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First Look: SFJAZZ Center

With musicians in mind, Mark Cavagnero designs the first concert hall in the United States purpose-built for jazz performances.

By Lamar Anderson
January 21, 2013
Photo © Henrik Kam
With musicians in mind, Mark Cavagnero designs the first concert hall in the United States purpose-built for jazz performances.

When Chick Corea, Esperanza Spalding, and other greats take the stage at SFJAZZ Center’s opening concert on Wednesday—in a night of performances emceed by Bill Cosby—they will not only inaugurate San Francisco’s newest concert venue, but they will also break in the first standalone jazz hall in the United States. The building, which opens officially today, joins the city’s opera, ballet, and symphony in the Civic Center performing arts district, and it gives the 30-year-old SFJAZZ organization its first permanent home.

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“We’ve used almost every venue between 300 and 5,000 seats in the Bay Area,” says Randall Kline, founder and executive artistic director of SFJAZZ. To accommodate that range of audience sizes (along with offices and practice spaces), the new facility’s architect, Mark Cavagnero Associates, designed a versatile, state-of-the-art auditorium with a large-concert capacity of 734 seats that can be cut in half for more intimate, club-style happenings.

The architects designed the rectangular, 36,500-square-foot venue as a box within a box. A concrete-enclosed auditorium provides acoustical isolation for concerts and handles the building’s entire seismic load. The firm wrapped the central performance hall with glassed-in public spaces, including airy lobbies and balconies that open to the street on the upper floors of the three-story building. When the balcony doors open, “this whole place just feels like a porch,” says Cavagnero. The ground-floor lobby includes a new restaurant by celebrated chef Charles Phan, who operates a small kingdom of popular eateries in San Francisco.

Inspired by places as diverse as tiny New York jazz clubs and Unitarian churches, Cavagnero designed the main auditorium as a Zen-like enclosure paneled with rhythmic slats of stained white oak. Removable seats and stairs, along with an adjustable stage, allow SFJAZZ to configure the space into everything from a central stage surrounded by seating to a large dance floor. Movable acoustic screens can conceal empty seats during small performances. The architects also made the rows of chairs climb as sharply as code permitted. “It’s very steeply raked so musicians can look at people’s faces and not across the tops of their heads to the rear wall,” says Cavagnero. “So if people are in the groove and swaying and smiling and closing their eyes, the musicians really feed off of that.”

With a setup that can be hand-tailored to different performances, SFJAZZ hopes to offer audiences and musicians alike a unique and sought-after experience. From February 7 to 10, bassist Dave Holland—a veteran of Miles Davis’s band—will play four shows, each different from the previous night’s. “He probably hasn’t played that way for an audience of that size in 20 years,” says Cavagnero. “That’s the goal: use the space to attract musicians, to make them want to play here.”

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