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Randall Kline, Stepping Down from SFJAZZ, Reflects on 40 Years of Music

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Wayne Shorter accepts the lifetime achievement award on behalf of Joni Mitchell from SFJAZZ founder and artistic director Randall Kline, in 2015. (Drew Altizer Photography/KQED File Photo)

Randall Kline, SFJAZZ’s executive artistic director who founded the organization nearly 40 years ago, will step down from his role in November of 2023, the organization has announced.

Kline, the public face of SFJAZZ, assured in a statement that “SFJAZZ is in a position of strength, with a great board, management team, and staff. It has been an extraordinary journey and I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

In a conversation last week over Zoom, when I ask why he’s made the decision, he warns me he’s “going to be long-winded here,” and gives me a 15-minute answer that basically boils down to “the time is right.”

Randall Kline, who founded SFJAZZ in 1983, will step down from his role next year. (Ross Eustis)

Kline, 68, loves to tell good stories. He also loves numbers, and notes that SFJAZZ has moved in 10-year cycles. He founded it as Jazz in the City in 1983; it became the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and then went year-round 1993; around 2003 it expanded into SFJAZZ; and the SFJAZZ Center opened in 2013.

As for stepping down, “Obviously, I’m getting older,” he tells me. “You think about these things as you get older. But this has been a very intimate relationship, like a family kind of thing… and inevitably, I’m going to leave at some point.”

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The year 2023, SFJAZZ’s next 10-year mark, was all the evidence he needed. (He doesn’t say it, but I suspect this fixation on the number 10 may have something to do with Thelonius Monk’s birthdate, Oct. 10, which SFJAZZ celebrates every year.) A search for his replacement will start this summer.

“It’s very hard for me to separate the organization from myself at this point,” Kline says, adding, “If anyone wants to hear an opinion, I’ll be there after. It’s not like I’m cutting off here. This is a place I hope to come back a lot to, and enjoy, and do what I can.”

Two covers of programs, one from SFJAZZ's 10th annual festival, one from the 25th
Just two of the many programs for SFJAZZ’s annual offerings. (SFJAZZ)

Hitchhiking to San Francisco in 1974

It’s been quite a ride for the college football player-turned-bassist who first hitchhiked to San Francisco in 1974. Kline moved to the city shortly afterward with $600, a motorcycle, a bass and an amp, and “no fucking clue what I was gonna do.” One day, after knocking on the door of the legendary nightclub the Boarding House a few times during his bike messenger rounds, Kline got a job working the side door for a Manhattan Transfer show.

Kline stayed at the Boarding House for two years, osmosing the music from the stage—“Bob Marley and the Wailers, Willie Nelson, Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris with an amazing band, Stan Getz”—and learning the live music business. Steve Martin’s residencies provided him with another insight: that performing on stage, “if you want to be really great at, it’s work.” (Kline will often tell people he has the easy job: “It’s the musicians who have the hard gig.”)

Kline booked his first jazz show in 1981, with Kenny Burrell headlining at the Gold Rush, a cowboy bar in San Jose. Two years later, with $10,000 from Grants for the Arts and a soundman from the Boarding House named Clint Gilbert, Kline booked a two-night slate of Bay Area artists and launched Jazz in the City.

It may seem like hyperbole, but San Francisco’s cultural landscape has not been the same since.

A corner-lot building with windows lit up
The SFJAZZ Center at Franklin and Fell Streets was completed in 2013. (SFJAZZ)

Full Seats, Great Staff: ‘What Could Be Better?’

At the opening in 2013 of the $64 million, 3,500-square-foot SFJAZZ Center, Kline says, he was occasionally asked how proud he felt. His answer at the time, cribbed from an aside in then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s speech at the grand opening of the ill-fated San Francisco Yoshi’s, was “ask me in three years.”

Kline was concerned about sustainability. “And I didn’t feel a lot better at three years. Then it got to five years and I still had the same kind of anxiety in a certain kind of way, how we’ve got to make sure this thing really works,” he says. “And so I realized at some point, I do have to cut out of this, because the organization, number one, doesn’t need the worry-wart constantly around, trying to figure it out. It can stand on its own.”

Indeed, SFJAZZ has been successful, with over 90% attendance, doing 500 shows a year, Kline says. “We’ve got this great touring band, and great staff, and great board, and what could be better?”

So, Kline says, “Starting the fifth decade, I thought, ‘Well, this seems like such a natural thing.’”

Randall Kline in 2003. (Courtesy SFJAZZ)

Kline’s Five Most Memorable SFJAZZ Shows

To break the fourth wall a little bit: I have met Kline in person exactly once, and briefly, before a site-specific SFJAZZ performance of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit at Sutro Baths. But as I’ve observed him over the past 15 years, sometimes as a journalist but primarily as a jazz fan, he’s struck me as a person who does it because he truly loves the music, and the musicians who create it. Think Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman, minus the billion dollars.

So to mark the news of his stepping down, I wanted to ask Kline to pick his five most memorable shows out of the thousands he’s presented over the past four decades.

“This is the hardest question to answer,” he says. But he’s game.

Read on for Randall Kline’s five top picks—in his own words, edited for length and clarity.

A man stands before a historic gothic cathedral
Anthony Braxton at Grace Cathedral in 1986. (Courtesy SFJAZZ)

Anthony Braxton at Grace Cathedral, 1986

I approached Anthony. I remember going to his house in Oakland. He had this great model train set, and I can’t believe I’m sitting here with Anthony Braxton, asking, “What do you want to do at Grace Cathedral?” He came with me there one day, we walked around, and he came up with this idea: two orchestras, one on one altar, one on the font at the other end of the aisle. Kent Nagano conducted one of the orchestras. Anthony wanted six soprano saxophone players to walk up and down the aisle between the two orchestras, and they had to be dressed in these white space suits. June Watanabe, the modern dancer, was on the other stage. It was this outrageous thing.

What happened that was so great about it was Phil Elwood, the esteemed critic, came up to me after that performance and just read me the riot act. “How can you waste the National Endowment”—we had just got our first NEA money—”you waste it on this awful… you call this music? This has nothing to do with jazz. This is just terrible!” And I thought, like, “This is great!” I liked Phil, but it was just great that you could do art, Anthony could write something beautiful, that could push the boundaries a little bit. That’s one big memory about allowing artists to do things.

A man plays a saxophone, slightly hunched over
Ornette Coleman at the Vienne Jazz Festival in France, 1994, the same year of his notorious ‘Tone Dialing’ premiere at SFJAZZ. (David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images)

Ornette Coleman at Masonic Auditorium, 1994

We had done an Ornette concert before and it went great. I approached him again and he said, “I want to have some Harmolodic speakers, and maybe I want to maybe involve a fakir.” He also wanted to come back to playing with a piano. Great. And then it’s, “Oh, I’ve got a friend who wants to do some video stuff. He has worked with Peter Gabriel.” This was the beginning of these live graphics happening with cameras.

The day of the show, I got a call from our stage manager: “I’ve seen the rehearsal here going on and… there might be some piercing happening on stage.” I said, “Well, look, if this is Ornette’s intent here…” I just didn’t think anything of it. I’ve got full trust in what he was going to do.

The quartet plays and it’s fantastic. Then the speaker introduces the fakir, and the guy walks out and he looks like an accountant to me; it doesn’t look like my idea of a fakir. And he starts talking about body mutilation. Then he calls two assistants, this beautiful young woman and a beautiful young guy, and he starts piercing her cheek. The camera’s closing in, you can see a little drop of blood coming down. Nobody saw this coming. The audience starts getting very uncomfortable, and at some point people start yelling at the stage. It was like The Rites of Spring starting to happen.

They’re piercing cheeks and ears. And then at some point the woman drops her robe and he’s going to pierce her breasts. And at that point, people are shouting, “Get this misogynist off the stage.” And eventually, the culmination was—this guy pierces with swords—he actually did one horizontal and two vertical down each of her breasts.

At intermission, all our sponsors are there, and this guy named Russ Campbell, who had given us cash on behalf of Embarcadero Center, he comes towards me in a beeline. “Randall, that was amazing! What a happening! This is so great, this is so San Francisco. It’s this fantastic thing.” Then I see Phil Elwood again, and this time it’s not just wasting the NEA’s money; it’s blasphemous.

That concert became legendary. I think maybe two dozen people got refunds at intermission. The second half was much tamer than the first half, but that was like, “Okay, this is as memorable as it gets.”

A man plays a saxophone, eyes closed
Sonny Simmons opening for Branford Marsalis at the Masonic Auditorium, 1994. (Courtesy SFJAZZ)

Sonny Simmons at Masonic Auditorium, 1994

I was riding my bike home from work at night, in the summer. And as I’m turning off of Market crossing Post Street, I hear this incredible saxophone player playing. Not just some street musician, but some unbelievable music. It’s eight o’clock. There’s no one out for a street musician to be playing for, to make money. I ride past it and I go two blocks. And I just say, “I can’t. I’ve got to turn around.” I go back, and I get a listen, and I drop a dollar in his saxophone case. And say, “Hi, who are you?” He says, “Oh, well, my name’s Sonny Simmons.”

And my jaw drops. I think, “Oh my God. I can’t believe this.” I start getting in this conversation with him. “What are you doing?” “Oh, I’m coming back, and this is just a great place to practice.” I asked: “Can you give me a way to contact you?”

Branford Marsalis was playing for us at the Masonic a month or two later. I called Branford, and I said, “Look, the most beautiful thing just happened. I ran into Sonny Simmons on the street, he’s got a band together. What do you think about him opening for you at the Masonic?” And Branford said sure, yeah, without hesitation.

They sounded great, and Sonny had a bit of a revival—he was playing around a lot and had a bit of a resurgence. There’s a documentary that was made about it. It was just a beautiful, beautiful moment.

A quartet performs on stage
(L–R) Nicholas Payton, Matthew Garrison, Ravi Coltrane, Marcus Gilmore and Adam Rogers play ‘ Love Supreme’ at the SFJAZZ Center in 2014. (Scott Chernis)

50th Anniversary of ‘A Love Supreme’ at SFJAZZ Center, 2014

Ravi Coltrane put together these four nights for the 50th anniversary of A Love Supreme. I’ve never had a better musical experience, I can say, than the night with Nicholas Payton, Roy Haynes’s grandson Marcus Gilmore on drums, Jimmy Garrison’s son Matt Garrison on bass, and Adam Rogers on guitar. Recreating A Love Supreme. No musician likes to play A Love Supreme, because this is the untouchable thing. It is sacred.

Everything about it, the lights, the sound, it was like magic from the first note. They did two performances that night. I was there sitting with my wife, and she’s a music fan, but she’s not this diehard kind of fan. I said to her, “Do you want to stay for the second show?” She said: “What are you even asking me?”

Everything about it, the respect for the music, how seriously they took it, how heartfelt it was, it was just gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. I can almost remember every note of it.

A man plays saxophone
Joe Henderson in 1989, one year before his concert at Grace Cathedral with Zakir Hussain. (David Redfern/Redferns)

Joe Henderson and Zakir Hussain at Grace Cathedral, 1990

I’ve got to go back to Grace Cathedral. Two great, great masters. Joe played such an unbelievably important role in this organization’s growth, and it was before his big revival. We had been figuring out how to make things work at Grace, with its six-second reverberation, and I approached Joe, “What do you think about Zakir?” And, “Zakir, what do you think about Joe?” “Count me in and we’ll do it.”

Both rehearsals get canceled; they just kind of show up to the thing. We added drama to it with these lights we had hung up in the top of the thing, and our lighting designer wanted to bring a smoke machine so you get those rock-like effects. And the verger said, “You don’t need to bring a smoke machine. Let’s do it God’s way, and let’s cense the place.”

So he pulls out the censers with the Frankincense, they walk up and down the aisles, and they get it filled with this incredible smell of the Frankincense and these beautiful shafts of light. And Joe started the concert in the organ loft at the back of the cathedral by the font, so that all you could do was hear him. You couldn’t see him.

Then Zakir starts on the altar. Joe takes this elevator down to the floor. They eventually meet in the center in the aisle. It was very dramatic, and it was just pure magic.

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