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The bigger elephant in the room is that jazz is no longer a popular music form in America, especially among young people. They don't buy albums, jazz isn't played on the radio, and when most people go out on Friday nights, they're not paying to watch a swing band or improv session. The Yoshi's model shows that jazz works sometimes. When an A-list artist like Diane Reeves, Stanley Clarke, or McCoy Tyner comes to town, tickets are hard to come by; indeed, the best jazz acts will sell as many tickets as the best hip-hop acts. But you can't book Stanley Clarke every night of the week. In addition, Yoshi's is faced with the problem of running two nightclubs — one of which is actually three nightclubs rolled into one — and still maintaining a profit margin. To try doing that on jazz alone would be untenable.
That could be a problem of jazz being a niche market, or a genre for older people who don't want to go out late. Whatever the case, it's clear that audiences in the Bay Area are more likely to shell out for R&B and hip-hop.
When Yoshi's decided to expand to San Francisco four years ago, it was unclear whether the club would be able to sustain two locations — an Oakland club with 330 seats, plus a 220-person capacity restaurant and lounge, and a San Francisco behemoth that encompasses two stories and 28,000 square feet. Diversified programming was inevitable, which undoubtedly meant less jazz. Or rather, proportionally less jazz. By that time, Yoshi's had already begun booking Latin dance nights at its Oakland location, in addition to reggae headliners like the Jamaican singer Eek-A-Mouse. Pretty soon, it would bring Mos Def and Talib Kweli into the fold, along with singer-songwriters, old Motown artists, classic rockers, and even stand-up comedians.
Jazz fans issued a collective sigh of relief when Jason Olaine took over as artistic director of the San Francisco location in 2009. Olaine had booked Yoshi's' former Claremont Avenue location from 1993 to 1999, before landing a job at Verve Records in New York. In other words, he represented an older, purer version of the jazz club. Olaine was viewed as the messiah who would save Yoshi's from bankruptcy, while magically turning jazz into a viable income generator.
That turned out to be an impossible burden to shoulder. With the onus on him to pay back a redevelopment agency loan and sustain a giant entertainment complex, Olaine had to get increasingly creative. He and the other staff figured out ways to divide up the club so that it actually functioned as three venues — main stage, mezzanine, and lounge — plus the restaurant. They diversified the programming even more — booking acts like Naughty By Nature and Bone Thugs N Harmony, for example — and venturing farther and farther away from Yoshi's' core vision of jazz. In 2010, Yoshi's finally became profitable.
"There are a number of organizations in the Bay Area that present jazz, but they're mostly nonprofit," Olaine wrote in an e-mail. "They can go after grants, receive donations and corporate giving that is tax-deductible, whereas we have to survive solely on the goodwill of paying customers."
His point, in a nutshell, is that Yoshi's is actually a business. And though we tend to think of it as a sort of museum for jazz, Olaine's job, in part, is to disabuse us of that notion. He stressed that the club also plans to deemphasize hip-hop in the coming months. "Hip-hop is a broad categorization, and there are positive rappers and hip-hop out there that we will want to continue to support," Olaine wrote subsequently. "We experimented with presenting a broad range of it and soon found out that while the audience is there and they do come to Yoshi's, our core music lies elsewhere." Olaine's decision could be related to a recent incident involving one of the venue's sound engineers, Dan Pettit, destroying roughly $500 of the club's equipment with a baseball bat following an alleged dispute between another sound engineer and the hip-hop act that performed the previous night, R.O.D. Project, according to Yoshi's staff.
Whatever the case, it's clear that the club's core music is no longer jazz. A local musician who wished to remain anonymous since he occasionally gets hired to play in hip-hop and R&B backing bands, said that the programming changes at Yoshi's point to a larger deterioration: "When Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are getting booked for a full weekend at Yoshi's SF, I'd say that's a pretty good indicator of the state of jazz in the Bay Area," he wrote, via Facebook. "Not a reflection on musicians, but maybe on the demand, sadly?"
One of the greatest signs of a declining jazz scene is that gigs are drying up in the Bay Area. Saxophonist Howard Wiley said he started noticing the decline around 2007, and in the last couple years, work dropped precipitously. "Each neighborhood (North Beach, Mission, Jack London) went from having two or three clubs to one," he wrote in an e-mail. "The only places for jazz and creative music are the Jazzschool, the Red Poppy Art House, Amnesia, and 57th Street Gallery, and none of their places have music — let alone jazz — more than two or three nights a week."
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