Jazz has been called America’s own art form, and it’s shown continuing vitality over more than a century. Yet, in general, it has not inspired architectural patronage, or even much real estate activity. In late January, however, the San Francisco Jazz Society took an impressive step forward architecturally, opening what it calls the only freestanding building in the country designed for jazz performance. At first glance, the SF Jazz Center is a modest presence in the overlapping gravitational fields of Hayes Valley, the Civic Center, and the performing arts district. Three stories high and self-effacing outside, it saves its best riffs for the interior. It’s a very smart building in many senses of the word.
Its sponsors have made all the right decisions, starting with the center’s location—a neighborhood well-served by public transport, a block from the trendy shopping, eateries and watering holes of Hayes Street, and in close proximity to seven or eight current and future performance halls for opera, symphony, chamber music, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Then they connected with their surroundings through maximum street level transparency and highly visible interior activity. Finally, they opted for an elegant simplicity, avoiding the extremes of over-refined minimalism and misguided historicism.
The Jazz Center packs impressive functionality into a tight one-third-acre site: A 700-seat auditorium, a street-facing workshop, a 60-seat café, lobbies on two floors, a small gift shop and ticket office, an education department, office space for a staff of 45, a loading dock, and four balconies.
The auditorium is a gem. SF Jazz founder Randall Kline asked architect Mark Cavagnero, principal of Mark Cavagnero Associates, for a room that would “have the focus of a concert hall and the intimacy of a club.” During the five varied performances I attended, it took on both of those characteristics, depending on the style and energy of the particular performers, who ranged in number from two to eighteen.
The main hall has a steep arena-seating pattern that shrinks the psychological distance between audience and performers. Main-floor seats, many of them movable, wrap around much of the stage in a truncated octagon, and two levels of shallow balconies are like industrial catwalks where people sit on bar stools, some of them even perched high behind the stage. Audience members can see their cohorts prominently, and this intensifies the energy of the event.
Miner Hall’s natural acoustics are on the dry side, as they must be in a venue where almost everything will be amplified. That’s standard nowadays, and the jazz world won’t be moving back to its sonic origins. The sound system is impressive, delivering impact, richness, and good locational consistency. (Sam Berkow was the acoustician, and Len Auerbach the theater consultant.)
The auditorium is monochromatic, clad in silvery-gray-stained acoustically diffusing oak slats set against a background of velvety black, evoking the visual richness of a classic black-and-white film. This wide-range gray scale carries over to the outer circulation spaces, highlighted by stainless steel tension rods that support the suspended grand staircase. Large blue-toned ceramic tile murals by Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet whimsically celebrate the national and local jazz scenes.
At night much of the center’s inner workings are on display, but in daytime its subtly composed exterior is a bit recessive in a quarter where buildings must fight for attention. It might have profited from—dare I say it?—a bit of a jazzier treatment of its upper floors. Two major street-level spaces, the café by Lundberg Design and the Joe Henderson Lab (an educational workshop), were not finished by press time. When done, they will help animate Fell and Franklin streets. Large windows will pivot open to create a sidewalk cafe. While visually open, the lab will be sonically isolated from the street; it would be nice if its sounds were piped outside, even at low volume.
Both the building and the now-expanded institution are feathers in San Francisco’s cap. For a modest $64 million of private funds, the Bay Area has gained an urbanistically savvy, quietly self-confident LEED Gold building having no precedent anywhere in America.