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Kuumbwa Jazz: Small But Mighty

AE_freq_TimJacksonKuumbwa Jazz celebrates 35 years
Starting a nonprofit jazz organization in a little coastal town just south of San Francisco doesn’t seem too promising, and naming it an often mispronounced Swahili word can’t be the best marketing ploy. Still, in 1975, a 19-year-old Tim Jackson joined forces with KUSP programmers Rich Wills and Sheba Burney to do just that. The project would swell into the Kuumbwa Jazz Society, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, and decades of hosting the top jazz musicians from town and from around the globe.

This week, Jackson, the co-founder and artistic director of Kuumbwa as well as the general manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the rest of the Kuumbwa Jazz Society will celebrate 35 years with a free outdoor concert at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 29 at San Lorenzo Park. The party commemorates an unlikely success.

“I think a lot of people thought the idea [for a Santa Cruz jazz society] was far-fetched because we were a group of very young and very inexperienced people at the time,” Jackson says. “I can’t say that there was a vocal portion of the community that thought we would fail or voiced skepticism about it, but I think it was natural for anybody to look at a new organization—particularly one with a funny name like ours—and feel skeptical.”

To clarify, “Kuumbwa” (pronounced koo-um-ba) means “act of spontaneous creation,” and Kuumbwa Jazz sprang up at a time when a lot in Santa Cruz was being birthed: KUSP, Tandy Beal and Company, the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County. Jackson believes it was an era of fresh artistic endeavors in town that nurtured the Kuumbwa, and says that he and his cohorts were in the right place at the right time. “We were lucky to be in a community that was naturally supportive of the type of artistic activity that we were doing,” he begins. “Frankly, it would be much harder to start Kuumbwa Jazz Society today.”

AE_freq_Hy-TonesThis week’s 35th birthday party returns the society to its outdoor roots. The very first Kuumbwa concert with Joe Henderson was supposed to be at San Lorenzo Park in April of 1975, but it got rained out. Still, Jackson recalls, “We went back to San Lorenzo Park more than any other venue. We probably had 15 or so events there in the couple of years leading up to the opening of the Kuumbwa Jazz Center.” The Kuumbwa used to mark every birthday at the park, but now only puts on the massive affair every five years.

Kicking things off on the San Lorenzo Duck Island Stage, Jackson will pick up the flute to perform with his band Real Time, in which he’s flanked by guitarist Jerry Shanahan, pianist Marshall Otwell, bassist Scott McKenna, and drummer Mike Shannon. The band, which uses electric guitar and a Fender Rhodes keyboard, employs a ’70s sound that grooves with a Latin-influenced, funk-oriented approach to jazz. Second up will be fellow area icons in the Hy-Tones—saxophonist Paul Contos, pianist Paul Nagel, bassist Stan Poplin, and drummer Jim Chanteloup. Closing things out will be thunderous newcomers in the eight-piece Frequency Jones, whose retro funk power will be fueled by guest vocalist Tammi Brown. It’s a mixed salad type of lineup that links the forefathers and the fresh of the local music scene, and will confound any listener simply expecting straight-ahead jazz. Following in the tradition of the Kuumbwa’s mindset and mission, the concert keeps one ear forward and one ear back.

“One of the reasons why the Kuumbwa Jazz Society really started was because the Hy-Tones were such an incredible jazz group here in Santa Cruz in the ’70s,” Jackson says of the band that was one of the first to break in the Kuumbwa Jazz Center stage in 1977. “We really wanted to support what they were doing and what a lot of other local musicians were doing at the time. So the Hy-Tones were a focal point in the history of Kuumbwa. They’re a group that we try to resurrect. They’re not a working group anymore but they played five years ago and we brought them back together again for this year.”

As for Frequency Jones, Jackson says he slotted them in for the grand finale duties because he’d heard about the band’s growing reputation as a bearer of good times. Because it’s an outdoor event meant to be fun and family-friendly, it always ends with a larger party band. Jackson says he was won over by enthusiastic comments about Frequency Jones, “especially from my friend Bill Welch over at Moe’s Alley,” and expects them to give a sweet ’n’ soulful funk groove to end the afternoon.

AE_FrequencyJonesWhile the birthday party is outside at San Lorenzo Park, there’s no mistaking that the intimate Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Cedar Street in Downtown Santa Cruz is where the bulk of the organization’s memories—and its future—lies. As a unique venue operating as a nonprofit, it generates about 65 percent of its income from ticket sales, rental of the facility, and food and beverage sales. The other 35 percent comes from grants and contributions from members of the community. Presenting premier shows and jazz education, it has sustained itself as a music institution known to be both welcoming and world class.

In the last couple of years the 200-seat venue has undergone some enticing changes—upgrades have been made to the sound system, lighting system, chairs, and its walls have been washed in a fresh coat of paint. What’s next in the historic jazz club’s evolution? It may not sound pretty, but Jackson says one pragmatic improvement will make things more comfortable, shall we say, behind the scenes. “One project we’re working on for the end of this year is to completely redo our bathrooms and enlarge them,” he reveals. “That’s really been kind of the Achilles heel of the venue for the last year. It’s not a particularly sexy project but I think our patrons will enjoy it.”

As far as the cozy backstage lounge that’s hidden golden jazz heavyweights before and after each set, Jackson says it remains much loved and relatively untouched. “The green room is still the same: small but mighty. It’s got a lot of history.” Just like Kuumbwa Jazz itself.


Photo 1: Tim Jackson by rr jones, Photo 2: The Hy-tones in 1975. Photo 3: Frequency Jones by Charles Mixson


Kuumbwa Jazz celebrates its 35th birthday with live performances by  Real Time, the Hy-Tones, and Frequency Jones at 1-5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29, at San Lorenzo Park, 137 Dakota St., Santa Cruz. Free. 427-2227 or Kuumbwajazz.org.
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