12/02/07 With its big, bright new SF nightclub added to its Oakland home, Bay Area music institution enters a new era
by By Patrick Sullivan
The Press Democrat
Article published - Dec 2, 2007
With its big, bright new SF nightclub added to its Oakland home, Bay Area music institution enters a new era
By PATRICK SULLIVAN
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Gleaming saxophone in hand, Gato Barbieri sauntered up to the mike. The 73-year-old jazz legend, slouching under his trademark black fedora, paused to survey the audience on a recent Sunday night at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland. Suddenly, Barbieri bent his head, and a warm river of notes erupted from his instrument and poured over the cheering crowd.
"My god, he's incredible," murmured one woman to her date. At a nearby table, a teenage girl sitting with her father looked up from her cell phone to stare at the stage, text messages forgotten.
An hour later, Barbieri was still going loud and strong. But outside the soundproof doors of the club, Yoshi's co-owner Kaz Kajimura was in a quiet mood as he contemplated the hundreds of photos of musicians on the wall above and around the venue's bar.
Over almost three decades of live music in Oakland, Yoshi's has hosted some of the biggest names in jazz, from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to saxophonist Joshua Redman. And it has been the setting for more than a few swan songs.
"We've had a lot of people play the last shows of their life here," Kajimura said with a sad smile. "Max Roach. Joe Pass. Billy Higgins."
Kajimura, 65, a slender man with salt-and-pepper hair, doesn't get much time these days to focus on the past. While this year marks Yoshi's 10-year anniversary at its current location in Jack London Square, his focus during the past few months has been on the scramble to put the finishing touches on a second nightclub on the other side of the Bay Bridge.
Yoshi's San Francisco, a 28,000-square-foot, $10 million nightclub and Japanese restaurant, opened last week in the city's Fillmore Jazz Preservation District. It is an ambitious attempt by Kajimura and his partner and ex-wife, Yoshi Akiba, to duplicate the success they've achieved in Oakland. A third founder retired last year.
The new club has almost 100 more seats than Oakland's Yoshi's, but it offers the same clear sight lines and appealingly minimalist design.
"We wanted to build something like a jazz version of the Davies Symphony Hall," Kajimura said. "We want to institutionalize jazz in San Francisco, take it one step higher so that the city can be really proud." But he is also acutely aware of the challenges. Does the Bay Area offer a large enough audience to support two high-end jazz clubs? And how will the distinctive Yoshi's experience fit into a San Francisco neighborhood with its own proud history of jazz?
The Yoshi's vibe
Among musicians, acclaim for Yoshi's seems nearly universal. Even a tough nut like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis -- never shy about expressing his true feelings -- has heaped praise upon the club.
Yoshi's fans note the state-of-the-art sound system and acoustic environment. And they also point to the layout of the 330-seat Oakland club, which somehow manages to make even someone at a table in the back corner feel close enough to almost touch a performer on stage.
Famed jazz pianist Chick Corea, speaking by telephone from a hotel room in Spain, where he is now on tour, says the audiences are also part of the magic.
"I like the vibe at Yoshi's," said Corea. "At the Blue Note in New York, there tends to be more of a tourist crowd. But at Yoshi's, people are ready to listen. They seem like music fans."
Jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, who grew up in Berkeley, looks forward to coming home to play his annual December shows at Yoshi's.
"It's one of the few 'you get what you pay for' kind of places," Hunter said. "There's not` a bad seat in the house, and the sound is really good."
Such amenities come at a price. Fans have to fork over $40 to $50 for a ticket to Corea's shows at Yoshi's -- and then contemplate whether to buy a $10 cocktail to meet the one-drink minimum.
But the caliber of the music makes Yoshi's well worth the price of admission and the drive from Sonoma County, says Mel Graves, director of the jazz studies program at Sonoma State University.
"I would say it's the best venue we've ever had in the Bay Area," said Graves, a composer and accomplished contrabassist who has performed at some of San Francisco's best-known jazz clubs over the past few decades.
"When I was a student, I lived in Columbus, Ohio, and we'd go to Chicago, Detroit, and New York to hear jazz," Graves said. "So now I tell my students, 'How can you not jump in the car and go 50 miles to hear some of the best music you'll ever hear?' "
The remarkable success of Yoshi's seems to have completely surprised its owners.
"When we opened the original Yoshi's in 1973 (in Berkeley), we were a mom-and-pop restaurant with 20 seats," Kajimura said with a laugh. "I never had any idea that we would wind up operating jazz clubs on both sides of the bridge."
Back to the future
Kajimura's love affair with jazz began when he was growing up in Tokyo. He didn't go to clubs in Japan -- "I was a student, so I was much too busy," he explained. But he did listen to records and fell hard for the music of Betty Carter, Stan Getz and older jazz greats.
The new club in the Fillmore offers Kajimura a chance to connect the Yoshi's name to the big names of that bygone era. Indeed, the club is opening in San Francisco in large measure because the city wants to revive the jazz scene that once flourished there. That's why city officials required the developer of the property to include a jazz club on the premises.
Back in the 1940s and '50s, the Fillmore District was home to more than a dozen clubs that mixed local talent with some of the biggest names in jazz, according to "Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era," a recent book by two Bay Area authors who spent years researching the neighborhood's history.
Many of the era's best-known African-American musicians -- from Billie Holiday to T-Bone Walker -- lodged in the racially diverse Fillmore neighborhood because whites-only hotels downtown would not rent rooms to them.
These touring acts also played shows in the Fillmore clubs for their African-American fans, who could not attend whites-only shows downtown, according to "Harlem of the West" author Elizabeth Pepin.
"The Fillmore was an incredible place, according to the stories people told us," Pepin said. "You were surrounded by music and musicians. There were musicians playing in houses, and clubs where you could just walk in and get onstage and start playing."
But ultimately, city-led redevelopment plans disrupted the neighborhood and destroyed the jazz scene there. The opening of Yoshi's could be the first step to resurrecting that bygone era, according to Lewis Watts, Pepin's co-author.
"Yoshi's draws world-class musicians, and I think that will serve as an anchor for a lot of things that are happening," Watts said. "I think the neighborhood is going to become a real cultural center again."
Patrick Sullivan is a Bay Area freelance writer.
Article published - Dec 2, 2007