.San Jose Jazz Tests New Direction

San Jose Jazz explores new venue in preparation for a summer of events

For this year’s lineup of San Jose Jazz events and activities, the organization is trying something a little unusual, combining and synthesizing many of its separate programs in a summer-long display highlighting the music being created here in the South Bay.

Things begin this week, with a fundraiser staged by the organization through its recently created SJZ Jazz Aid Fund (a complement to its New Works Program). Performances include pianist Bennett Roth-Newell and San Jose Jazz High School All Stars U19—plus a surprise guest. The goal is twofold: first, to close a funding gap; second, to share with supporters what exactly it is about these new programs that makes them so vital to sustaining the local South Bay jazz community (and therefore deserving of additional funding).

Historically, San Jose Jazz holds a kick-off event a few months preceding their annual Summer Fest in downtown San Jose. With its new venue and slate of new programs, however, this year’s kickoff feels a little different than normal. 

“We really want to share with our community of supporters what these new programs are, why they are important, and appeal to them to help fund the need,” says Julie Ramirez, president of San Jose Jazz’s Board of Directors. 

The event will be held at Blanco Urban Venue, a relatively new space in the heart of San Pedro Square. Though the outcome of the night’s fundraising will ultimately have no effect on the execution of its Summerfest, a part of San Jose Jazz’s change in strategy is to integrate their various events this year, giving all its hitherto disparate events a more cohesive feel.

To specify, the SJZ Jazz Aid Fund will be in support of new and emerging artists in the area—artists who will perform at the New Works Fest, as well as receive exposure at Summerfest. The partnership with Blanco Urban—which celebrated its grand opening during the pandemic—is another intentional strategy of San Jose Jazz, according to Ramirez. 

“[The partnership is about] integrating the arts with our local venues and really showing how we need to work together because making downtown a destination benefits all of us,” Ramirez says.

For all the interesting and varied work that San Jose Jazz produces and facilitates, ultimately their organization is dependent on the artists, and when the first shelter-in-place order was enacted, the region’s venues were closed down. This robbed all the local working jazz musicians in the area of their livelihood, and San Jose Jazz of their stable of talent. 

“This [situation] made us ask ourselves, how can we continue to support local artists and bring performance to our community,” Ramirez relates.

With few opportunities available to gather live audiences, San Jose Jazz pivoted to patronage, commissioning various artists in and around the Bay Area to compose new works. The program put much-needed money into the pockets of working musicians while giving them an outlet for expressing the quiet chaos and uncertainty of the times.

“What we found was…what they created was beautiful,” Ramirez says. “They vocalized what our community was feeling; the pain, the hurt, the loss, the mourning, the isolation. As artists they had that gift to really crystallize this harm in the community, and they translated it into something beautiful.”

Thus, the Jazz Aid Fund was born. And given the positive response to the commissioned works, San Jose Jazz synthesized this event with the second annual New Works Fest, which gives musicians an opportunity to perform these commissions in front of an audience. Because of the pandemic, at last year’s New Works Fest attendance was very limited, with much of the audience tuning in online. The second-annual event will be the first time many artists will be able to showcase their new work in front of a live, in-person audience.

Ramirez credits Brendan Rawson, San Jose Jazz’s executive director, with sensing how to respond to the particular circumstances of the pandemic—particularly, the importance of streaming. 

“It was something challenging, to be honest. It was something new, but it was so appreciated by our community to have music reflective of the time…and just be a breath of fresh air,” Ramirez says. 

Though it would have been welcome in any time, San Jose Jazz is taking this approach because of how drastically COVID-19 affected its stable of musicians, their ability to perform and make a living during the shutdown. 

“This is an intentional effort to really bring together all of our programming around the same themes—of supporting local artists, and uplifting the new work that came out of the pandemic,” Ramirez says.

At the same time, San Jose Jazz is also preparing for its upcoming Summerfest this August. The event will take place across a wide swath of downtown San Jose, including two stages at Cesar Chavez Plaza, the Hammer Theater, the Club Regent inside the new Signia by Hilton, and the Hedley Club in Hotel De Anza, to name just a few.

Featured performers likewise span a wide swath, including Ledisi, soul singer Lee Fields, Return to Forever bassist Stanley Clarke, South African choral group (and Paul Simon collaborators) Ladysmith Black Mambazo, LA collective Urban Renewal Project, as well as nearly two dozen other artists.

In previous years, SoFa’s Cafe Stritch served as a staple venue for San Jose Jazz, the much celebrated bar and venue becoming a regular home of jazz and blues performances. However, the long-running Cafe closed down due to its inability to conduct business during the pandemic, leaving a singular dearth in the available list of San Jose venues. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, as successor Mama Kin has announced a June 3 reopening at the Stritch location as a live music venue. 

The sound and shape of live music in downtown San Jose is undergoing a lot of current changes, with uncertainty still the norm as long as the pandemic keeps rolling. But the feel this summer is that people are ready to be out again, and San Jose Jazz is rising to the unusual occasion, finding within the crisis an opportunity to bring jazz music to the community in continuously evolving ways.

“It’s about bringing healing and positivity when there is such darkness. We felt we had a pivotal role to play during the pandemic,” Ramirez says. “And that was to bring this enrichment to our community.” 

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