Randall Cline has a long and distinguished track record of conducting jazz shows for live audiences in the Bay Area.
It has been nearly four decades since Jazz in the City – the arts organization now known as SFJAZZ – was founded in 1983. Over the years, he has worked with such luminaries as Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Abby Lincoln, Dave Brubeck, Bobby Hutcherson. , Wayne Shorter, Cassandra Wilson and Tony Bennett.
But in early 2021, Kline – like many others in the art world – was faced with the task of finding new ways to present performances as COVID-19 closed venues overnight.
We recently spoke with Kline, SFJAZZ’s founder and artistic director, about how the organization has responded to the pandemic and what’s on tap for music lovers as they return to live performances at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.
NS: Going into 2020, what did you think the year would look like?
a: We were doing business as usual, our 2019-2020 season was strong and we were selling most of our shows. We were also excited to host the 2020 NEA Jazz Masters Concert at the SFJAZZ Center for the first time.
NS: When did you first realize that COVID-19 was going to be a big problem for live music venues?
a: On March 11, 2020, singer Cecil McLaurin Salvant was conducting a sound check at Paramount in Oakland when word came that San Francisco and Oakland had ordered the closure of all locations. After that, the concert industry crashed pretty quickly with all shows cancelled. We knew it was going to have a serious impact on our staff, cast and our members. We can’t help but think about the worst case scenario.
NS: What was the first step the organization took after that realization sank?
a: Our first step was to manage our employees, answer their questions and prepare them to work from home as much as possible. We immediately created an emergency task force to get in touch with the City of San Francisco to be in close communication about their protocols and mandates that were changing minute by minute. We also got to work with our members and ticket buyers to provide refunds or get people to donate their tickets back to SFJAZZ.
NS: How did SFJAZZ adapt to the situation? Can you tell us about its digital platform?
a: We took immediate action on digital, broadcasting our archived exhibits – we have over 500 of them. The organization was preparing to offer an online broadcast platform to launch in the fall of 2022, so we had to scramble to get a platform up and running in just a few weeks – rather than the planned six months.
We currently offer weekly broadcasts, on-demand concerts, and under the leadership of Rebecca Moulian our Department of Education has been able to digitally expand and enhance our education programs. We have also created the SFJAZZ 50/50 Fund, where viewers of our broadcast can contribute financially to performing artists, and since March 2020, we have provided over $600,000 directly to artists.
NS: What are the future plans for the digital platform?
a: We’re going to continue a similar plan with concerts broadcast from the SFJAZZ center every Friday, and we’ll be expanding our selection of on-demand concerts.
NS: How will you balance digital revenue streams and physical concerts?
a: Our digital content is still very new to the project, and it will take time to develop. Since March 2020, we have signed up 15,000 digital members, and we expect that number to double in the coming year.
NS: How much have you missed live music with the audience in the last year and a half?
a: I have missed it a lot. SFJAZZ has presented concerts for nearly 40 years and for many generations of people, and I look forward to re-experiencing the connection between artists and audiences and the transformative power of music.
NS: How will the concerts at SFJAZZ be different in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic?
a: People will be masked, they must be vaccinated, and young people under 12 cannot be included in our concerts. SFJAZZ has always been a venue for all ages, and it makes me and the organization very sad that we can no longer have these young people for concerts (because they are not vaccinated). I hope that changes soon because these young people are the audience of the future that all performing arts venues need.
NS: What are some behind-the-scenes improvements in the SFJAZZ center specifically with regards to COVID safety?
a: We asked Robert N. of the SFJAZZ Center. The minor auditorium has already completely upgraded the luxurious ventilation system. Now we have more fresh air turnover, better and more uniform ventilation. We are also introducing a new immersive media system that will digitally transform the walls and surfaces of the auditorium.
NS: What did you learn about presenting concerts during the pandemic?
a: We learned that it is possible to connect with people around the world in their homes and give them the SFJAZZ experience, even if they have never been to San Francisco or are familiar with the organization.
NS: You referred to SFJAZZ as a community center. What is the role of a jazz venue in building community – especially at this time?
a: We all need the inspiration and comfort of live music, and need to be with others to feel the same thing – now more than ever. SFJAZZ provides a place to learn about music, hear the perspectives of others, and examine our shared history to connect together and discuss how we want to see our future.
NS: What has been the reaction of fans to the reopening of the venue?
a: The most common comment is “We can’t wait to be there.” Artists, staff, volunteers are all ready to perform concerts and create an environment that is safe for all of us.
NS: Time for some recommendations. Which shows should we mark on our calendars for the 2021-22 season? There are probably too many to list, but what about providing 5 recommendations?
a: I recommend the Branford Marsalis Quartet Oct 21-24; On October SFJAZZ Collective with new members Gretchen Parlato, Chris Potter, Kendrick Eddie Scott and others from October 28-31 performs original repertoire performances created to reflect these turbulent times; Ravi Coltrane playing the music of his parents John and Alice Coltrane November 4-7; Snarky Puppy at Paramount in Oakland on November 8-9; And our annual New Year’s Eve week with Maceo Parker. We’re also featuring over 60 local Bay Area artists yet to be confirmed.
Five things about Randall Kline:
1 He hails from Massachusetts, but moved to San Francisco in 1974 to play bass and take music classes at San Francisco State University.
2 Cline made his debut as a budding concert promoter with Jazz in the City, a three-day music festival that began in June 1983.
After 3 years of fundraising and planning, Kline realized his longtime dream of having a dedicated, standalone venue for jazz in San Francisco when the 36,000-square-foot Martin Luther King, Jr. The SFJAZZ Center was opened.
4Kline Jazz is committed to education and sharing the joy of music with students. So SFJAZZ produces over 400 concerts and education programs annually, and the SFJAZZ Department of Education – under the guidance of Rebecca Moulian – organizes music education programs in all Oakland and SF middle schools.
5 He enjoys spending time with his family and his two grandchildren.
Position: Founder and Executive Artistic Director
Hometown: Swampscott, MA
City of Residence: San Francisco
Education: BA, St. Mary’s College