|In 2002, Rob Woodworth opened The Jazz House, a
non-profit community music venue located in Berkeley. The Jazz House
provided a home for the wayward: a regular venue for artists on the
fringe and homegrown soon-to-be's whose performance outlets remain
preciously few. Young local musicians attended classic-era "get up on
the stand and play" jam sessions and, in some cases, found themselves
opening for headliners, while patrons were admitted on a sliding scale.
Yet now, this vital institution that both promoted burgeoning talent and
fostered a musical community is without a home. Serious roadblocks exist
to setting up shop permanently anytime soon. The most important one: a
location in San Francisco or the East Bay willing to open it's arms to
The Jazz House.
Having a permanent home for this venture is an essential consideration
for Woodworth. "I don't want to be one of those people who's running his
operation underground, someone who's basically squatting somewhere,"
"Because of the kids' involvement I want everything to be legit."
The Jazz House's former unassuming exterior (a lone blue light bulb
emerging from a wood-panel facade) did not so much as sport a poster
declaring its presence, mission or desire for your solicitation. Yet the
incognito front seemed to serve the Jazz House's escalating appeal as
everyone from European free jazz pioneers to seven-year-old saxophone
prodigies graced the stage and began filling a heretofore unknown void
in the music community.
"I just thought, well, I'll put on shows two nights a week and see what
happens," said Mr. Woodworth on a rainy Saturday morning at Oakland's
Mama Buzz Cafe. "All of a sudden we've got all these kids in there on a
Tuesday night just blowing everyone away. I've got Erik Friedlander [New
York-based cellist] calling me up asking me when he can come back."
Professional musicians do not expect audiences to listen closely. Young
artists just realizing their talents do not expect to be taken
seriously. The Jazz House was a place where conventions were inverted.
While art in the United States continues to be run down an alley of
commerce and subterfuge, here was a truly unique haven to remember and
express the ideals that are at the foundation of creativity.
A haven, that is, until the honeymoon ended sometime last Fall, when The
Jazz House lost their lease at the Adeline location. A small performance
space next door to a police station, Woodworth took over the lease and
established a home for Jazz House after the previous renter wished to
rid himself of the day-to-day operations of running a building. At the
time, the landlord had no immediate plans to sell the space.
"There was no telling when that rug was going to be pulled out," said
Woodworth. "But it just so happened that it was pulled out just at the
height of everything." Without any overt malice the owner sold the
space, leaving Woodworth with only one option to continue Jazz House -
to host it out of whatever willing locale he could find, like 21 Grand
and the Berkeley Fellowship Hall, while continuously seeking a new
permanent home he could establish in San Francisco, Berkeley or Oakland.
Here's the rub: funding this venture independently and working with
modest voluntary support, Mr. Woodworth has encountered many snags in
opening a new space, particularly in terms of the expenses involved in
meeting city ordinances for large occupancy establishments.
"There's no barriers as far as getting the best artists around to play.
There's no barriers as far as getting the kids interested," said
Woodworth. "The barriers are things like getting a building up to code."
Getting a building up to code, Woodworth discovered, can cost as much as
$80,000 in San Francisco. Of course, most small-time venues pay their
bills with alcohol sales, not ticket revenue. But The Jazz House, so
that they may never have to close their doors to those young in years
but musically curious, forgoes the sale of alcohol at its events.
"Nothing against alcohol," laughs Mr. Woodworth, "but that's just not
the business that we're in."
Indeed the business choices that The Jazz House makes - no alcohol,
unconventional and even challenging music, and a sliding scale admission
policy - defy most conceptions of running an entertainment-based
establishment. But it is his commitment to these ideals that makes The
Jazz House what it is and what attracted so many to his hall in the
"When I first started this, people would say, 'How are you going to pull
this off? Yoshi's is going to eat you alive.' Well, Yoshi's isn't my
competition," said Woodworth. "Television is, The Bachelorette is.
People need something else and that wasn't even apparent until I started
The Jazz House."
Woodworth remains positive about a future for Jazz House and is open to
the possibility of corporate sponsorship, "I wouldn't mind letting
Coca-Cola come in and advertise. As long as it isn't too garish and as
long as they understand what we're about and we'll have the freedom to
do things the way we've been doing them, that's fine. It's not about
being a successful business, it's about being able to do this."
Certainly this venue is a vital resource for our community, as essential
to our civilization and indicative of our culture as a school, a library
or a park. The Jazz House's proven success as a community-building
venture leaves it incumbent upon the officials of the City of San
Francisco and other Bay Area locales to consider funding a space for its
continued existence. Barring that, those interested in keeping The Jazz
House alive should look to their rich friends and petition them to
consider this cause and contribute in any way they can.
"Kids come up to me and they ask me, 'When are you bringing it back?
When do we get to play again?'" said Woodworth. "I can't tell them about
building codes or leases. That doesn't make any sense to them. They just
want a place to play."
Find out more at www.thejazzhouse.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.