With New Ensemble Members, SFJAZZ Collective Builds a Bigger Tent

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​The SFJAZZ Collective has added two new members to its ensemble: vocalist Martin Luther McCoy and guitarist Adam Rogers.

(Photo: Jay Blakesberg)

The drummer believes the addition of McCoy, in particular, will lead the Collective to shift its approach, while also retaining focus on its prospective audience. “I have to be considerate of the range that I write for,” Calvaire explained. “I’m getting to know Martin a little better. We spoke on the phone a few times, and I checked out his music. I want him to express himself freely.

“The Collective has a reputation for the music being dense,” Calvaire continued. “I can’t speak for other guys, but when I write my music I try to be aware of that. Usually, I’m one of the last people to turn in my charts; the reason for that is I like to see how [my bandmates have] approached the music. If I notice there’s a lot of dense music, then I pick the opposite approach—to give the listener some time to readjust.”

SFJAZZ’s work with the city’s arts education infrastructure has continued to branch in new directions as well. Now in its third year, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s bachelor-level Roots, Jazz and American Music program connects the Collective’s nationally known artists with the burgeoning musicians of the next generation. Simon, Brewer and Wolf are part of the RJAM faculty, while other members of the Collective participate in one-off master classes with the students.

“The program is different because it bills itself as an apprenticeship program [built] around the careers, the sensibilities and artistic drive of the faculty,” said Simon Rowe, the RJAM executive director. “The members of the Collective not only teach private lessons, they also participate in a seminar class, which is sort of an ensemble workshop class,” Rowe explained, adding that the eight-hour sessions cover improvisation, composition and history of the genre. Twice a semester, the conservatory presents its Side-By-Side Concerts, which bring together faculty and students in the same ensemble for rehearsals and public performances at the SFJAZZ Center.

“We’ll play tunes with these guys to hear what they’re working with,” Wolf said. “I honestly believe that as a student, you will only get better when you’re playing with people who are better than you and pushing you to the limit.”

Though RJAM only began accepting students in 2017, the collaboration has a built a connection between the two institutions while bridging the gap between the world of jazz and an organization more associated with classical music. “It’s lovely to see those constituencies coming together when we have a concert at Miner, for instance, or a concert here at the conservatory,” Rowe said. “I know we’re only two blocks apart, but in the jazz world, we feel much closer.”

While the Collective’s goals remain more fixed on the delicate balance of pushing jazz forward while also honoring and presenting a legacy of composers to an audience that might not have been exposed to them before, its members on the RJAM faculty walk a similar line. For Wolf, the key to the satisfying connection between education and performance lies in the fundamentals.

“It’s refreshing for me. We’re playing like Sly Stone and Miles Davis and putting spins on it, but when we go to the conservatory, these kids are still trying to study the meat of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in the ’40s and ’50s,” said Wolf, who lives in Baltimore, where he teaches at the Peabody Institute. “So, they try to mine everything that was going on with those particular artists. We just try to come in there and add our two cents to it.”

Simon, however, has noticed that RJAM students have expressed curiosity about more contemporary types of music.

“There is a lot of interest from the students of that age group in what the SFJAZZ Collective does,” he said. “They seem to really like the complexity of the writing; they seem very attracted to that and the players who are in the band. I think a lot of them aspire to be able to play in that way or that kind of music—so they really enjoy the fact they can have contact with us at the conservatory. Sometimes we bring our original music to the ensembles that we coach there.”

That said, Simon believes that draw toward modern sounds shouldn’t come at the expense of the tradition that helped build it.

“This new generation is funny,” he said, “A lot of them—sometimes this surprises me—they’re not familiar with some of that music. Like Wayne Shorter, for example. They need somebody who can pull their attention to some great music that they might not be checking out—even though they have access to all of it today more easily than ever before. It’s kind of a mystery to me how the new generation of players gets brought into the music. ... I should ask them, learn from them.”

A similar task is on the docket for the Collective, as well as the center it calls home. The space was designed with an eye toward inclusiveness, as evidenced by comparatively reasonable admission prices, ticket discounts for annual members and design flourishes, like floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase performances in the Joe Henderson Lab to passersby on the street. But the goal of reaching a broader listening audience remains a challenge.

“I find the audience that goes [to the SFJAZZ Center]—I’m trying to measure my words here—the majority of people who go there are very affluent people,” Simon explained. “And that’s probably a trend overall for jazz, at least in this country. I think the music has become much more for the elite than for the ‘community.’”

It’s a thorny issue in Bay, where skyrocketing rents and tech-industry wealth have highlighted issues related to income disparity. There’s a legitimate fear that some residents will be priced out of a progressive city with a rich artistic history. For all the loyalty SFJAZZ has already found in its existing subscribers, it’s hard not to consider the experience of McCoy, who, despite being steeped in the city’s music scene as a performer, wasn’t fully aware of the Collective until recently.

“I was thrown by the name,” McCoy recalled. “‘San Francisco has a jazz collective?’ And then I’m like, ‘Well, who’s from San Francisco?’ Everybody started looking around,” he added with a chuckle.

One key to reaching a broader audience in the Bay Area and beyond involves the Collective’s commitment to moving forward while remaining grounded in the past. The band’s “big-tent” approach is aligned with the organization’s mission statement, which includes the goal of celebrating jazz as “a living art form, built on a constantly evolving tradition.”

With the additions of McCoy and Rogers, the tributes to In A Silent Way and Stand won’t sound anything like what the Collective’s done previously—from the perspectives of the instrumentation and approach.

“The thing that we’re trying to do different this year with the Collective is we’re going to try and fuse some of these compositions,” Wolf said. “We’ll probably go from tune to tune to tune and probably use some of the Miles Davis material as a segue from the Sly Stone material. We’ll go straight from that into Miles Davis. ... We’re going to try to create a specific vibe for the entire concert.”

As befitting a musician who marks the biggest artistic departure for SFJAZZ Collective, the biggest changes might come from McCoy. For Sly Stone, he hears possibilities for electronic elements to recast the melodic counterpoints of Stand and, citing the outré ventures of David Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torsos and its vocal-adorned reinterpretations of Davis’ Kind Of Blue, McCoy hears potential for new sonic triggers to color the atmospheric spaces of In A Silent Way.

“It could be some rap bars, it could be some poetry, it could be infusing something Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou or Langston Hughes may have said that I feel adds something to this moment that’s focused on bringing a different set of eyeballs and ears to Miles’ work,” McCoy said. “It all comes down to woodshedding when they all get to town and we go in the lab every day for eight hours and take our ideas and put them on the table.

“The canvas is blank,” he noted. “We’re all dipped in paint and going to be slapping ourselves up against it.” DB

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