Derk Richardson and others are supportive proselytizers for that same wealth of talent.

[Editor’s Note: Hey, Zilber, aren’t you forgetting someone?]

KCSM is recognized around the nation as a model for jazz stations supporting the scene. The Monterey, Jazz on The Hill, and San Jose festivals all do a wonderful job of balancing local and national acts in their yearly presentations. (Yes, careful reader, there is an omission here.) While scattered around the nine county Bay Area, there are hundreds of thousands of jazz fans looking to support this valuable music.

Most importantly, there are some truly remarkable musicians of all ages living here, easily rivaling top-level club players anywhere, including NYC. These players are serious, and they’ve done their homework. They understand that jazz is a glorious continuum of swinging American expression, an astounding synthesis of heart and brain that’s rightly viewed as the most significant cultural gift our country has given the world. With the proper venues and outreach to audience, there is every reason to believe there will be a renaissance of substantive San Francisco Jazz, equal to the time when George Cables, Dave Liebman, Eddie Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson and others ruled the local roost.

Here’s hoping…