Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco

San Francisco.

It used to be that you’d duck out of a smoke-filled jazz show for a much-needed gulp of fresh air.  Bebop was breathless in more than one sense: not only fast, but also dangerous to the lungs of the listeners. Not that they cared much, since most of them were smoking, too.

Legion are the famous portraits of musicians smoking and playing, often at nearly the same time.  Herman Leonard’s 1948 photo of a seated Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophone resting on his knee and the huge cloud of smoke he’s just inhaled hanging over his head is just one such classic. Or recall Don Hunstein’s shots of Miles enshrouded by tobacco haze in the Columbia studios in midtown Manhattan during the sessions that produced his Porgy & Bess. The cover of the two-volume 1952 Blue Note recording he named after himself—“Miles Davis”—shows the trumpeter with lips to his instrument, the fingers of his right hand working the valves, his left holding a fuming cigarette. By contrast, pianists and drummers can smoke while making music, as Count Basie often did. Perhaps not coincidentally, his minimal style allowed time and space for a momentarily free hand to deal with his cigar. That wind players, especially, could and would sacrifice their lungs in this way never ceases to amaze me.

Last week and into this one the whole of the Bay Area became an old-school jazz club of sorts: choked with smoke and filled with wailing. Instead of an oxygen rich outside, you had to be indoors to escape—or try to.

Late on Saturday afternoon before the early-onset twilight I walked up to the Lyon Steps that descend steeply from the summit of Pacific Heights through gardened terraces and past billionaires’ villas to the flats of Cow Hollow and the Marina District. From this vantage point one expects the perfect Californian vista above the Golden Gate, the day decrescendoing through more than fifty shades of blue, each one impossible to paint. So welcoming are these conditions to vision that individual trees on the Marin Headlands are crisply visible even to failing middle-aged eyes like mine. But that night you could barely make out the water of the Bay not to mention the Golden Gate Bridge that usually appears so close that you think you could leap right onto it. The air should be fragrant with the scent of eucalyptus from the adjacent Presidio and rosemary from the flower beds of the super-rich. Instead, I smelled the fire.

Always clotted with sunset seekers, the Lyon Steps were empty. The tourists had fled, the locals bunkered in their mansions. Was it the end of the day or the end of the world?

The authorities recommended staying indoors, but I decided to brave what was left of the biosphere and head down from Pacific Heights to the Hayes Valley to hear jazz piano legend, Kenny Barron, long one of my keyboard heroes. I hadn’t seen him play in more than three decades. That had been in the mid-1980s at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts with the quartet Sphere, a group dedicated to interpreting the music of Thelonius Monk, whose middle name the ensemble shared. Back then Barron had been joined by Buster Williams on bass and two of Monk’s legendary sidemen: tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and drummer Ben Riley, who died just last year. In the Charles Hotel that night it had been smoky but swinging.

Down in the Hayes Valley last Saturday night many of the well-heeled ticketholders were arriving in face masks—not exactly the fashion accessory of choice for would-be hipsters dreaming of Charlie Parker’s 52ndStreet days. I’ve heard that jazz is now big in Beijing where the face-mask look is ubiquitous. Smug Americans thought that look would never take off here. Well it’s here now, and getting more popular every minute.

Inside SFJazz all was clean and new. The grey steel interior and vented panels stylishly advertised what all ardently desired: air-handling.  “How fine are the filters?” one will want to know in the years to come.  But for now the architecture and its maintenance assured the Saturday-nighters that they had entered a “controlled environment”—never mind that the environment is doing the controlling now.  But the big plate glass windows were not yet smudged with ash from the fires up north, and the masks came off, stowed in purse or cashmere pocket. No one was out on the second-story balcony tonight watching the street life below.

People took their seats in the main hall—the Robert Miner Auditorium—protected still further, they believed, by another set of walls. You can bring a drink in and put it in the holder attached to your cool chair, but no smoking allowed. Everyone had done enough of that just getting to the venue.

Kenny Barron had been in residence for a long weekend starting Thursday and concluding on Sunday, November 12th: he opened with a concert of duets with diverse musicians; brought in his own Concentric Circle Quintet for another; held masterclasses; and on Saturday night led a program billed as “Rising Women in Jazz” with guitarist/singer Camila Meza, saxophonist Hailey Niswanger; and vibraphonist, Nikara Warren. They were anchored by Barron at the mighty Steinway grand, blacker than coals. Barron brought with him the other members of his current trio—Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Jonathan Blake on drums.

One understands, even appreciates, the impulse to advertise the fact that the young musicians backed by Barron are women, though in a better world their gender wouldn’t need to be on the marquee. Perhaps even in this one it would be wiser just to present the ensemble as one well-worth hearing: “Rising Stars”—rather than “Women” before “Jazz.”  As much as the female-ness of the group was worth remarking on in the male-dominated jazz scene, the audience would be free to do so without curation from above. Jazz-playing youngwomen in attendance would be free to hold up the musicians on the bandstand as role models, drawing their own inferences and inspirations from what they heard and saw. These audience members could, if they cared to, also reflect on the image and sound of a male trio arranged in semi-circle around the three women at the front of the stage, and also ponder any culturally-inflected attributes of the sometimes-squawking-sometimes-mellifluous soprano sax, the shimmering-yet-insistent vibraphone, or a suave guitar in tandem with the crystalline soprano voice.

Imagine instead a concert featuring “young African-American classical musicians on the rise” in which racially-profiled players were granted the chance to play with famous white ones.

To his credit, the elegant and gracious Barron never mentioned that his colleagues were women, referring to them simply and sincerely as “outstanding musicians.” I doubt he had to be prompted to avoid any reference to their gender by Nikara Warren, who happens to be his granddaughter.  Endlessly inventive and ceaselessly tasteful like her grandad, Warren is a hard-driving improviser, who more than holds her own, whatever the man-to-woman balance or imbalance.

The only sonic gender giveaway was the singing of Meza, who did a picturesque duet with Barron on his composition “Until Then,” one of several originals heard from the night’s leader. Hailing from Chile—and hailed by commentators for her folkloric enrichments of jazz—, Meza was well-chosen to explore the graceful harmonic contours of the tune and its Latin beat, singing the melody along with her guitar and likewise doubling her improvised solo with her clear, sometimes distant voice. The Barron composition “Cook’s Bay”—a place he visited on a sailing cruise with his wife in the South Pacific—also had a bossa nova feel, as if azure water and palm trees automatically bring to mind the tropical beaches and music of this hemisphere. This bit of harmless exoticism didn’t count as “infamous”—the adjective that Barron used, appositely enough, to describe Cook. But still, this reflexive turn to a Latin jazz feel even when imagining the other side of the world did leave one wondering whether Barron had taken in any Polynesian music on his vacation, or whether he hears the world through Western ears only.

However evocative of carefree waters, even these strains couldn’t completely dampen thoughts of the climate catastrophe unfolding in the world beyond the glass doors of SFJazz. The ruminative solo piano introductions and Barron’s expansive elaborations on his own mellow tunes often gave way to Hailey Niswanger’s soprano saxophone torrents, rising like ocean waters above the sand even to the cabañas beyond.  Likewise, the radiant cycles of Barron’s “Sun Shower” cut against the calming grain of its own Latin groove—yet another one from him— with Warren’s vibes enfolding the framing sonorities in its warming rays. Meza’s guitar rained down too, spiking up high on her fingerboard before being absorbed low in her range: the artfully conceived shape of her improvisation encouraged by Blake’s brilliantly busy but never too-intrusive drumming and Barron’s assured, but never too-insistent encouragement. Kitagawa’s bass solo with its thrumming double stops that slid and shouted through microtonal space, took on almost apocalyptic implications, as if a Sun Shower were the last thing we needed in the dark confines of the Miner Auditorium.

These Barron originals were interspersed with blues-inspired numbers by other jazz greats. The gentle ostinato of late saxophonist and former Barron collaborator John Stubblefield’s “Dialogues in Blue” did not hold the audience’s feet or ears to the fire, though it lit one under Niswanger. Given his Sphere credentials, one expects Barron’s Monk to be magisterial. The pianist duly led a swashbuckling foray through the cantankerous riffs and snarky asides of Monk’s “I Mean You.” Barron’s playing is by nature smooth, so when he hits a Monkish dissonance it is all the more jarring.

The closer came with Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”—as in our carbon ones are huge, including, but not limited to the much-travelled musicians on stage. The tune’s frenetic stops and starts, spiraling trajectories, spurred the musicians to outpourings so ecstatic that they flirted with the apocalyptic.

The energized audience was calmed again by Barron’s solo encore—a tune I recognized but could not name, the haze of night seeping back into me.  The farewell started with searching chords interleaved with flashing Tatumesque runs and moved into a hesitant stride, before receding into reverie again. It wasn’t “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes—or Lungs” but it might as well have been.

It was now time to the face the music outside, buoyed somewhat by the night’s confirmation that if there were a pianist one would want in one’s Steinway-equipped bomb shelter it would be none other than Kenny Barron.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at