I have been to the San Jose Civic Auditorium once in my eight years of living in the city: a performance by towering jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter about five years ago. A big jazz fan all my life, I have been lucky enough to see many of the greats, from Miles Davis to Weather Report, but the best jazz concert I have ever been to was definitely the one in the San Jose Civic that night. In fact, it was the most sublime musical experience of any type I have had, and that’s a hard list to top.
The big disappointment was the fact that there were barely 300 people in the audience, and I found that hard to understand. However, there had been little advance publicity or advertising, proving that even with the greatest musicians in the world, poor management and promotion will result in inadequate attendance and financial failure. If the same concert had been in the Santa Cruz Civic, it would have been packed to the gills and a lot of the audience would have driven over from San Jose.
This old 1936 building that once hosted the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and a hundred other great musical acts is owned by the city and is a great community asset. It’s worn out, but, fortunately, it is about to get a $10 million renovation. At 3,200 seats, the Civic fits in nicely with the smaller 1,100-seat California Theatre and the 2,700-seat Center for Performing Arts. Like the Warfield or Fillmore in San Francisco, it’s perfect for high-quality, medium-sized performances of all types of music, comedy and other events. I can see Dylan, Los Lobos, Eno and Fripp, Herbie Hancock and George Carlin all appearing there.
The Civic is too big an investment of taxpayer dollars and has too much potential to leave to any but the most experienced professional management. There will be a razor’s edge between success and failure. The management will have to have specialist knowledge across all music genres and entertainment categories and know how to find and fit appropriate acts to the venue. They will have to strictly manage finances and work with the other downtown facilities and the convention center in order to avoid conflicts and maximize the potential of the city’s arts and entertainment calendar.
Currently, the now rarely-used auditorium is managed by Team San Jose, the group that manages the downtown convention and arts facilities. Even though Team San Jose has not performed as well as it should, the city council has just approved an extension of that management contract, against the advice of many at City Hall. Given that management of the San Jose Civic will require diligence and specialist knowledge to bring success, the council should carefully reconsider this matter. The interests of the taxpayers and the arts and entertainment policy of the city would be best served by selecting separate management with a proven track record in this type of venue and that reports directly to City Hall.