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Jazz Hot: Scenes from San Jose Jazz Festivals past include the stage in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, seen here in the early '90s.

All That's Jazz

The San Jose Jazz Society celebrates 15 years as a pillar of the South Bay jazz community

By Michael J. Vaughn

THE DREAM FACTORY at the San Jose Jazz Society has been cranking steadily for 15 years now, growing from a couple of gigs a year to presenters of the largest free jazz festival in the country, but don't expect to find any laurel-sitting going on at their new offices at Post and Market streets.

Although the organization is taking some time Tuesday night to celebrate its decade-and-a-half with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock (at the San Jose Civic Auditorium), it's already cooking up new projects, including a jazz cultural center at the Jose Theater and tie-ins with San Jose's new House of Blues, set to open next year.

The society was founded in 1986 by drummer Sammy Cohen, a musicians-union activist and early Metro contributor. In 1990, the group presented its first San Jose Jazz Festival, a one-day, one-stage affair that would grow to last August's 11th annual, 90-act gala, which drew 130,000 to its 12 stages. Somewhere in between--in 1994--founding board member Henry Schiro stepped in as director during a financial crunch, "just to help out for three or four months," and never left.

Though some may be surprised that an area that regularly drives jazz clubs out of business would so enthusiastically embrace a jazz festival, Schiro says he wasn't surprised at all.

"The festival and the society have never looked back," he says. "We run a very safe, clean event. We pride ourselves on safety, and the diversity of the audience--both in terms of language and [class]--is amazing."

Schiro came to jazz through that very sense of its universal appeal--and through Frank Sinatra, who served as such an effective bridge between popular music and jazz. Schiro played locally as a pianist and later worked as director of operations at the Garden City card club (one of the area's longest-term presenters of jazz), before coming to his current position at the Jazz Society.

Schiro gives much of the credit for the Jazz Festival's success to its sponsors, whose enthusiasm continues to impress. Because of a long-term exclusive deal with Ford, for example, he turned down 15 offers from car companies just this month. Because of the society's strict anti-smoking policy (highlighted by a poster featuring Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and other greats who have been killed by the habit), he has turned down $167,000 worth of sponsorships from tobacco companies just this year.

Horn Blasts in the Past: A member of the Oscar C. Williams Quartet performs at the Pavilion Shops Stage (now the offices of AboveNet) in 1993.

Schiro seems to take even more pride in the society's education and outreach programs. One of its principal programs sends four musicians at a time to talk to school assemblies of 70 kids--kept to that size so that each student may handle and play the instruments after listening to the musicians talk about and demonstrate the playing of jazz. Education, says Schiro, has been a natural element of the society since its birth.

"I get a kick out of groups that say, 'Hey, let's do some outreach programs so we can get funded.' We were doing outreach programs in our first couple of months, and still, it's growing by leaps and bounds."

The society's greatest achievement, however, may be in filling a very basic need: providing regular work for South Bay musicians. "Over the years," says Schiro, "musicians have always taken it in the behind, so to speak, about being paid. As far as we're concerned, the musicians are our lifeline here. I know what they pay in nearby cities I will not name, and we beat it all the time. We are at the top of the list."

That sentiment is echoed by jazz drummer Wally Schnalle, who participates regularly in society programs. "I've worked for them in many capacities," he says, "helping to form the jazz festival, performing in the jazz festival, in concerts, in the schools and in corporate events. Every time I've been paid well and treated with respect. Can't complain about that. The society has been great for the awareness of jazz in the South Bay. It's hard to keep it alive in the clubs; many clubs have come and gone trying to do the jazz thing, but at least the Jazz Society has been there."

In a downtown where many an independent jazz club has come and gone (the latest brave souls are the owners of Club Ibex, across the street from the Jazz Society offices), the year 2001 offers a couple of tantalizing possibilities: the House of Blues, a nationally financed (and publicized) franchise set for a summer opening in the old Woolworth's building on Lightston Alley, and a Jazz Cultural Center being proposed by the society for the old Jose Theater on Second and San Fernando (the Jose is currently being retrofitted by the City of San Jose).

"The plan has been in place [at the society] for five years," says Schiro. "It would be some kind of partnership with the City of San Jose. If it doesn't happen at the Jose, it's going to happen somewhere." Schiro adds that the center would offer much more than jazz; jazz would simply serve as its central element. "We could do dance, poetry, visual arts--the culture of jazz. In one particular week, you could see Indian dance, tribal poetry, a budding jazz musician, master classes with a high-level national artist."

Schiro, who is working as a consultant with the House of Blues project, adds that the two presenters would have some natural tie-ins, whether through cooperative bookings of nationally known artists or through educational programs that the House of Blues already pursues as a company policy at its other locations. Though blues is obviously the venue's main offering, it presents a wide range of styles, including, Schiro says, about "10 percent" jazz.

Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock perform for the San Jose Jazz Society's 15th anniversary on Tuesday (Nov. 14) at 8pm at the San Jose Civic Auditorium, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $50/$35. (408.288.7557 or BASS)

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From the November 9-15, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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