Berkeley: Hip and hot, The Jazz House faces extinction just as it's hitting its stride.
Andrew Gilbert, Special to The Chronicle
Standing outside The Jazz
House in south Berkeley on a recent balmy summer evening as traffic rushes
by on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Rob Woodworth makes a perfect target
for a big yellow taxi.
The founder and artistic director of the nonprofit storefront performance space, Woodworth is in the midst of a crisis best captured by Joni Mitchell, as the institution he's lovingly nurtured for almost two years will soon be knocked down, paved over and turned into a parking lot for the Berkeley Police Department.
But where the people in Mitchell's classic song "Big Yellow Taxi" won't miss paradise until it's gone ("They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," she sings), the musicians and music fans who have come to depend on The Jazz House do indeed know what they've got, as the venue is the East Bay's most vital outlet for edgy jazz and new music.
As it stands now, The Jazz House is closing its doors on Halloween, and Woodworth is desperately looking for a new space. He's involved in preliminary talks with the city of Oakland about a space, but he's determined to find a site where he can continue to draw young musicians.
"Buying a place is out of reach," Woodworth says. "Most of the calls I've been getting, people say, 'I saw this empty warehouse, you should go buy it.' But even if we could afford a new building, it's much more complicated than that. There's the fire code, city codes regarding live music, parking, handicap access. We're not looking for some company to just write a check. Ideally we'd like an ongoing relationship with a donor. ...We need someone who takes us under their wing."
Flying under its own power, The Jazz House has established an impressive record in a short amount of time. Over the past 20 months, Woodworth, his girlfriend, Kathryn Golden, and a small circle of volunteers have turned The Jazz House into a beehive of activity, including African drum workshops on Sundays, Tuesday night jam sessions, and weekend clinics for young musicians.
With shows at least six nights a week, the space has presented leading Bay Area improvisers such as guitarist John Schott, trumpeter Eddie Gale, clarinetist Beth Custer, saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey.
The venue has also thrown a lifeline to touring musicians desperate for a place to play on their way through the Bay Area. These include drummer Susie Ibarra, reed master Sam Rivers, saxophonist Tony Malaby and cellist Eric Friedlander.
The Jazz House is presenting some of its most exciting concerts in its final weeks on Adeline Street. The New York-based Claudia Quintet holds forth on Monday, as part of a tour that includes an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Led by drummer John Hollenbeck, the group features Ted Reichman on accordion, bassist Drew Gress, vibraphonist Matt Moran and Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet. With its blend of minimalism, improvisation and muted funk, the quintet plays moody chamber jazz that's both evocative and emotionally reticent.
There's nothing held back when free jazz giant William Parker takes the stage. A catalyst on Manhattan's downtown music scene for a quarter-century, the bassist performs with the Music Into Fire quartet at The Jazz House on Oct. 6, with powerhouse drummer Hamid Drake, trombonist Steve Swell and saxophonist Jameel Moondoc, a mercurial player rarely heard in the Bay Area.
There are other East Bay spaces where the Claudia Quintet and Parker might have been able to play, such as Oakland's 21 Grand art gallery and the Black Box Theatre. But with its educational mission and wide-open booking policy, The Jazz House has become the region's leading outpost for iconoclastic players.
"What makes them special is they don't have an agenda," says saxophonist/composer Phillip Greenlief, who is producing a farewell concert series through his Evander Music label as a benefit for The Jazz House, including a series of improvisational duos on Oct. 28, and a Halloween closer featuring solo piano sets by Matthew Goodheart, Thollem McDonas and others. In many ways Woodworth built on the space's reputation as a cutting-edge venue. For years it's been one of south Berkeley's little mysteries, the small, beige storefront next to the police substation at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Adeline, with the blue light and cryptic "Ant" sign over the door. The antique store-turned-performance-space formerly known as TUVA played an important role in the region's underground music scene, particularly when it replaced the lamented Beanbenders as the East Bay's leading spot for independently produced jazz and new music events.
Woodworth took over TUVA from throat singer Arjuna in January 2003. Under Woodworth's direction, the venue was rechristened The Jazz House, and it emerged re-energized with its compelling youth-oriented mission. He not only fixed up the ramshackle room, hanging handsome new black curtains and detailing the patterned pressed tin lining the walls with red paint, but he also invited in local painters and photographers to display their work.
As a nonprofit focusing on music education for youth, the venue allows kids in free to all shows, and in keeping with The Jazz House's family- friendly vibe there's no alcohol served.
The venue's Web site (www.thejazzhouse.com) features numerous pictures of grade school musicians on stage, opening for established bands. "Our goal is to have a place for kids to perform outside of school," Woodworth says. "Most of the time they're in the classroom hammering away, and if they're lucky they get one or two recitals a year and a few parents show up."
Now the aspiring young players who have found a home at The Jazz House
face losing that, too.
The Jazz House is at 3192 Adeline St., Berkeley. (415) 846-9432. You can visit the Web site at www.thejazzhouse.com.