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Blowing Up: From a photo by Will Wallace: Jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie warms up backstage at the Kuumbwa in 1988. Is there any question that the Kuumbwa is one of the top jazz spots anywhere?

All That Jazz

Or How to Start a World-Class Jazz Club on $4

By Peter Koht

The Kuumbwa Jazz Center is perhaps the most indigenous beast that Santa Cruz has ever raised. At once anarchistic and institutional, it's the material result of one group of people trying to carve out a place for art in their lives, no matter the odds.

It's a workshop and a gathering hall and an experiment all at once. Used by art collectives and local poetry troupes, folk singers and activists, the room plays host to a large part of the culture that makes this town what it is. Besides being a concert hall, the Kuumbwa hosts composer's workshops, jazz education classes and unscheduled, unmitigated and unlicensed jams.

Where else would you have heard Smith Dobson or Ray and Steve Brown or Dan Robbins? Where else could you have watched Smith Junior or the LeBoeuf twins grow up? The Kuumbwa is part of what makes Santa Cruz County a wonderful place to call home.

What makes this success story all the more improbable is that with a population of a little over 65,000, Santa Cruz is not a prime candidate for the establishment of a world class jazz club: it's a small market, its audiences are largely white, and most working musicians can't afford to live here. Despite these handicaps, one group of volunteers managed to create an amazing organization that connected Santa Cruz to the pulse of jazz--and has kept it connected for 30 years.

Salad Days

The initial idea to create a nonprofit space to present jazz in Santa Cruz was the brainchild of Rich Wills, then a jazz DJ at KUSP. After unsuccessful attempts to advertise in both the Good Times and the People's Press, Wills slipped a simple note into the mailbox of Sheba Burney, a fellow programmer at the station. It was a brief but intriguing missive: "I have a project in mind that will interest you artistically."

Wills and Burney, along with a 19-year-old salad cook and saxophonist/flutist named Tim Jackson, began to spread the word in the local arts community. Fresh off of a six-month engagement working as a production assistant in Pete Douglas' semilegit Half Moon Bay acoustic venue the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Jackson represented the initial group's only significant experience in music production.

Though the principal players were now in, Burney felt that in order to start up the project, she needed to consult with local musicians. In the winter of 1975, before the public birth of the Kuumbwa Jazz Society, she and Wills made a pilgrimage to visit one of the area's most respected saxophonists and jazz enthusiasts, Paul Contos.

"We drove down to Corralitos, Rich and I, because we had to talk to Paul and get his input on the project," says Burney. "I felt that just by knowing that he was involved, if not really on a logistical level, but just that if he knew about it, and was happy about it, then it was going to be OK. When we drove up, he was out in front of his cabin, splitting wood. We went inside and his partner Annie made tea and we played with his 2-month-old daughter and talked about Rich's idea. His reaction was perfect: 'That's great,' he said. 'We'll all have someplace to play.'"

Year One: Heavy Lifting and Loose Change

The Kuumbwa is remarkable in many ways, but perhaps most for its initial developmental period: For one time in the history of the known universe, an arts collective got something significant done quickly. In February of 1975, 12 local musicians and jazz fans met in a small room at the Vets Hall and formed the Kuumbwa Jazz Society. The name was provided by local guitarist and early volunteer, James Coleman. From the Swahili word for "spontaneous creativity," the name embodied the creative spirit that drove this collective. It also provided a good analogy for their work ethic: Within three months, this fledgling society, with zero combined experience in the nonprofit sector, staged their first concert. Unfortunately, everything didn't go exactly as planned.

The concert was a baptism for the young producers in the harsh waters that are Murphy's Law. Though the concept of an outdoor jazz festival at San Lorenzo Park featuring Joe Henderson sounds wonderful in the abstract; sometimes nature interferes. Simply put, it rained. Lots.

"It was April 6, 1975, and we had managed to borrow a mahogany baby grand piano from a guy in Aptos," Wills remembers, "We had it up onstage on Duck Island out in the park when it really started to pour. I was stuck out there with one other person, and I had to run out into traffic to flag down a passing Ford Falcon to get it over to the Laurel School. Luckily, these two guys were looking for the show anyway."

"We had put the alternate location on the fliers in really small print," continues Tim Jackson, "but when we actually got there, it was packed. It was totally full."

"We weren't even that late, we only got there an hour after we were supposed to and so we just rolled the piano in and set it up on the floor," says Willis. "Then everyone at the front of the crowd pitched in to lift it up onto the stage."

Jackson remembers one other thing about that day, "We had to pay Joe Henderson with rolls of quarters from the donations. The average donation was 35 cents."

At the end of the day, the producers had a total of $4. Rather than becoming discouraged, they opened a bank account and started saving. For the next two years, the Society worked tirelessly to bankroll the dream of opening a permanent home to stage jazz events.

"We were so naive. We had no track record," remembers Burney. "Nobody knew who we were, but we had a few early musical friends who helped spread the word. Martha Young was a great supporter from the beginning."

The niece of Lester Young, Martha Young was instrumental in spreading the word in the Bay Area about the kids in Santa Cruz who wanted to start a club. When the Society booked Dexter Gordon to play a benefit at the Capitola Theater in 1975, Young was at the keys.

Gordon had not yet been through the great revival that he would experience at the end of this life. After moving to Copenhagen, he hadn't played in the States in many years, but he was coming home to see family in Los Angeles and play in San Francisco. As geography would have it, Santa Cruz was on the drive south. Todd Barkin, the booking agent at the San Francisco club the Keystone Korner, put the Society in touch with Dexter, and on his way back to L.A., he stopped to play in Capitola.

Burney remembers Gordon's reaction after the show: "He seemed to be genuinely moved by the enthusiastic audience reception. I couldn't help feeling that show was a turning point for him personally. He made a triumphant return amidst a great deal of attention a year later, but most people didn't even know he played here first."

The concert was also a turning point for the Society. They raised $1,300 from the show. They added the money to the receipts from their local festivals and put it in the bank. Now all that remained was to sell most of their personal possessions at the flea market to scare up first and last month's rent plus a deposit for an abandoned former bakery downtown.

Jazz Bakery

"Well, what colors are they? Hmmmm. How many are there? ... Yeah, I think it's safe to cut that one." After two years, 30 concerts and 30 pounds of paperwork, Sheba Burney and Tim Jackson found themselves in the attic of the former Parisian Bakery on Cedar Street, covered in dust and grime and taking directions from an overweight electrician working off community service hours through court referral. The Society had found a home, but it wasn't quite ready to receive visitors.

"The oven was still there," recalls Wills. "There was a layer of grease on the floor. It was gross."

"I remember the first order of business was to construct a wall between ourselves and the glass blowers next door," recalls Wills. "They were somewhat industrial themselves, so they didn't mind the noise."

The space was brought together through a massive volunteer effort, and some creative use of the country court referral system. "Since we were a nonprofit," remembers Burney, we could get ourselves on the list for community service, so that's how we ended up with a plumber and an electrician."

The budget was desperately thin. In the early days, the Kuumbwa's sourcing was more punk rock than jazz. "I used to go up the alley to the dumpster and I would find the greatest stuff there," recalls Burney, "One day I found some can lights. They were for a department store, but I took them anyway." The original seats were actually repurposed church pews, and Wills does not remember them fondly. "They were really heavy. I remember unloading them from the truck. They were solid oak, and not really comfortable at all. But volunteers made cushions and brought them in to try and make it more comfortable."

After several months of intense construction, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center opened its doors on May 27, 1977. The opening ceremonies continued for a week, featuring the best jazz performers in Santa Cruz. Those first few concerts featured Smith Dobson's group and the Hy-Tones, which boasted local heroes Paul Contos, Paul Nagel, Jim Baum and bassist Stan Poplin.

Unlike most clubs, there was no bar, no cafe, no noise and no smoke. More than one musician commented that this space was more like a church than a jazz club.

"One of the things that the musicians appreciated was the fact that this was a quiet place just to listen to music" recalls Jackson. This environment perfectly complimented the artistic philosophy that Kuumbwa has always adhered to; the center has always respected jazz as an art form and has given it a place to truly be heard.

Growing Pains

Shortly after the triumphant opening, the harsh realities of trying to keep a club alive quickly made themselves felt. Within a few months, the Society realized that their initial idea to present jazz every night was overly ambitious and they began to explore other ways to utilize the space in between bookings.

"On a commercial level," says John Livingston, a longtime supporter and board member of the center, "the music business doesn't make sense. Between artists' fees, what you can charge and the size of the rooms, it is just insane."

To counter this unequal equation, the center has never been run on a for-profit basis. Over the years, the center has pioneered a new model of running a jazz club, one that combines traditional ticketing and concessions with a wide range of other funding avenues, including grants, private contributions, concert sponsorship and a significant community membership base.

This radical departure from traditional accounting frees the club to pursue creative bookings and foster jazz appreciation and education on those nights when the room is not being visited by McCoy Tyner.

"One of our charter efforts, is to present artists that are not particularly marketable," says Livingston, "We had Bobby McFerrin here for 30 people, Brad Mehldau and Diana Krall played here before anyone knew who they were. The bigger acts allow us to give younger musicians a chance to perform and to develop. That's a service that we want to provide for the performing community."

Regardless of their status in the jazz pantheon, for many road-weary musicians the Kuumbwa is a place to enjoy a break from the grind that most face on a daily basis. In Santa Cruz, musicians have found a supportive audience and a space that respects their artistry much more than their ability to bring in significant bar receipts. According to Jackson, "the Kuumbwa is here to help spur the artist on to greater creativity."

This unique approach to treating the artists has paid off. Steve Turre has played the room, as have Randy Weston and Pharaoh Sanders. Musicians from the entire musical spectrum, from traditional performers like Jim Hall to avant-garde explorers like Anthony Braxton, have been welcomed into our community through the efforts of Tim Jackson and the Kuumbwa. For 30 years, every Monday night has featured quality music presented without frills or distractions. It's a haven for art from the harsh realities of commercial life.

Birthday Bash

The Kuumbwa's 30th anniversary boasts one hell of a birthday band. Tim Jackson has booked "Directions in Music," a jazz juggernaut featuring Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Michael Brecker on saxophone and Herbie Hancock holding down the keys. This concert, which will actually take place down the street at the Civic Auditorium, starts a yearlong celebration of the Kuumbwa's legacy. Pat Metheny will roll through town in March and in August, weather permitting, there will be another free concert at the Duck Pond in San Lorenzo Park.

Rich Wills remembers one of the first times that he tried to see Herbie Hancock play in Santa Cruz:

"Before we opened up, we tried to go get in to see Herbie play at the Catalyst," he recalls somewhat sheepishly. "It was in early 1977 and I couldn't afford to get in. So I climbed up on the dumpster around the back of the club. I wearing these cheap sneakers, and when I jumped off they fell apart and I landed on the balls of my feet. I broke a bone. I was still limping when we opened up the Center."

Thankfully, this time around such desperate measures won't be necessary for Wills or any other of the longstanding volunteers and members of the Kuumbwa Jazz Society. Through their hard work and dedication, they have improved the cultural life of our community immeasurably. Besides being a lesson in determination, it's also a poignant story of a group of people realizing their dreams despite the obstacles. It is also a good reminder to check the weather before going out to play.


The Kuumbwa Jazz Center kicks off its 30th anniversary celebration with Directions in Music: 'Our Times,' featuring Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove, Monday, Feb. 7, at 8pm at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Tickets are $30/$45/$60, available at the Civic box office or by calling 831.420.5260.

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From the February 2-9, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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