Larry Chin remembers the first time he looked through a window into the world of Ashkenaz, the venerable Berkeley dance hall.

"What I saw was adults and kids holding hands -- folk dancing," he says. "I was like, 'Whoa.' It was such a family affair. I loved it."

That was in 1985, 12 years after David Nadel had opened the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center on San Pablo Avenue, realizing his dream of creating a place where people of all ages and backgrounds could gather in a multicultural home for the arts. The dream cost Nadel his life in 1996, when he was shot and killed shortly after closing the club one night, reportedly by an inebriated patron who was upset at being kicked out.

But 40 years after its inception, his vision lives on as Ashkenaz, now run by Chin and a nonprofit board of directors. It is not a milestone that will pass quietly. Starting Thursday, the club will celebrate its 40th anniversary with 12 special concerts slated to run through March 17. Performers include former Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart and his band, the Black Mountain Boys, West African Highlife Band, BeauSoleil, Everton Blender and Lavay Smith.

What better way to celebrate an institution that's been described as "Berkeley to its core"?

It's the kind of wide-ranging musical lineup on which Ashkenaz has built its reputation. It is likely one of the few clubs in the country that offers blues, Argentine tango, Balkan folk, reggae, hip-hop, Cajun/zydeco, swing, West African pop, Celtic, klezmer and bluegrass/folk on a regular basis.

The one common thread: It's all dance music.

"That's our niche," says Kristen Sbrogna, the venue's program director.

World music might be as mainstream as Justin Bieber nowadays, but Ashkenaz was offering it more than a decade before artists like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N'Dour helped the genre truly go global in the 1980s.

"This is not a place that follows trends," says Tim Doyle, who has been involved with Ashkenaz in various capacities for decades. "This is a place that has created them. Think about anything that is going on in music, and it probably happened here first."

Yet Sbrogna doesn't book acts with an eye for what sounds might be popular down the road.

"It's more about having an understanding of the community here and what it will respond to," she says of the venue's programming. "Diversity is still essential to what we are."

Then there is the Grateful Dead connection. For years, Ashkenaz has been a home away from home for Deadheads, who turn out to wiggle and twirl during the venue's regular Grateful Dead Nights. So it's no surprise that Ashkenaz's 40th celebration kicks off with a double shot of Dead-related projects -- Hart (Thursday) and the Black Mountain Boys (Friday).

The latter represents an unlikely blast of Bay Area music history, as Jerry Garcia was a member of the Black Mountain Boys bluegrass band before he joined the Grateful Dead. The show will feature two original members, guitarist David Nelson and mandolinist Eric Thompson, backed by other musicians. Nelson says it's been a treat to again work with Thompson on the old Black Mountain Boys material.

"It's like no time has passed, even though it's been 50 years," he says.

Nadel created Ashkenaz after taking over an idled warehouse space on San Pablo Avenue and converted it into a building modeled after an Eastern European wooden synagogue, in honor of his Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors.

"His original idea was that you could bring people together and solve so many of the world's problems just by dancing and listening to music, in a social and political way," says Gary Skupa, a member of the venue's board of directors.

"It was really to be a place where people left their differences at the door," Sbrogna says.

The dream was in jeopardy after Nadel's shocking murder (the killer was never brought to justice). But supporters and friends rallied to keep the venue going, transforming the club into a nonprofit organization overseen by a board of directors.

"He lived and died for this place," says Sweet Foot of the Caribbean Allstars, one of the popular reggae acts that regularly performs at Ashkenaz.

"(Nadel) had built something that we couldn't let die," Skupa says. "It had become our home away from home."

Nadel's ghost still haunts the place -- in a positive way. His name is often mentioned by those who work at the venue, as well as by numerous longtime patrons.

"You hear it now -- people say, 'I knew David. He was my great friend,'" Sbrogna says.

Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.

Ashkenaz 40th anniversary concerts
When: Thursday-March 17
Where: Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley
Tickets: Prices vary
Information: 510-525-5054, www.ashkenaz.com