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From Yoshi’s to Lincoln Center

Photograph of Jason Olaine by Kathi O'Leary

JAZZ | Jason Olaine

It seems like only yesterday that I came back home to the Bay Area after 10 years in New York to become artistic director of Yoshi’s new jazz club on Fillmore. That was May 2009, and here it is soon to be 2012. Now I find myself about to leave Yoshi’s to return to New York to program Jazz at Lincoln Center.

During my few short years back in the Bay Area, I’m not sure that anything has drastically changed at Yoshi’s San Francisco. We’re still here and we’re still presenting quality music and serving up great food. Maybe there’s not quite as much jazz on the menu as I had originally hoped, but there’s still quite a bit, considering that both SF Jazz and Yoshi’s Oakland are also programming jazz year-round.

What did change was the quantity of productions and more varied programming. Most worked, some didn’t.

Maybe you saw some hip-hop on the calendar, or some Texas swing, or some singer-songwriters, or even a cover band now and then. Perhaps you caught the melodious strains of Canadian Brass (if not, you can catch them when they return in December). Or maybe you danced to a late-night DJ set by Grandmaster Flash, or witnessed the mesmerizing droning of Tinariwen from the Saharan Desert, or caught Branford Marsalis’s burning quartet exploring the bounds of modern jazz.

What became clear early on was that for Yoshi’s on Fillmore to survive and eventually thrive, we needed to be appealing to many different music audiences and use the restaurant space even after prime dining hours. So we tried a few different things: We partnered with KDFC for a long-running series of classical concerts. We presented DJs in the restaurant late at night while in the club we presented a totally different concert to a different audience.

Along with the demand to adapt came the need to deliver artists and bands that could fill up the club and the restaurant throughout the year. As a musical omnivore of sorts, I initially found it challenging and rewarding to bring old school hip hop like Public Enemy — with a live band — to the Yoshi’s stage. Or to present George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic for six shows, or De La Soul, the Pharcyde and Mos Def, and have sold out audiences enjoy these groups in such an intimate space.

Photograph of Jason Olaine at Yoshi's by Kathi O'Leary

But the downside for me was that I was moving further and further away from the music that I love the most, and that’s jazz.

I fondly remember my early days at Yoshi’s on Claremont Avenue in Oakland in the early ’90s, when we would have six-night runs with such artists as Betty Carter, Joe Williams, McCoy Tyner (for two weeks!), Abbey Lincoln, Ray Brown, Joe Pass, Tony Williams, Toots Thielemans, Milt Jackson, Cachao, Gene Harris, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Irakere, Anthony Braxton, Tito Puente, Cecil Taylor — the list goes on and on.

With the recent passing of jazz drumming greats Eddie Marshall and Paul Motian, I’m reminded how few jazz titans and living legends we have left — and how critical it is that we honor them and present them to our audiences. Of course, that also means the audience has to be there to support it.

That will be the challenge for Eric Hanson, who I have recruited to take over my position as artistic director. He’s as knowledgeable about jazz and cares as deeply for the music and the artists as anyone I know in the business. His marketing cohort at Yoshi’s SF is Evan Sokol, and these two have worked together in the past so I’m feeling very good about leaving Yoshi’s in great hands.

As for me, I’m looking forward to the challenge of programming Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 25th anniversary season and working alongside artistic director Wynton Marsalis. I will be overseeing the programming for their flagship venues in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle in Manhattan and at new international properties being created in partnership with St. Regis hotels. The first club in Doha, Qatar, is scheduled to open in the spring of 2012, with additional clubs opening every other year in resort locations in America, China and Latin America. It’s an exciting opportunity for me to help spread the gospel of jazz around the world.

I’ve enjoyed my second tour of duty at Yoshi’s and the challenge of establishing the club in the Fillmore Jazz District. Owner Kaz Kajimura has assembled a top-notch team to carry the Yoshi’s vision into the future. While it’s sad to say goodbye to the Bay Area and my Yoshi’s family again, I’m looking forward to joining my New York family with Wynton as the patriarch. Wynton’s commitment to the art form and his personal and professional integrity are inspiring. I look forward to working solely in the service of jazz music once again.

One more thing: I’m not leaving the Fillmore behind entirely. Last year I began programming the Fillmore Jazz Festival, and I am looking forward to continuing that arrangement by programming the 2012 festival next Fourth of July weekend.

Thank you to the residents of this great and historic neighborhood — “the Harlem of the West” — for your support of the Fillmore Jazz District and of live music, wherever you may find it.

Read more: “Yoshi’s new guy focused on variety