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Meet the JazzFest artistic director

Jason Olaine programs Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

Jason Olaine programs Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Fillmore Jazz Festival.


Last year you left Yoshi’s on Fillmore to join Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. How’s the new gig going?

The job is great — challenging and rewarding. Maybe that’s why it’s great. We just wrapped our 25th anniversary season and it was a home run, so there is some satisfaction, and relief.

What’s your role?

I’m the director of programming and touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center, so I’m responsible for all the programming we generate. Our concert season runs from September through June in our two main halls — the 450-seat Allen Room and the 1,100-seat Rose Theatre, located in the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan.

We also have an amazing jazz club — Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola — that is open seven nights a week, two shows a night, much like Yoshi’s, except we only have 125 seats. We have a similar club in the Middle East — in Doha, Qatar — that opened in October of 2012 and we will be opening a club in Shanghai in late 2016 or early 2017.

Our Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis tours approximately 12 weeks a year — they’re in Europe right now. We have tours slated from now through 2016, including trips to South America, Asia, Australia, the U.K. and here at home, plus we program a series in Mexico City. We’re putting a lot of musicians to work and spreading jazz to the masses.

What does it tell you about the state of jazz?

There are more people “consuming” jazz — buying tickets, attending free festivals like this one, downloading, streaming, sharing, buying, viewing on demand — than at any other time in history. Has the economy fully recovered here and abroad? Not by a long shot. So we feel that given how strong the jazz economy is now, the future looks even brighter. At Lincoln Center, we sold more tickets this year than any year before and had more than 100,000 people watching our live streams. And sales for next season are tracking 15 percent ahead of this year.

But the real clincher for feeling so optimistic is seeing real kids playing real jazz. I recently witnessed the “Essentially Ellington” high school big band competition, where 15 of the top bands from around the country perform three charts of the Duke’s music. (Only Rio Americana from Sacramento made it from California, sadly.) Man, I have to say I was blown away. The very first band I saw from Beloit, Wisconsin, was more swinging, more in time and in tune — and had more amazing soloists — than any high school band I remember competing against when I was a kid. And that band didn’t even make the top three.

In Doha, Qatar, we’ve set up more than 15 master classes, workshops and assembly performances at the American School of Doha and the Qatar Music Academy for local kids to interact with the professional musicians we’re sending out there to perform at the club. We invited the high school jazz band to perform onstage in the club, and that may have been a highlight of their year — to play a real jazz club. The feedback we’ve had from school administrators, students and parents has been overwhelming, thanking us for bringing jazz to the Middle East in general and to their schools in particular. So I’m bullish on jazz — where it is and where it’s headed.

Tell us, is Wynton Marsalis really perfect in every way?

I can’t think of a more inspiring person to work for. He is driven like no one I could imagine. He’s not just a world-class musician — perhaps the greatest trumpeter our planet has ever seen (although Wynton would put Louis Armstrong at the pinnacle, by the way). He’s also hell-bent on improving society and uplifting our culture through the way we communicate with one another.

And jazz — listening to it, playing it, supporting it — can and will naturally cause you to not only listen, to articulate, to share ideas, to rest, to improvise, to work together and, in the end, to strive toward excellence, all in the service of finding common ground.

But is Wynton perfect? Well, he’s my boss, so yes, he’s perfect. In just about every way.

What has prompted you to keep your Fillmore ties, even after moving to New York and the top of the jazz world?

When Jazz at Lincoln Center approached me in 2011, there were a few things I asked for. One, could I stay here in the Bay Area for another year (we lived in Oakland at the time) and consult from afar since my triplets (Miles, Evan and Aislin) were just a year old. Another was whether I could produce the occasional album if it wasn’t a conflict of interest in any way. And the third was whether I could continue as artistic director of the Fillmore Jazz Festival. And they said yes to all of the above.

Why Fillmore? The Bay Area is my home — I am a third generation Palo Altan. My dad, David, used to see Brubeck in SF when he was a high schooler. He was an amateur pianist himself and he turned me on to jazz as a baby. My first jobs in the jazz world were at Yoshi’s in Oakland and the Gavin Report back in the early 90s. I also interned at KJAZ and Jazz in the City, now SF Jazz.

When I was a working musician, my band “Jazz on the Line” and later “2AM” played Blondie’s on Valencia for years and years, and we played any other club or bar that would have us, including Yoshi’s in Oakland and Rasselas when it was on Divis.

So my heart is here. But I also feel I’m staying connected to the jazz and music scene here, which has served me well in New York. For instance,  Jazz at Lincoln Center has presented San Francisco’s own Paula West twice — once with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and again with Michael Feinstein. Also Kenny Washington — who is performing on Fillmore with the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra on Saturday — has played at Lincoln Center twice this year as well. Kim Nalley sold out all her shows at Lincoln Center — nearly 1,800 tickets! — as a headliner last December. And I’m sure I’ll discover more amazing talent here that East Coast audiences should hear. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Are you keeping an eye on the San Francisco scene? What about SF Jazz? And the changes at Yoshi’s?

I think the opening night concert I saw at the new SF Jazz Center was the most acoustically perfect concert I’ve ever heard. I’ve only heard one night of music there, but it is truly a work of art. I tried to sit in every seat, just to hear the varied nuance from front to back — and it’s amazing. I told Wynton he has to play here. I’m sure we will find a way to make that happen.

I am a fan of all things jazz in SF. Yoshi’s is family. Kaz Kajimura gave me my first job in jazz and then he hired me again 16 years later, which I still find hard to believe. So I am forever grateful and will always support and cheer for Yoshi’s.

What’s coming up?

We announced our 2014-15 season a couple of months ago and ticket sales are off to a blistering start. Now I’m working on ’15-’16.

If anyone is going to be in New York, please make a point of coming by to say hello. You can always see what we’re up to at jalc.org, and you can watch nearly all of our concerts free in HD and multi-track mixing at jalc.org/live. That’s right: We put up all of our concerts online with a multi-camera shoot and then we give the content to the artist so they can use it — to sell, for promo, whatever.

We don’t want to hoard music; we want to share it. And in the end, I think that’s one of the things I like the most about being involved with the Fillmore Jazz Festival: sharing music. So please enjoy. I know I am.