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denny kelso
Photograph by Curtis Cartier
THE KUUMBWA KIND: Left to right, managing director Bobbi Todaro, artistic director Tim Jackson, marketing director Sandy Sloan, cafe manager Cheryl Simons, education coordinator Melody Korkos, administrative assistant Brian Fitzgerald and production coordinator Jeff Sloan

Hello, Young Jazz Lovers

Kuumbwa celebrates 35 years of spontaneous creativity with free party and epic fall lineup

By Cat Johnson

IN 1975 a group of young music lovers, inspired by the local talent and undeterred by their collective inexperience, set about establishing a jazz society. "Ultimately, we wanted to have a home for jazz in Santa Cruz," says Tim Jackson, one of the society's founding members. "But we had no money or experience; just had some half-baked ideas."

Today, Kuumbwa Jazz Center is known the world over and has played host to most of the major jazz artists of the last several decades, including Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Diana Krall, Art Blakey and McCoy Tyner, to name just a few.

The idea came from Rich Wills, at the time a programmer at KUSP, who recruited fellow programmer Sheba Burney and saxophonist/flutist Jackson to form an organization to preserve the legacy of jazz and provide the local musicians a place to play. It was an idea that, according to Jackson, was ahead of the curve. "At that time there were very few jazz organizations under a not-for-profit banner," he says. "Most jazz was in commercial inner-city clubs or larger festivals. Now there's a whole network of nonprofit jazz-presenting organizations across the country."

Within a few months of Kuumbwa's inception, the three had scheduled their first concert: Joe Henderson at San Lorenzo Park's duck pond. The newbie promoters narrowly escaped disaster, however, when the concert was rained out and had to be moved, piano and all, to a backup location.

With the help of an eager audience, however, the concert was successfully relocated, and the show went on. The young promoters walked away with four dollars and a strengthened desire for a venue of their own.

While they saved money for a home, Kuumbwa put on shows in different venues around town, including the Capitola Theatre. "We just went into the Capitola Theatre and asked if we could do a concert," says Jackson with a smile. "They didn't know who we were, but you find help in the most illogical places sometimes."

The size and atmosphere of the Capitola Theatre allowed Kuumbwa to bring in big names like Dexter Gordon, which boosted the trio's confidence that they could pull off major concerts. "We felt that we were able to present a major, internationally recognized jazz star for the first time with Dexter," says Jackson. "It gives you confidence that 'Hey, we can do this.'"

After two years, Kuumbwa had enough money to get a place of its own, and when a bakery on Cedar Street became available, its operators pounced. "It was pretty rustic and bare-bones," says Jackson, "but it was a space, and we've been in that space ever since."

For the last 35 years, Kuumbwa has provided Santa Cruz with a stage for developing, emerging and master musicians and has contributed to the community's collective appreciation for jazz through various educational programs which, Jackson says, is a vital component of the organization. "[Education] is what's going to build both the music and audience for the future," he says. "Most people won't grow up to be jazz musicians, but exposure to jazz at a young age, we think, creates lifelong arts lovers."

Jackson, in his role as artistic director, continues to book all the concerts, as well as nurture the organization's relationships with the artists. According to marketing director Sandy Sloan, having a director with the ability to balance the jazz masters with the up- and-coming artists has been a key to Kuumbwa's success. Well, that combined with the support of a loyal group of members, donors, volunteers, board members and music lovers. "I've been involved with a lot of nonprofits," says Sloan, "and this is the most dedicated group of individuals I've seen."

Nor does Jackson's dedication to bringing great jazz to the area end with Kuumbwa. He's also general manager of the world-renowned Monterey Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 53rd year Sept. 17–19 with a bill brimming with talent and diversity. Among the headliners are Harry Connick Jr., Angelique Kidjo, Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal, Delbert McClinton, Les Nubians and Kronos Quartet. Although the festival and Kuumbwa have no official connection, they have what Jackson calls a symbiotic relationship, with contacts made through Kuumbwa helping in Monterey and vice versa.

In honor of its 35th birthday, Kuumbwa Jazz is hosting a free concert and party at the duck pond in San Lorenzo Park. The musical lineup includes Jackson's band, Real Time, playing Latin- and groove-oriented material, the Hy-Tones, one of the first bands to ever play at Kuumbwa, playing standards and originals, and the old-school funk sounds of Frequency Jones featuring special guest Tammi Brown. The park is also playing host to Bobby's Can Cookin' BBQ Festival, so the music, beverages and food will be in plentiful supply.

The celebration serves as lead-in to an upcoming schedule that highlights Kuumbwa's commitment to both preservation and progress as it hosts guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan (Sept. 9), emerging trumpet innovator Ambrose Akinmusire (Sept. 13), jazz masters Lee Konitz (Sept. 27) and Dave Liebman (Sept. 30), the genre-transcending mandolin work of Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers (Oct. 14), the Afro-Latin dance grooves of Ricardo Lemvo (Oct. 18), Beyoncé's saxophonist Tia Fuller (Oct. 25) and more.

The foreseeable future is bright indeed for the little society that could, with plans for a jazz-themed mural in town, a possible street re-name, a spring film festival and, as ever, a steady stream of world-class musicians.

And Kuumbwa Jazz—the name means "an act of spontaneous creativity" in Swahili—remains as dedicated to its original vision today, as it was in 1975. "We wanted to create an atmosphere that was conducive to creative expression," says Jackson. "And that, in a nutshell, is still exactly what we do."

KUUMBWA'S 35TH BIRTHDAY PARTY is Sunday, Aug. 29, 1–5pm on the Duck Island Stage in San Lorenzo Park, Santa Cruz. Free.

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