San Jose Jazz Launches Music Festival and Downtown Venue

Before last year's International Jazz Day, Herbie Hancock—legendary pianist, composer, UNESCO chair and event founder—delivered a timely message to viewers over YouTube: “There is hope and solidarity in jazz music.”

This year, in the spirit of those words, San Jose Jazz (SJZ) is unveiling a new festival celebrating local musicians, a free concert on April 30—which is International Jazz Day—and San Jose’s newest venue, The Break Room, located in their downtown office at 310 S First St.

“We’ve never been in a set venue before,” says Brendan Rawson, San Jose Jazz’s executive director, through a haze of springtime allergies. “We’ve always been out in the streets and the parks, popping up with our festival work or our Boombox truck initiative. The pandemic obviously nixed all that.”

In the early days of last year’s lockdown, SJZ responded by launching a livestream series on Instagram called Live From Home. While that effort did get some money into local musicians’ pockets, it also brought to the fore a whole world of technical problems.

“It got us into the rhythm of digital music performance,” Rawson says, “but we had all these issues with variables from each artist’s home setting, their internet connection, etc.”

Another program launched last year in response to the pandemic, the Jazz Aid Fund, offered $1,000 grants to Bay Area artists in exchange for the creation of a new work. In the end, 32 artists were commissioned (five from San Jose). Of those, 11 were chosen to represent the project at the New Works Festival, which premieres Thursday.

The Break Room serves as the backdrop for the festival performances. The new venue and session-space on the corner of 1st and San Carlos streets sits in the beating heart at the center of the city’s SoFA arts district. The building is home to two major public art pieces: the “100 Block,” featuring the works of 100 local artists, and “Qualities of Life” the massive, 75-foot by 145-foot rose-and-purple-colored mural facing Second Street, by twin artists How & Nosm.

Inside The Break Room, artists perform at floor level, standing before two psychedelic light fixtures and the venue’s signature water cooler, creating an air of casual approachability.

“My favorite venues are house parties,” says Scott Fulton, highlighting the absence of a stage. Fulton is the creative director for San Jose Jazz, and The Break Room’s designer. Where the audience will sit—scattered across an assortment of office furniture—was until recently his cubicle space. The next closest cubicle is now the audience’s back wall.

One of The Break Room’s most prominent features is its 34x14’ floor-to-ceiling window, now used as a gigantic video wall. Performances at The Break Room are filmed from a variety of angles and projected onto the window via dual live feed. The performance is on display both inside the building, and outside along San Carlos Street. Speakers along the building’s exterior let pedestrians experience the concerts for free.

The new venue was funded by a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, and marks an effort on San Jose Jazz’s part to address the long-standing lack of accessible music venues in San Jose.

“There’s two types of live music spaces missing in San Jose,” Fulton says, “the intimate space that has a small capacity but excellent sound, and the medium level space with around 300 capacity. We’ve had more conversations about this subject than we can count.”

Those smaller, accessible venues are often the lifeblood of a region’s live music scene. Without them, the entire South Bay feels their absence, from the fans, to the musicians and even arts organizations like San Jose Jazz.

“It’s really hard to maintain a music presentation organization when the local musicians feel that they need to move out of town just to maintain their careers,” Fulton says. “In some small part, The Break Room is hoping to address that.”

With its massive video wall, intentional design and four-camera filming setup, The Break Room also gives local musicians access to high-quality media in a way they didn’t have before.

“We wanted to give them something they can put on their resume and point to when they’re looking to get gigs out of town,” Fulton says.

On a recent evening, up-and-coming Hayward guitarist Ian Santillano (the self-described “Greasy Mayer”) and band stopped by The Break Room to record their set for the New Works Festival. The spirited performance includes his Jazz Aid Fund-commissioned piece “Hard to Breathe,” and a new, airy single “Wanna Go Outside Again.” They mixed in a surprise cover of Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak’s neo-soul hit “Leave the Door Open.”

Santillano’s set airs Thursday for the festival, along with portions of sets by the dynamic Tammy Lynne Hall, and five-octave vocalist Claudia Villela. Other nights’ performances include đàn tranh virtuoso Van-Anh Vo, tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley (a touring member of Kamasi Washington’s band) and 2019 Jazz Search West winner Ten Spencer.

Festival-goers who enjoy those performances can unlock extended sets by becoming San Jose Jazz members. “We hope it’s a way to build membership,” says Director Brendan Rawson.

On International Jazz Day, SJZ will also air a free, live set by clarinetist Oran Etkin and band, performing works from his collaborative, globe-spanning Open Arms Project. That performance, like all performances at The Break Room, will be simultaneously projected onto the glass screen along San Carlos Street.

During First Friday, the monthly art walk in San Jose’s SoFA District, SJZ will put their new screen to another use: highlighting the art that had a short-lived life on display in the ‘Holding the Moment’ exhibit at the San Jose International Airport last year.

“We reached out to all the artists from the ‘Holding the Moment’ exhibit at the airport who had their work taken down early,” Rawson says. “We’ll be showing all those works, including Americana by Eric Bui,” the provocative piece on police violence that ruffled feathers last December.

Looming in the background behind all of this is the same threat that hangs over nearly everything in modern San Jose: development.

As far back as 2019, Urban Community, the owners of the building that houses San Jose Jazz and The Break Room, submitted plans to knock down the building and replace it with a two-tower, mixed-use office, retail and homes in development called The Orchard. It’s unclear when the development would happen, or if it will be approved by the city.

Despite that uncertainty, Fulton isn’t worried about the future of The Break Room.

“San Jose Jazz has always been a scrappy organization,” he says. “Even if we have to move out and go somewhere, we’ll be able to take this model and maintain a similar vibe somewhere else. In the meantime, we’re going to have fun and elevate some local musicians.”

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