Jazz is as American as baseball.
One thing the two share in common, however, is that Americans are no longer the only ones playing the game. The South Koreans won the gold medal in baseball at the 2008 Summer Olympics (the United States finished with the bronze). Likewise, the battle for supremacy in the jazz world is getting hot and heavy. The Americans are still in the lead, but the race is getting tighter all the time.
What we are seeing is the globalization of America's music. It may have been born in New Orleans and raised in the clubs of New York, Chicago and other cities, but it's maturing in places all around the world.
Here they come
The event, which runs Oct. 3 through Nov. 9, features an amazing assortment of jazz musicians from around the world. The artists — including Malian kora master Toumani Diabate, Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski and Russian-born vocalist Sophie Milman — are not household names in this country. Yet the music they make might be enough to alter the U.S.-centric views of jazz for some listeners.
"I think most people's perception is that jazz is an American art form and that most of great jazz music is made by American artists," says Randall
Some countries have been fertile ground for jazz for decades. Americans are familiar with some of the bigger-name artists from South American and the Caribbean, especially Cuba, following the success of the "Buena Vista Social Club" film and soundtrack. Other regions, such as the Middle East and Eastern Europe, have seen their jazz scenes flourish in recent years.
Kline believes that social and political changes in some countries, which have allowed artists more freedom to express themselves through music, have greatly factored into the equation.
"Jazz truly is a music about change and freedom," he says. "Jazz is one of those modern art forms that reflect the times that you live in. When there's social unrest, you hear that in the music."
The inclusion of international jazz artists on the schedule is nothing new for SFJAZZ. It's long been one of the organization's calling cards, one of the many things that separate the San Francisco Jazz Festival (as well as SFJAZZ's Spring Season offerings) from some other jazz festivals.
"This festival really reflects what is happening in jazz, in terms of traditional or iconoclastic, as well as international trends," says Luis Medina, music director at Berkeley's listener-funded radio station KPFA-FM 94.1.
Another SFJAZZ trademark is the organization's willingness to present kinds of music that might cause some jazz purists to balk.
"From Day 1, we've always had a pretty wide-open view to what jazz is," Kline says. "We've always been interested in international music that has been influenced by jazz or has influenced jazz."
But SFJAZZ is not alone in its international appetite. A look at the upcoming schedules of the Bay Area's two Yoshi's jazz clubs reveals a number of tantalizing artists with roots outside the United States.
"Europe has a great jazz scene," remarks Peter Williams, Yoshi's artistic director. "One of the most exciting is the Dutch scene — they do cutting-edge music, and their government is very supportive.
"I have been to Amsterdam several times to check out Dutch bands at the Dutch Jazz Meeting. One of the highlights of the 2006 DJM was Eric Vloeimans and Fugimundi. They will be here Oct. 13, in Oakland. One of the most well-known of the Dutch bands is the Willem Breuker Kollektief, and they will be at Yoshi's S.F. Nov. 10."
Location, as they say, matters. Everyone seems to agree that arts organizations have the ability to present shows in a cosmopolitan, multicultural and well-educated place like the Bay Area that might not go over well in other spots in the country.
"We want to serve the world that we are in — the Bay Area," Kline says. "And the Bay Area is very interested in these kinds of (international) music."
New look at Miles
For proof, Kline mentioned the festival's opening night concert on Friday featuring the "Miles From India" ensemble. He calls the Bay Area "one of the few markets in the country that can present that" — and SFJAZZ is now presenting it for the second time in mere months. The first Miles from India show — which, like the record of the same name, features jazz artists and Indian classical musicians interpreting the music of Miles Davis — was a sellout during SFJAZZ's Spring Season.
"There are parts of that record that are some of the best music I've heard in years," says Kline. "The record is just phenomenal."
Here's a look at some of the other international jazz artists set to perform at this year's festival: