Economic Improvisation 

As Yoshi's prepares a second act in San Francisco, the club broadens its sound.

Forget the edamame and the moderately popular Blue Note jazz artists. These days, a Monday night at Yoshi's is tantamount to a Friday night at any other club in the world. It's certainly the only night you'll see sweat vaporizing on the club's ceiling. Once the domain of local or lesser-known musicians, Mondays at Yoshi's now belong to raucous ten-to-twelve piece swing, Afro-Latin, or Cuban son bands, often equipped with large horn sections and coordinated guayabera dress shirts. Patrons cha-cha across every available inch of dancefloor as waitresses scurry to keep pace with the steady demand for cocktails. On a good night, the joint fills up well before ten.

Yoshi's co-owner Kaz Kajimura attributes the boom in business to the club's recent efforts to expand its definition of jazz. It has traded in some of its jazz bookings for more neo-soul and world-music acts; the July calendar included R&B celebs such as Amel Larrieux and Latin bandleaders like Fito Reinoso. Yoshi's made an even more drastic maneuver by overhauling its Monday night format. While the rest of the East Bay drowns its sorrows in self-pitying "Blue Monday" blues jams, the club opened up its dancefloor, something the owners haven't really tried since moving to Jack London Square ten years ago. They have booked the Cuban timba band Tiempo Libre on August 27, swing band Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers on September 17, and Balkan dance act Ivo Papasov on September 25.

Box office attendants say the dance nights have had consistently high turnout. The moment Kajimura knew he was onto something good was July 9's bash with Orquesta la Moderna, which was almost sold out an hour into the show — a rarity for a Monday. He was all a-tizzy. "That was a good one," he said. "I was very, very happy." He'd like to keep it that way.

The expansion is necessary for Kajimura to sustain his 35-year-old business as the most important jazz club on the West Coast, the only one that A-list artists such as Ahmad Jamal and Christian McBride will visit while they're on tour. It is, arguably, the linchpin of the efforts to develop an "entertainment district" in the Jack London Square area. Now, Kajimura is risking everything by opening a second Yoshi's in San Francisco's Fillmore District in November. He'll now have to fill roughly eight hundred seats a night, a daunting if not impossible proposition if he were relying on traditional jazz alone.

The roots of the Yoshi's expansion date to about three and a half years ago, when the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency decided to devote a parcel of land in the Fillmore Heritage Center to jazz. Kajimura said he wanted to nail down the project before New York's venerable Blue Note jazz club beat him to it. He thinks an efficient business model will allow him and partner Yoshi Akiba to run both venues concurrently. While Kajimura isn't exactly seeing green, he's at least cautiously optimistic. "We're hoping the San Francisco market is different from Oakland, and there's a lot more people out at night," he says. Even on Monday.

Shrewd business decisions have kept the Yoshi's brand alive for 35 years and have helped it stave off the hardships that killed other Jack London Square nightclubs — the square's slow foot traffic and relative isolation. Yoshi's avoids a lot of these problems because it's set up as a "destination location," Kajimura says. People come from across the Bay Area to see bigger-name acts such as Joshua Redman or McCoy Tyner. By parsing the ZIP codes on credit card transactions and handing out frequent questionnaires, he has concluded that about 20 percent of his customers hail from San Francisco.

Although Kajimura believes his business would benefit from more development in Jack London Square, he doesn't depend on foot traffic the way a smaller club such as the nearby Silk Road Lounge might. His business didn't suffer when TGI Friday's closed in 2004, and whatever happens at the nearby Ben & Jerry's or Jack London Square movie theater doesn't seem to affect him. Unlike neighboring venues, Yoshi's hasn't seen a consistent trend in sales. "Business is kind of up and down in the last few years," Kajimura says. "We thought last year was gonna be a record year up until September or so. Then it took a nosedive." He can't explain the aberration, but insists that his decision to expand into San Francisco has nothing to do with a dearth of business in Oakland.

Even so, Kajimura will have a lot to contend with if he plans to successfully duplicate his Oakland jazz club. The success of Yoshi's San Francisco depends on its customer base being distinct from its East Bay clientele. Yoshi's will be able to book national acts at both clubs concurrently, either by splitting the week or by having top-tier artists play San Francisco one week and Oakland the next. If either premise fails, Yoshi's will be competing with itself, which could lead to an economically unsustainable situation.

Artistic director Peter Williams says concurrent bookings shouldn't be a problem. He notes that Yoshi's won't have to deal with exclusivity contracts — agreements that limit the number of venues a touring artist can book within a certain area — because it's a single business. Still, setting up in a second market may prove tricky. There will be more competition in San Francisco, and if Yoshi's plans to fill two large venues every night, it'll either have to snag bigger-name jazz artists on a regular basis or switch to a more popular genre. Even an artist at the level of Blue Note vibraphonist Stefon Harris won't sell out a four-hundred-seat venue five nights in a row and then be able to sell out a separate three-hundred-seat venue the following week.

Nor will the Oakland formula translate easily to San Francisco. While the Oakland club benefits from having a large parking garage, the Fillmore building lacks any such structure. It's questionable whether the upper-middle-class crowd Kajimura hopes to attract will be willing to park in a tenuous neighborhood several blocks from the venue and then queue for 45 minutes for a show they paid $35 to see.

Kajimura says the lot beneath Yoshi's San Francisco can handle roughly one hundred cars, and he's discovered an underused city-operated lot just across the street. The new club also will offer valet parking. As for waiting in line, he's solved that problem by making all seats pre-reserved. "We decided the clientele mentalities are different," he explains.

Still, some Bay Area jazz artists are rankled. "He made his reputation on hardcore jazz," says Broun Fellinis saxophonist David Boyce, who traces the "diversification" in programming back to 1997, when Yoshi's first moved to Jack London Square. "I mean, the old Yoshi's on Claremont was about that particular kind of edgy, creative, so-called 'jazz' music. But economics always rears its ugly head." Boyce points to August's calendar, which includes Latin kingpin Pete Escovedo, jam-band scenester Marco Benevento, R&B singer Sunny Hawkins, studio guitarist Lee Ritenour, Blue Note hip-hop pianist Robert Glasper, and fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth. The only jazz player in the "creative, edgy, hardcore" sense is James Carter. There was a time, Boyce says, when Holdsworth, Ritenour, and Benevento would have played only concert halls like Bimbo's or the Warfield — not a jazz club.

Given the business demands, can Yoshi's even afford to remain a jazz club? Indeed, it was incredibly risky to have an artist like Benevento, who draws a crowd that would probably prefer drinking beer and smoking pot. Unfortunately, the club didn't pull it off, Kajimura says, noting that ticket sales completely tanked on those nights, faring only slightly better on Thursday. If Yoshi's wants to stay afloat, it may have to dip more heavily into smooth jazz, booking more acts in the vein of Keiko Matsui, Lalah Hathaway, and Ledisi, who could be marketed on KKSF.

Boyce fears the venue may eventually go the route of Emeryville's now-defunct Kimball's East, replacing traditional jazz with the Howard Hewetts of the world. "The more higher-end the jazz club is, the more willing they are to shelve that word 'jazz' and just pander," he says. "I don't think Yoshi's is any different."

But the owner explains that he's gotta do what he's gotta do. "If we could really sustain Yoshi's business just with straight-ahead jazz, we would have done it," Kajimura says. "We have to make it profitable enough to carry on this formula of presenting jazz seriously. Unfortunately, we just have to branch out a little bit."

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