Rob Woodworth desperately needs a hero, a
savior, a messiah. He's thinking IBM. We're thinking IKEA.
"It's gonna take an angel investor," says the 35-year-old impresario of his two-year-old labor of love -- Berkeley's Jazz House, which, barring some sort of It's a Wonderful Life Hollywood miracle, will shut down for good at October's end. But instead of Jimmy Stewart's buddies dumping their piggy banks on his desk, the Jazz House needs buttoned-down big-shots with deep pockets, whether that depth is due to high-end PCs or hoity-toity Swedish furniture.
"I'm open to corporate sponsors," Rob declares. "I'm willing to turn it into the IBM Jazz House. I wouldn't flinch twice about doing something like that just to keep this thing alive, just to keep things open for the kids and the music."
There's no Mr. Potter-caliber villain in this case -- Rob's two landlords simply want to bulldoze the premises at Adeline and MLK, siring a parking lot instead. Not exactly noble, not exactly nefarious. Rob isn't railing against anyone particularly, but he is railing. "One of the landlords literally said to me one day, 'I feel like I'm literally paving paradise and putting up a parking lot,'" he recalls. "And that was hard for me to swallow -- you're the one making that decision. I really don't think these people are mean and nasty and out to do harm, but at the same time, we don't have four walls now."
That's a metaphor, at least through October -- "the music and the kids" will rage on right up to Halloween. The latter is great: modern jazz of both the straight-ahead and noisy-ass variety, splitting the difference between Yoshi's lush sophistication and 21 Grand's experimental bravado. Despite the lack of opulent surroundings, huge promotional budget, or, you know, a sign (a forlorn blue light looms over the entryway instead), the Jazz House has lured big shots including Sam Rivers and Larry Ochs onstage via ebullient word-of-mouth on the jazzbo touring circuit. But it's the kids that really make this joint, and make its impending demise so Let's-Save-the-Orphanage heartbreaking.
The Tuesday Night Jazz Jam will spell this out for you. The weekly hoedown -- hosted for the past half-year by 26-year-old trumpet maven Geechi Taylor and his buddy, drummer Darrell Green -- tosses a motley crew of old-timers, mid-thirties intellectuals, twentysomething hipsters, Berkeley High jazz prodigies, and even a few highly ambitious ten-year-olds onstage for a mega-impromptu rendition of, say, "All the Things You Are." Anyone with a serviceable instrument and the guts to service said instrument publicly can march to the front of the stage, scrawl a name on the sign-up sheet practically hanging in the conga player's face, and join the goddamn band.
For those who lack Coltrane-ish jazz skills, the notion that eight random folks who've never met -- let alone played together -- can shake hands onstage and then plow through a Miles Davis tune together is ludicrous. But Geechi quietly sifts through the coterie of largely amateur drummers, pianists, hornblowers, and upright bassists, molding them like mashed potatoes into impromptu combos that swing, or at least don't violently swerve. "It's a trip," he says. "I've gotten to the point where I can kinda read people's levels in how confident they are when I call their name. When they're calling tunes, if they can name off five or six tunes they know, then I know they've been studying some jazz. But then again, there's a lot of times where people will get up there and not know any tunes. There was a gentleman one of the past weeks who got up there with a didgeridoo, and he can only play one note with that. So we created a piece. We just made something up, and it turned out to be one of the best tunes of the evening."
As his constantly shifting cast plows through ten-minute sprawling everybody-gets-a-solo jams, Geechi often wanders about the stage, quietly orchestrating: He grabs the drummer's cymbals to quiet him down so the piano is audible, and points out the sheet music chord changes to the upright bassist as she wrassles with a Latin swing tune. "I'm a teacher, so for one, I don't like to see things just fall apart when one simple thing can fix it," he says -- Geechi works days for Cal's Youth Musicians Program, a jazz-lesson outreach program for teenagers from low-income families. "The drummer on one of those tunes, he's very heavy-handed. The thing that I like about him, he plays without fear, but he also will ask after he's finished, 'What should I work on?' and I say, 'You gotta work on controllin' your muscles. Love the drum, don't just beat it. '"
Geechi's onstage micromanaging gets results: Even when the conga player is older than the two saxophonists combined, a Jazz Jam never devolves into an arrhythmic/atonal disaster. It's always enjoyable, and occasionally quite fabulous. A young pianist dressed textbook hip-hop style -- baggy pants, Nike T, artfully askew hat (35 degrees, moderately crunk) -- bangs out a couple vicious solos, and a Spinal Tap parade of drummers largely master the whole "Love the drum, don't just beat it" edict. Geechi says the super-young'uns often surface right at the 8 p.m. starting gun -- gotta beat that bedtime -- which is even more of a trip.
Berkeley can't afford to lose this. Rob has all but given up on his current space, and considering the narrow walls, the heat, the signlessness, the folding chairs, and the floor that slants downward considerably from the doorway to the stage, his current environs suggest IKEA-style snappiness isn't the point here. But hunting down new Berkeley digs and bringing the place up to code and neighborhood-approved presentability may take scratch he just doesn't have.
"I don't think 'bitter' is the word," he says. "I've seen some amazing, amazing things happen in here. I've had a teacher who teaches disabled/mentally handicapped people do a recital -- whether this has been an operation for two or fifty years, that's why we do it. I've had an eight-year-old flute player at a Jazz Jam who blew people away. Those kinds of things, they don't go away. I'm not bitter, but I'm very disappointed. I feel like I don't have much control here. We've created something great, and we've got people saying, Oh please don't go please don't go, and there's nothing I can do about it. But I'm not giving up."
It's all in IKEA's hands