How Randall Kline turned San Francisco into an international jazz center

The founder and artistic director of SFJAZZ is stepping down, but will never ever be forgotten

By Yoshi Kato

Speciall to The Examiner

The jazz, performing arts and nonprofit communities all seemed to gasp collectively on March 22 when SFJAZZ announced its founder and executive artistic director, Randall Kline, would be stepping down in November 2023. Like a well guarded Apple product secret, there was no hint that Kline was even pondering retirement.

The 68-year-old Laurel Heights resident has guided SFJAZZ from its 1983 roots showcasing locally based musical talent at the two-day Jazz in the City festival, to becoming an internationally recognized organization that presents concerts and events throughout the year — mostly in its SFJAZZ Center, the first freestanding building dedicated to jazz in the U.S.

“He’s had a major impact on the Bay Area and jazz in general,” says Tim Jackson, artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. “SFJAZZ has become one of the great jazz institutions of the world. And while nobody does this kind of work by themselves, he had the vision, the determination, the will and the know-how to get it done.”

Four days after SFJAZZ triumphantly produced and presented the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert at its Center, Kline spoke with the Examiner in an interview that revisited SFJAZZ’s humble past, examined the Center’e role in the musical ecosystem and looked into his transformation from an independent player on San Francisco’s concert scene to founding and running a major performing arts nonprofit.

Kline is always enthusiastic when introducing concerts from the bandstand of Miner Auditorium, the SFJAZZ Center’s 700-seat main hall. But there was an extra sparkle in his eye as he gave opening remarks for the Jazz Masters concert, which was held in person on March 31 after SFJAZZ had recorded and streamed celebratory events for the NEA Jazz Master Fellows classes of 2020 and 2021.

The National Endowment for the Arts had been an early supporter of SFJAZZ (née Jazz in the City), he said. And now SFJAZZ could reciprocate by hosting the NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert in San Francisco for the first time. That event honored the members of the 40th Jazz Masters class — alto saxophonist/cultural activist/educator Donald Harrison, Jr., drummer/bandleader Billy Hart, vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Cassandra Wilson and bassist/producer/television and film scorer Stanley Clarke — with speeches, live performances and video tributes.

“The first big grant we got from the NEA was a program called Jazz Management, back around 1986,” Kline recalls by phone from his home office. “We received half of a salary for a development director, and at the time I viewed it as being the most important thing some three years into our existence.

“We needed to be able to write grants and we needed to really raise money, if we were going to act like a real, bonafide nonprofit,” he adds. “Prior to that, I was writing grants, or we hired a grant writer. And so this was someone to really help us get established.”

About five years later, the NEA awarded another significant grant that helped shape SFJAZZ into a Hayes Valley occupant that could sit among older organizations like the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Ballet, he says. “It was to help advance startup, small nonprofits to becoming mid-sized nonprofits.”

“You were assigned consultants to write your strategic plan, and that was our first-ever strategic plan,” he continues. “The statistic I remember them giving at the time was half of the organizations that went into this program did not come out of it, because it really made you take a hard, hard look at whether you had the right things to move forward.”

That initial strategic plan included the proposition that the organization have its own building, which became a reality some 32 years later with the SFJAZZ Center’s opening night celebration on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2013.

The successful completion of the $64 million structure was a watershed moment that gave SFJAZZ a home venue with two stages, including the Joe Henderson Lab, or JHL, which is situated along Franklin Street, seating 100; top floor offices; a box office and mini gift shop; four separate bars; and a restaurant. But there are other less visible milestones, including the introduction of an expanded spring season in 2000 to pair with the autumn San Francisco Jazz Festival and the all-star SFJAZZ Collective house band’s founding in 2004.

When the Center opened and was successfully received, SFJAZZ quickly adopted an ambitious calendar with over 500 concert offerings from September through May as well as during the San Francisco Jazz Festival and summer sessions between June and August. (SFJAZZ still also presents concerts at third party spaces, such as Herbst Theatre, Grace Cathedral and the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, but the majority of shows are held in-house.)

Having more than one SFJAZZ Center stage as its disposal allows SFJAZZ to foster the career growth of musicians and groups, as they return to perform over the years.

“What’s great about having the Joe Henderson Lab is that it allows us to address a lot of developing and community artists,” Kline points out. Ideally, a headliner would progress from a single night in JHL to four nights and then one night in Miner followed by a four-night run, he says.

Among the thousands of concerts SFJAZZ has produced, there’s no lack of highlights. Candidates could include presenting both the 25th and 50th anniversary versions of Duke Ellington’s “Concert of Sacred Music” at Grace Cathedral in 1990 and 2015, to assembling an all-star sextet featuring tenor titans Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman honoring living legend Wayne Shorter.

Unsolicited, Kline offers a particularly special memory that nicely encapsulates his live music experience: “I remember being at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, coming out of my hotel room and seeing Sonny Rollins at the end of the hallway,” he shares. “Now I would never say Sonny is a good friend of mine. But we’ve had the great good fortune of presenting him a number of times.

“As I approach him, I say, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Rollins. How are you?’ And he immediately recognizes me. After the thousands and thousands of gigs he’s done, he doesn’t have to recognize me. And he asks how Sam, my oldest son, is doing and how he’s enjoying baseball, which he was really into at the time,” Kline goes on to marvel. “Here’s one the greatest artists in the world, and he’s got this kind, human element about him. It was a poignant reminder that it’s generally not a coincidence that the people with the greatest levels of humanity are also the greatest artists.”

SFJAZZ will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, and the Center will turn 10. As Kline approaches his eighth decade, he reckons that 70 is a nice round number, too, for him to “pass the baton.” He has received thanks and congratulations from present patrons and past SFJAZZ employees and, after a career of looking forward, he’s finally able to reflect back a little. “Humbled and grateful is how I’m feeling,” he says. “It’s nice to hear all of the lovely comments.

“One of the things that’s driven me is I wanted to do this well because of how much I respect the music and the artistry and the artists themselves,” he concludes. “I know how hard this is. And if we can equal the level of work and commitment that they do on their side, we can create a situation where artists are able to be fully expressive in that hall doing what they want to do.”

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