[JPL] Redevelopment agency loans millions to keep Yoshi's in S.F.

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Sat Jan 24 11:10:02 EST 2009


Redevelopment agency loans millions to keep Yoshi's in S.F.

By Andrew Gilbert
for the Mercury News
Posted: 01/23/2009 04:04:05 PM PST

When Yoshi's-San Francisco opened in the Fillmore District in November 2007,
the swanky jazz club was greeted ecstatically. It was seen as both a link to
the neighborhood's storied past as a hub of African-American culture and as
the harbinger of a more welcome kind of city planning than the ill-conceived
urban renewal inflicted on the Fillmore more than three decades ago.
But as feared by many in the jazz community, the larger sibling of the
much-loved Yoshi's in Oakland's Jack London Square began under-performing in
terms of box office and restaurant revenue several months after the initial
buzz subsided. Even worse, the new club seemed to be competing for the same
audience as the Oakland venue. And that was before the full impact of the
current economic crisis, which has knocked many arts organizations back on
their heels.
"After the San Francisco club opened and the dust settled, we noticed that
San Francisco was taking audience from Oakland," says Peter Williams,
Yoshi's longtime artistic director. "When we'd do things like book artists
for a week, split between the clubs, (they weren't) doing well in either.
There wasn't this huge untapped audience, and Oakland regulars would go to
San Francisco."
At this point, Yoshi's-San Francisco seems too important to be allowed to
fail, judging from the assistance proffered by the San Francisco
Redevelopment Agency. After years of thwarted efforts to attract a major
jazz venue to the area
the agency enticed Yoshi's to build the 28,000-square-foot ground-floor
restaurant and club with a $4.4 million loan.
Last September, the Redevelopment Agency provided an additional $1.3 million
loan to the venue, which anchors the Fillmore Heritage Center, a 12-story
condo tower with a small art gallery. And last month, the Redevelopment
Agency extended the club another $1.5 million loan to help weather the
economic downturn, though the funds are still subject to approval by the San
Francisco Board of Supervisors.
"We struggled for many years to get a movie theater or club to the
Fillmore," says James Morales, the Redevelopment Agency's general counsel,
who notes that the agency also has funded several smaller jazz venues in the
area. "This project came forward, and it became the key ingredient in
bringing back a jazz district. No one's talking about the club failing, but
clearly the city and agency have made keeping Yoshi's there a high
Yoshi's co-owner Kaz Kajimura decided to take significant measures to keep
the two venues from cannibalizing each other's audience. After a year in
which Williams booked both clubs, Kajimura recently hired a new artistic
director for Yoshi's-San Francisco, Bill Kubeczko, who has been given a
mandate to expand the venue's booking policy far beyond jazz and Latin
music. He comes from Minneapolis, where he spent the past 15 years as
executive and artistic director of the highly respected Cedar Cultural
Center, presenting a wide range of international and American roots music.
"Jazz will not go away; it will be part of the mix," Kubeczko says. "Peter
and I talk daily. He has an amazingly extensive knowledge of jazz, and I
have a good knowledge of world music, lots of traditional music, roots and
avant-garde music. I'm planning on bringing the best of several genres to a
great room."
Among the acts Kubeczko has booked are the Master Musicians of Jajouka from
Morocco for Feb. 11-12; New Orleans R&B queen Irma Thomas Feb. 14-15; the
inventive klezmer combo the Klezmatics March 3; the LoRider Band, featuring
most of the original members of War, recording a live DVD March 19-21; and
British soul singer Alice Russell, who's celebrating the release of a new CD
March 24-25.
In Oakland, the economic crisis is forcing booking changes too. Williams is
cutting back the number of days artists perform. Last year, alto saxophonist
Kenny Garrett played three nights in each club. In January, he returned for
two nights at Jack London Square. And when ticket sales are light for a 10
p.m. show, the club has been canceling it, instead offering concertgoers one
long set at 8 p.m.
"Yoshi's is a really big ship, and it's hard to make big turns because I
book so far in advance," Williams says. "I started looking at cutting the
days artists play when the economy started changing. Until things turn
around that's the way it's going to be."
Williams is also using the crisis to experiment with some creative booking
strategies. Organist-keyboardist Marco Benevento settles in for a residency
in February, playing every Tuesday with a different lineup. A key member of
the New York Downtown scene for the past decade, he has toured and recorded
widely with drummer John Russo as a member of the improvisational avant-rock
Benevento/Russo Duo.
Benevento opens the residency Feb. 3 with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's
bassist-guitarist Reed Mathis and drummer Andrew Barr of the Slip (both
featured on Benevento's new CD "Me Not Me"). He returns Feb. 10 with
saxophonist Skerik and drummers Calvin Weston and Billy Martin (of Medeski
Martin and Wood).
For Kubeczko, the challenge isn't just luring new listeners to Yoshi's-San
Francisco. He's got to build a new identity for the club, while trying not
to step on the toes of venues already competing for the same acts. Even if
the recession lingers, Kubeczko hopes that the new administration in
Washington, D.C., might help open doors that would encourage musicians from
Cuba and other countries find their way back to the U.S. market.
"We have a vibrant scene here, and I don't want to compete with it,"
Kubeczko says. "There are acts that I'm being offered I'm sending to the
Fillmore, the Independent and Great American Music Hall because it suits
those rooms better than here. Now we're changing governments, and some
people are willing to come who had stayed away for eight years. We're
entering a new period of hope, and that's a big climate change."

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