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Which begs the question: If there's such an interest in jazz and so many talented jazz musicians coming out the Bay Area, why can't the region sustain a thriving jazz scene?
Of course, the Bay Area will never be able to rival New York, if only because of sheer density. With 7 million residents, New York can sustain countless venues that stay open late. Few people have cars. Everything is laid out specifically to generate a vibrant nightlife scene.
In the Bay Area we have sprawl, a lower population density, and a subway system that shuts down at midnight. No matter how much lip service we pay to the idea of nightlife — in any form, not just jazz — we're topographically set up to inhibit it. Such things might explain why Coda never quite took off. Revenues at the bar were low, and Hanson didn't make enough to justify the cost of producing live music. Part of that could have been recession-era purse-string tightening — Hanson speculated that people were buying tickets but skimping on drinks. But a lot of it might have been a lack of continual foot traffic. Coda's location at Mission Street and Duboce Avenue wasn't easy to access by public transit. Plus it was right below a freeway overpass, which might have created a psychological barrier.
Out here, there's not really a concentrated downtown for jazz — especially since the Fillmore didn't pan out the way Yoshi's owner Kaz Kajimura envisioned. It's clear that jazz can survive at the micro level; funky art spaces like 57th Street Gallery — a small North Oakland venue run by a longshoreman-turned-art collector — and nonprofits like Intersection for the Arts will likely do okay. So, perhaps, will the SFJAZZ Center, Lamm said, since it won't have to rely on the same business model as a nightclub like Yoshi's. Equipped with a main auditorium of three hundred to seven hundred seats (depending on the show), it'll be more analogous to Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. "SFJAZZ is a presenter like everyone else," Lamm said, "but they do have the added luxury of being a nonprofit." Thus, they can take contributions, receive grants, and take foundation awards. Said Lamm: "Once SFJAZZ has its own center, those financial avenues will expand." He noted that the organization's ability to undertake a venture of this scale shows optimism on behalf of jazz fans in San Francisco. Indeed, we've always lived by the credo that if you build it, they will come.
That said, there's an apparent disconnect between our ideal and our reality. A nightlife scene can't thrive on the backs of nonprofits and arts organizations alone, and jazz musicians can't make a living just playing for restaurant tips. Around here, the market ebbs and flows, said bassist David Ewell, who grew up in the East Bay and has played professionally since 1997. In the Nineties, he said, there were a lot of young people who flocked to the Haight and the Mission — some were dot-commers, but others just wanted to work in the nonprofit sector and live in a cool, low-rent neighborhood. They had enough disposable income to go out at night, and enough of a hipster sensibility to pay for live music — which is how acid jazz bands like the Broun Fellinis and Alphabet Soup got really big.
"I don't think the Bay Area is as much a place for that any more," Ewell said. "It's more of a money-tech powerhouse. People aren't as interested in going out, or when they do, it's more to blow off steam. Like they go out to hear a disco cover band and wear a rainbow afro wig." He laughed. "I try not to be too dark about it."
Scott Amendola, who bucked the trend by moving to the Bay Area from his hometown in New Jersey in 1992, agreed that it was a little easier to fill seats in the early-Nineties. "Places come and go," he said, acknowledging that venue closures are really nothing new, and that you don't always need a surfeit of nightclubs to cultivate a great scene. "Back in the mid-Nineties, there were a lot of places to play, but there was also a bigger, younger audience that came out. I think there still are a lot of places to play .... It's just harder to get bodies out."
Ewell's view of the current jazz market is bleaker. A few hours after our phone conversation, he sent a long, pessimistic e-mail. "Jazz clubs have never been big money-makers," he wrote matter-of-factly. "Opening a jazz club is like buying a vineyard in Napa. It is a good move if you have already made a ton of money doing something else. No one has ever opened a jazz club to put their kids through college. That is why places that are not trying to make a profit, and have a different mission, are some of the best places to play: The Red Poppy Art House, Intersection for the Arts, and Berkeley Jazz School. etc."
He continued: "If musicians are not making music that people want to hear (and pay to hear), then there is no reason for those musicians to expect to make money."
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