The Kuumbwa Jazz Center is my neighbor, but we’re not very close. We barely know each other, and I wouldn’t go to them first if I needed flour or an egg.
However, Kuumbwa gives me gifts every other evening. When I’m making dinner in the kitchen or lounging in the living room, I prop my window open and let the hums of a saxophone waft in like the smell of freshly baked bread. Jazz drifts through my apartment and, if I listen close enough, I can hear the applause of a well-fed audience.
The Kuumbwa Jazz Center (originally The Kuumbwa Jazz Society) started as a grassroots organization in 1975 and took residence in the shell of an old French bakery in 1977. The Center is a music venue on the south side of Cedar St. that hosts musicians with a variety of musical backgrounds. The breadth of genres that pass through the venue makes Kuumbwa a dynamic hub of music.
I let many months pass before I decided to pay them a visit. I bought a ticket to see John Escreet perform his album “Seismic Shift” with his friends Eric Revis and Damion Reid. My sole context for the show was a review I read calling Escreet a “transatlantic jazz genius” in Time Out London.
Once the lights dimmed, I was immediately consumed by the eccentricity of John Escreet. I watched him with my mouth agape for the whole performance, transfixed.
The trio would collectively crack a smile, knowing they just unlocked something like a sonic riddle.
The group opened their performance by playing with pure sensation, as if they were marionetted by a higher energy.
The music ebbed and flowed like one big, breathing creature. The creature threw loud and aggressive tantrums onstage and when it tired itself out, it became contemplative and sultry.
Many of the audience members around me looked weightless, carried by the music. They nodded their heads in affirmation. For many of them, John Escreet was speaking their truth. For many of them, this was gospel.
The first thing I thought while leaving the venue was, “Everybody in the world needs to experience this.”
The truth is the future of jazz is in good hands with Kuumbwa. The question of jazz’s survival has always been a part of its history, but as long as there is a vested interest in playing and celebrating jazz, it will sustain itself. To get a better understanding of jazz’s cultural impact, I talked to Eric Porter, a history, history of consciousness, and critical race and ethnic studies professor who teaches the “Jazz and the United States Cultural History” series at UC Santa Cruz.
According to Porter, people have been contemplating jazz’s long term survival since the 60s when swing bands fell out of the mainstream. Jazz maintains relevance because it is a fluid, living artistic reflection of the socio-political environment. And importantly, as Black artists internalize the struggle against systemic injustices, jazz remains an essential output of cultural expression.
At one point, all eyes were on the bassist, who performed a solo where he scatted and plucked at the same time, standing upright and becoming one with his bass.
“It’s an important African-American art form,” Porter said. “It’s an important thing by virtue of who the music has represented and the role it has played historically as a reflection of different social transformations over time.”
The synthesis of jazz with different or even opposing genres and styles is an enduring merit of the art form. Cultural exchanges have produced subgenres like bossa nova, ethio-jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, and Middle-Eastern jazz, exporting its global legacy.
Jazz is supported by education networks and grant-giving agencies that empower artists who can’t support themselves on show profits alone. Kuumbwa occupies a keystone role in the jazz industry as a steadfast venue that provides a stage for jazz performers in Santa Cruz County and beyond.
“This is an era where the lion’s share of the livelihood that artists can make is based on the live performance,” said Bennett Jackson, creative director of Kuumbwa. Kuumbwa’s size is extraordinary, sporting a seating capacity you’d expect in a much larger city like Chicago or New York. Instead, it’s situated at the rear end of downtown in sleepy Santa Cruz.
Beneath the suave current of jazz is a beautiful, symbiotic relationship with Santa Cruz residents: a two-way street flowing with community connections and intimate moments.
Their repertoire is a chaotic and haunting expression of sound, existing in the outer banks of how one can utilize an instrument.
The nature of the venue’s physical intimacy also allows artists to engage emotionally with their audience. Chanel Enriquez, Managing Director at Kuumbwa, recalls a moment when Lakecia Benjamin played a Coltrane song that reminded a patron of her late father. Beyond the spotlight, Benjamin could notice how moved this patron was and connected with her after the show.
“She was shocked and she was crying, just sharing how much it meant to her that artists connected with her in person,” Enriquez said. “I think that’s something that you don’t really get at other venues. You don’t get the opportunity for the artist to be able to connect with audiences in such a meaningful way.”
Until the end of time, jazz will always have an audience, as proven by the patrons of Kuumbwa who’ve attended concerts since the venue opened. Since then, the center’s bond with the jazz community has only deepened.
While wiping the sweat off his forehead in the middle of his set, John Escreet proclaimed to the audience, “I hope you don’t take this wonderful venue for granted.”