Keeping It in the Family 

The Jazz Mafia are made men thanks to leader Adam Theis and his four eclectic crews.

The Shotgun Wedding Hip-Hop Symphony coalesces onstage at Bruno's in San Francisco on a recent Tuesday night with a rather bizarre lineup featuring a five-piece string section, a four-piece horn section, a drummer, a DJ, and a rapper. During the first song's final breakdown, the group members freeze mid-note in statuelike poses. After a lengthy pause, the strange symphony finishes with a flurry, and the trombone player approaches the mic. It was grueling to stand there holding his instrument aloft during the pause, he says. "Spit was sliding down the inside of the horn and into my mouth," he jokes.

Trombone player Adam Theis unofficially leads the Hip-Hop Symphony and its umbrella organization, the Jazz Mafia crew. The San Francisco resident brought together the Jazz Mafia seven years ago; since then it's become a mainstay in San Francisco, earning regular nights by packing heads into Bruno's in the Mission and North Beach's Black Cat. Theis never anticipated this crew would stay together for so long. "I guess I dreamt about it, but I didn't think it would actually happen," he says.

The Jazz Mafia family is vast. Theis estimates the group's performances over a six-month period would include between thirty and forty different members. "When I started this, I was looking to bring different musicians together," he says. "Where jazz bands were really regimented, I wanted to keep it loose."

The Mafia has four separate crews: the Realistic Orchestra, the Shotgun Wedding Quintet, the Shotgun Wedding Hip-Hop Symphony, and the Brass Mafia. Each has its own distinct sound, yet many of the members overlap. The four groups rotate every Tuesday at Bruno's, and also play throughout the Bay Area. At any given show, you're liable to see something as quirky as a polkafied version of "Ring of Fire" or a medley of Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" and "Nasty."

Theis found this approach was perfect at a venue like the Black Cat. "The management was really cool and loose there," he says. "They didn't put any restrictions on us, so we didn't run it like an organized jazz session. It was very open; anyone could sit in and play. The band conducts itself musically. We didn't use any predetermined arrangements."

From these performances came the Realistic Orchestra, a jazz band heavily influenced by DJ Shadow and Squarepusher. The Shotgun Wedding Quintet, with its samplers and looping, soon followed, then the Hip-Hop Symphony and the Brass Mafia. Four years ago the collective moved from the Black Cat to Bruno's, where it's been playing more or less every Tuesday since. "We figured if we're going to be weekly, we needed to do it in a place that's going to be cozy," Theis says. "When we pulled in a good crowd at the Black Cat, it still looked like it was only half-full."

Many of the contributors have stayed with the Jazz Mafia for years, such as Marcus Stephens, who plays bass and clarinet for the Hip-Hop Symphony. "I used to sneak into the Black Cat to watch them perform," he says. " I kept hanging out, and eventually I got up there and started playing with them. ... It's a tight little tribe, and I enjoy being a part of it."

The Wedding Quintet and the Brass Mafia plan album releases for May, with distribution through one of the eclectic labels in the area.

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