A & E, Profiles

SFJazz founder and executive artistic director Randall Kline and the transcendent moment

Exterior of the new SFJazz Center (courtesy sfjazz)

“I’m a sucker for music that can take you somewhere. I want to be moved.”
— Randall Kline

On Monday, Jan. 21, SFJazz will open the first freestanding building in this country completely devoted to what the late New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett called ”the sound of surprise.” The new SFJazz Center, a 35,000-square-foot building with a 350- to 700-person performance space, rehearsal and practice facilities, a digital learning lab, and street-level cafe, will open in Hayes Valley at Franklin and Fell Streets and be christened to mark the beginning of a two-week celebratory series of thematic concerts. Bill Cosby will kick off the festivities as master of ceremonies on Jan. 23. The $65 million SFJazz Center, completed late last month, is only a few blocks away from San Francisco’s traditional bastions of the performing arts: the symphony, the opera and the ballet. That sends a strong message about this region’s contemporary cultural values.

SFJazz, San Francisco’s highly acclaimed, year-round music festival, is one of the most imaginative and creatively programmed performing arts events anywhere. Audiences embrace it with enthusiasm and it enjoys an international reputation. So what makes it so good?

Certainly it’s the music — adventurous and stretching the limits of what we usually consider jazz by delving into musical roads frequently less traveled.

The creative thrust behind SFJazz is Randall Kline, executive artistic director, who founded the event in 1983. At that time he hoped for the best and kept his fingers crossed. Today he recalls that the best he could hope for then was that his fledgling, money-losing concerts called “Jazz in the City” would make it to its second year and perhaps go on from there.

As Kline tells it, he got lucky. The event received a few small local grants and then scored with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which had just set up a jazz program proclaiming jazz a national treasure. Jazz was being considered right up there with established European arts forms. Kline and his Jazz in the City were in the right place at the right time and flourished.

Luck plays some role in almost every endeavor, but Kline gave luck a better than even chance by being a highly imaginative and creative guy with good management skills. He built SFJazz; he manages it and controls the programming. He runs it.

During a recent interview in his cramped and cluttered office at Three Embarcadero Center, prior to the move to his new headquarters, I called him the creative force behind his brainchild; he backed off just as a good CEO should. He sounded like an NFL coach crediting everyone from the players to the fans for success. But, the fact is Kline is the decision maker for SFJazz. He’s the coach. And he stands at the intersection where the luck stops and creative vision begins.

Checking out what he’s accomplished puts him right up there with imaginative movers and shakers in our community. Trying to hang the creative laurel wreath on Kline’s brow is as difficult as fathoming a Thelonius Monk piano solo. Kline prefers to refer to himself as a conduit, an aggregator and an organizer who receives artistic programming input from various sources. And it’s true. Kline is a good listener. His ears are open to music of all types that come to him through visits to concert halls, music clubs, through his car radio, and his iPod. He is also keen to hear what musicians and others tell him.

What then was the road that led him to where he is today, leader of an internationally-acclaimed, year-round performing arts event in a city that takes its cultural offerings very seriously? “I grew up in a Massachusetts household that treasured music. My mother loved Broadway and movie show tunes and cast albums. She also appreciated symphony and opera. My father was more jazz oriented. He was a good amateur piano player. So I grew up listening to all kinds of music, including the major jazz artists. I also listened to a lot of pop, and I was into the British invasion — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals,” he recalls.

But his real jazz epiphany occurred when he dropped out of college and on a whim moved to the Bay Area in 1975. He had applied to the Berklee School of Music in Boston and was accepted. His instrument was the stand-up bass. While he was preparing for Berklee, he took a required class in ear training at College of Marin.

“I discovered that the school had a great jazz tradition. There were teachers there who had studied with Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Milhaud who had worked in that idiom,” he says.

Instead of returning to the East Coast and entering Berklee, he entered San Francisco State University in 1982 as a performance major. In his senior year, he produced a few jazz concerts to make some school money. “I proceeded to lose every dollar I had, so I dropped out of college for the second time, and got a job at a San Francisco nightclub called the Boarding House. One thing led to another and here I am,” he says. And that was the path to enlightenment for Randall Kline.

To get a better and more accurate sense of the man, I believe it’s instructional to shift to a Q&A format — undiluted Randall Kline.

This baby of yours is called SFJazz. But your programming goes far beyond jazz. What are your personal programming guidelines?

Jazz is at the center of what we do. And over the years we have booked almost every major jazz artist. It’s true that I have programmed a lot of music that’s not really jazz. But true jazz has always been inspirational. It has influenced and been influenced by other musical forms and persuasions. So I am always on the lookout for musical connections. I want to dot the lines from one music to another. Although, for example, it’s quite easy to see the connections between African drumming and jazz, some connections between musical forms are not so easily seen. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Give us a couple of examples.

In 2011 we programmed Randy Newman, whom you wouldn’t really characterize as a jazz artist. He’s known more for his pop songs with twists of irony and satire. He wasn’t presenting jazz in the true sense, but our crowd loved him. We also booked Rosanne Cash — hardly jazz. She’s carrying on the American country musical tradition of her father, Johnny Cash. So the word “jazz” has more than a narrow definition. People have become highly eclectic in their musical tastes. They have a great curiosity.

So what have you done to feed that curiosity?

I’ve tried to establish an aesthetic that accommodates many musical tastes.

And that aesthetic is your taste?

I suppose so. I just love great music.

How do you define great music?

I like to define it as music that provides me with an over-the-top experience — music that can take me somewhere. I’m a sucker for that kind of experience. I want to be moved. I want that isolated transcendent moment that makes me soar.

Give us a few examples of musical transcendent moments you have experienced — not necessarily on performances of SFJazz?

I’ll give you three examples, although I have many. My first example is Mariza, the Portuguese fado artist. My transcendent moment with her took place a while back in the Anspacher Theater, part of New York City’s Public Theater group. I don’t understand Portuguese, so I didn’t know what she was conveying in words, but I knew the spirit of what she was conveying by a group of factors that made this a transcendent moment for me. It was a combination of her craft, her artistry, the place in which she was singing, and the audience. It all came together for me that one night. And by the way, she will be part of SFJazz in March this year.

My second example is Joe Lovano, the great tenor saxophonist. For a long time I have known that Joe Lovano was a fine jazz artist, but I confess his music didn’t get to me on a visceral level. Then one night at the Bitter End nightclub in New York City, suddenly I got it. He played in a trio format — George Mraz was the bassist and Al Foster was on drums. I was standing in the back of this small, crowded club. They were at the top of their game. It was transcendent.

Then there was a night at the Lyceum Theatre in Brooklyn. Kayhan Kalhor, the Kurdish artist, played his kamancheh, an ancient Persian stringed instrument. He was accompanied by a string quartet called Brooklyn Rider. The sheer beauty of Kalhor sketching those exotic melodies on that classic instrument just blew me away. Again, it was a transcendent moment for me.

* * *

Yes, Randall Kline is an aggregator, a conduit and an organizer. But his creative genius is his desire — his need really — to direct others to the musical creativity he has discovered in those transcendent moments.

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Ernest Beyl is the jazz columnist for the Marina Times. He may be contacted at [email protected]