In celebration of the Kuumbwa Jazz Center’s 40th anniversary, a look back at how it shook up the jazz world
Standing behind his electric keyboard, his beatific face bathed in sweat and his rotund body draped by a shiny metallic purple tunic, Sun Ra started the slow, undulating incantation. Before long his entire besparkled Arkestra joined him, intoning, “We travel the spaceways/From planet to planet” again and again. It was only the end of the first set, and Sun Ra had already traversed a cosmic array of black music, from skittering stride piano and swooping orchestral swing to oblique post-bop and cascading free jazz supernovas emanating from the fiery saxophones of Pat Patrick and Marshall Allen. As the band exited the stage, filing through the center aisle with horns held aloft, the audience chimed in and kept the “spaceways” chant going for several minutes.
Just another mind-blowing night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, circa 1989.
Objectively speaking, Kuumbwa is a pioneering venue that introduced the nonprofit jazz club concept, providing a model for numerous performance spaces around the country. When it comes to longevity, stability and artistic quality, the institution stands alone.
But as someone who came of age as a jazz fan in Santa Cruz, and did some of his first music writing as a volunteer producing copy for Kuumbwa’s calendar, I’m not exactly objective. Many of the Kuumbwa concerts I experienced during my undergrad years at UC Santa Cruz stand out more vividly in my mind than shows I saw at other venues last year. From Art Blakey’s faded overalls and Mal Waldron’s precariously long cigarette ash to Max Roach’s single-cymbal homage to Papa Jo Jones and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s menagerie of bells, whistles and sundry small instruments, the club provided unforgettable encounters with jazz’s greatest improvisers, up close and personal.
Some three decades later, Kuumbwa is still in the business of presenting transformative musical moments. Its 40th anniversary is a chance to look back at how the venue came to be, and examine why it’s thrived through the years when so many other well-intentioned venues ended up folding or straying from their initial jazz-centric vision.
While Tim Jackson is quick to spread the credit around, he’s played the essential role in the club’s success from the very beginning. A surfer and flute player first drawn to Santa Cruz by the waves, he was in his early 20s when he helped get Kuumbwa off the ground in 1975. By the time the organization settled into 320 Cedar St. in 1977, the other key founding members had moved on and he was the organization’s guiding spirit.
“It’s like Woody Allen said, ‘80 percent of life is showing up,’” Jackson says. “I just showed up every day. We solved problems as they came up, and tried to keep a vision of the future at the same time. The community supported us. The artists supported us. They liked the vibe, and the way they were treated. We kept at it and professionalized where we could. We’re still a mid-sized organization. Our budget is less than $4 million a year. We’re not Jazz at Lincoln Center, but I’ve always felt that an organization has to reflect its community. We have to do what we do within a small community, and we’ve put Santa Cruz on the jazz map.”
In an era when Frank Gehry has provided a pro bono design for a gorgeous new venue in culturally vibrant downtown Culver City for the nonprofit Jazz Bakery, and SFJAZZ is still basking in the glow of its $64 million center a stone’s throw from the San Francisco Symphony, Opera and Ballet in the art-centric Hayes Valley neighborhood, it’s hard to appreciate just how different the jazz map looked in the mid-1970s. The jazz clubs that survived the British Invasion were small businesses run on a shoestring. The Monterey Jazz Festival, which hired Jackson as artistic director in 1991, was conceived as a nonprofit organization, but the three-day event had no relevance for people trying to create a year-round venue.
There was one person who was running his own venue as a nonprofit, Pete Douglas, and not long after moving to Santa Cruz, Jackson started helping him out. He spent much of 1973 living in his VW microbus on Douglas’s property, in exchange for working at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society gigs. After a year-long international surfing excursion, Jackson landed back in Santa Cruz in 1975, and ended up connecting with Rich Wills and Sheba Burney at KUSP when he started bringing Douglas’ recordings of Bach shows by the station to broadcast. Wills had an idea for presenting jazz gigs in Santa Cruz, and enlisted Jackson in the plan. At the first meeting the small group settled on the name Kuumbwa Jazz Society, drawing on the Swahili word meaning “act of spontaneous creation” (pronounced koo-um-ba, with the “w” silent).
Within months, they staged the First Annual Santa Cruz Jazz Festival, a fundraiser for the newly christened Kuumbwa Jazz Society, featuring tenor saxophone titan Joe Henderson, former Sun Ra trumpeter Eddie Gale’s Super Energy Ensemble, Evidence, and the Hy-Tones, a stellar local band featuring saxophonist Paul Contos, pianist Paul Nagel, bassist Stan Poplin, and drummer Jim Chanteloup. Lots of people collaborated to get Kuumbwa off the ground during those first years, “but at the end of the day, we’d look around the room, and it would be three of us,” Jackson says, referring to Wills and Burney.
“Pete Douglas didn’t really operate as a nonprofit and he couldn’t really help us in what we were trying to do, other than being supportive,” Jackson says. “Jazz was still being presented in commercial venues and we didn’t have any models. We got our nonprofit status when a local attorney helped us and we walked it through Sacramento in about one day. Rich’s goal was always to have our own venue, to have a home for jazz.”
Over the next two years Kuumbwa presented concerts at various sites around the county, from San Lorenzo Park and Cabrillo to UC Santa Cruz and the lamented Capitola Theater. By early 1977, they located a space in a defunct Parisian Bakery on Cedar Street that was barely a husk of a warehouse. With church pews from a secondhand furniture store, donated labor from electricians, and wood begged from local lumberyards, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center opened its doors in May of 1977, looking “unbelievably funky,” Jackson says.
Soon he was the last of the original triumvirate still involved, and with several years of his life already invested in the new endeavor, Jackson decided to soldier on. For the first few years, he continued to gig as a flutist to make ends meet. But once he connected with Keystone Korner’s Todd Barkan, who suggested picking up the North Beach club’s big name acts on off-night Mondays, he saw more of a future running Kuumbwa than as a player.
“I wasn’t going to be the next Hubert Laws, and I wasn’t too bad at doing the organization thing,” he recalls. “I had modest talent for that.”
When I started catching shows at Kuumbwa in the mid-1980s Jackson’s modest talent had turned Kuumbwa into one of the hippest jazz outposts on the West Coast. Growing up with posters of Neil Young and the Who on my bedroom walls, I never figured I’d meet the musicians I admired. But a high school encounter with Miles Davis’s seminal 1969 album In a Silent Way coaxed me down the jazz rabbit hole, and I started buying records by musicians associated with the trumpeter, exploring his roots in bebop with Charlie Parker and the many brilliant players who came through Davis’s band, starting with Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans.
I attempted my first interview for a City On a Hill piece marking the Jazz Center’s 10th anniversary. With notepad in hand, I approached drum legend Tony Williams, who had hit the road with Miles Davis as a 17-year-old in 1963. I was green enough that I had no clue of Williams’s reputation as a prickly interview subject. I quickly explained that I wrote for a student newspaper and wanted to quote him about playing at Kuumbwa. His eyes narrowed and he made a sour expression as he murmured, “no press, no press.” It was an inauspicious start, but things went better from there.
On a student budget, the best way to subsidize my growing jazz habit was to volunteer at Kuumbwa, and I started writing calendar copy so that I had a standing date to expand my consciousness every Monday night. Each show seemed to open up a new world. The power of clave became apparent with Eddie Palmieri’s Latin Jazz Octet. Shirley Horn’s soft voice and gleaming piano chords revealed the enduring relevance of the American Songbook. And George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet opened up with heavens with their ecstatic cosmic blues powered by Charles Mingus’s longtime drummer Dannie Richmond (on one of his last gigs).
Spending time at Kuumbwa also made it clear that a successful nonprofit depends upon a dedicated cadre of volunteers. It’s striking that upon my visits to the club these days, I see many of the same faces I did some three decades ago. Kuumbwa continues to draw creative and resourceful people into its orbit, as can be seen on the club’s walls, which feature the striking photos of r.r. jones. As part of the venue’s 40th anniversary celebration, Kuumbwa presents a new exhibition of his work on Oct. 1. As the club’s house photographer for the past decade, jones has documented hundreds of concerts, with images featured in his book Kuumbwa! With his studio next door, jones came to his love of the music through proximity.
“I didn’t know anything about jazz,” he says. “I was a dumbshit from Texas. Now it’s all I listen to. I like the wacky stuff. What impresses me is when they’re in a trance. I walk over at 4 p.m. for soundcheck and chat with musicians and ask for permission to shoot their shows. I say I’m buddies with Tim, and he’s such an institution it’s carte blanche for me.”
Ultimately, Kuumbwa has thrived because musicians dig playing there. It might sound obvious, but in the United States finding avid audiences and a staff that respects artists is hardly a given. Berkeley piano star Benny Green, who practically grew up on stage at Kuumbwa and recorded his most recent album, Live in Santa Cruz!, there, neatly summed up the feelings of dozens of musicians I’ve interviewed over the years.
“Kuumbwa is easily my favorite place in the world to play,” Green says. “On the surface it’s such a simple thing, but look deeper and there’s all the love and collective care for the music, and selflessness that goes into creating and sustaining this club. It’s a magical place.”
The Book of Kuumbwa
Some photographers use their camera as a shield, warding off close human contact while maintaining an observational distance. Others turn their lens into an outstretched hand, inviting conversation.
r.r. jones belongs decidedly to the latter camp. Long before he started capturing musicians in the throes of improvisation at Kuumbwa, he was a familiar presence around the club. Rather than hunkering down in his studio next door, he can often be found in the parking lot talking with his photographic subjects.
“I call him the Mayor of Cedar Square,” says Tim Jackson. “He’s just a social guy who will strike up a conversation with anybody. We were good friends for a long time, but he never expressed any interest in shooting at Kuumbwa. He was more into travel photography. I think I said to him, ‘Don’t you ever want to come over to shoot photos?’”
Jones accepted the invitation, and for the past 10 years he’s been a ubiquitous presence at Kuumbwa, usually stationing himself in the front row to capture intensely immediate images. His book, Kuumbwa!, features 200 shots, and he’s got more than enough for another volume or two.
His images flow from his interactions with musicians off the bandstand.
“I’m like a shrink at the first,” jones says. Ask him about his favorite photos from the new book and he mentions a blurry shot of bassist Christian McBride and one of guitarist John Scofield with his face contorted. “I set my lens for one second exposure,” he says. “The frets are illuminated, streaks in the air.”
One of his most striking images is a gorgeous shot of bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, a large print processed so that it looks like the work of a 16th century Dutch master. For Jackson, the connection with jones is a perfect example of the well-nourished ecosystem in which Kuumbwa has flourished.
“We see him every day,” Jackson says. “He works right next door. Nothing could be more natural. It’s a microcosm of Kuumbwa’s existence.”
This First Friday, Kuumbwa will host a reception for r.r. jones, who will exhibit photos from his book and sign copies. DJ Vinnie will spin Blue Note vinyl. 6-9 p.m.; free.