The Kuumbwa Gift

The Kuumbwa Secret, The Kuumbwa Gift
By James D. Houston
(written for Kuumbwa’s 20th Anniversary, 1995)

Many years ago I came across an ad in a local paper that said Mose Allison and his trio would be playing at a club called Kuumbwa. I was amazed that a jazz and blues legend like Mose could be coming into what sounded like a small-size club in Santa Cruz, which in the jazz world is a rather small-size town.

“How is this possible?” I asked the fellow at the door. “It is Monday night,” he said, as he stamped the back of my hand. “That is the Kuumbwa secret and the Kuumbwa gift. Ingeniously located between L.A. and the Bay Area, we can book name people who are en route. We can book bands that would never think of playing here on weekends.”

As I soon discovered, this happy coincidence of geography and “dark night” scheduling is only part of the Kuumbwa gift.

I grew up in San Francisco, started lying my way into jazz clubs while I was in high school. This, of course, meant hanging around the edges of dark rooms full of smoke and drunks, noisy with the clink and crash of glasses and the frequent clanging of the pre-digital cash drawer. The drinking never interested me much, or the smoke. I was captivated by the sounds, by the excitement of live performance. And in those days, if you wanted to hear the pace-setting players, that is where you found them. The fact is, the last time I’d seen Mose, a couple of years before my first trip to Kuumbwa, had been in that very kind of North Beach club. Nothing much had changed but the price of the drinks.

Imagine my astonishment when I walked into a room with no smoke clinging to the walls, no desperate waitress to scoop up my not-quite-empty glass, and nothing at all sold while the band was on-stage. No space had been cleared for dancing. All the chairs, interspersed with tiny tables, were lined up in curving rows to face the band. This was more than a surprise. It was a revelation. Here at last was a jazz club where the music and musicians come first!

According to Tim Jackson, that was the vision from the outset. He was one of three founding members, along with Rich Wills, who had the original idea, and Sheba Burney. They formed the Kuumbwa Jazz Society in the spring of 1975. Still an active musician (saxophone and flute), Jackson is now the Center’s director.

“The guiding idea,” he says, “was that jazz is an art form and deserves as much dignity as chamber music or the symphony. Some people still seem to associate it with decadent nightlife and murky dives. It doesn’t have to be that way. One important thing you do get from the small club is intimacy with the performers. We wanted to create a venue that combines this with some of the attentiveness of the concert hall.”

Where did the name come from? In my view, it provides a key to the spirit of this remarkable place. Kuumbwa is a Swahili word that means “the act of creation.” And an appropriate name it is, pointing toward the most distinctive feature of jazz. With art forms such as sculpture, painting, pottery, poetry and fiction, the imagination works in private, and what the audience sees or hears is the end result. With jazz, the artist’s discoveries occur right there in front of you, before your very eyes and ears.

It’s important to remember that improvisation is nothing new or recent in the long history of sound. Musicians have been improvising for centuries. I think of the Elizabethan lutenist, the Kentucky mountain fiddler. American jazz took this very human trait and moved it to the forefront, showcasing the idea of on-the-spot inventiveness and spontaneity of expression, so that the listener is exposed not only to live performance and expert musicianship, but also to the highly charged creative process itself.

To make it work—to develop the ideal venue—Wills, Burney and Jackson knew they had to break the old co-dependency between jazz performance and alcohol. A non-profit corporation, they figured, could allow for a wider range of funding, via grants, private contributions and an ongoing membership base. In the mid-1970s this was a pioneering concept, being tested by only three or four groups around the country.

After two years of hosting local concerts and benefits, the Society found the building it still occupies, at 320-2 Cedars Street. A major remodeling in 1987 upgraded the sound and light systems, brought in a full kitchen and beverage bar, and increased the capacity to 200 seats. Fans admire the place, and musicians love it. The long roster of Monday Night shows has become a Who’s Who of jazz in the late 20th century—from veteran stars such as Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Barney Kessel to the new generation of virtuosos that includes Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman and Benny Green. Some have brought their talents back to Santa Cruz again and again, because the room itself is famous now, known from coast to coast for its ambiance and the respectful enthusiasm of the crowds.

Over the years the program has gradually expanded, as other nights have been devoted to outreach and education. A Friday night series features local bands. The jazz center hosts a Jazz Residency, to bring an accomplished player into the county for one week, to do a concert, offer workshops and visit classrooms. And each summer there is a two-week Jazz Camp for promising student musicians.

It’s a year-round juggling act that requires shrewd management. Behind the scenes there has been a rare mix of business savvy and sensitivity for performers’ expectations. For a number of years John Livingston, owner of Logos Books & Records, has served on the Board of Directors. Like Jackson, he too plays in his own group, a guitarist who doubles on percussion. “Jazz and money have never gone hand in hand,” Livingston says. “We don’t do anything until we know we can afford it. Staying solvent is essential. Mose Allison comes back every year because he likes it here. He also knows he’ll get paid on time.”

Meanwhile, this extended community we call Santa Cruz has proved to be more than a handy location. The blend of climate and invigorating cultural milieu has long been attractive to writers, painters, craftspeople, and performers of every kind. Over the years live music has come to play an essential role. I think of the symphony, the Cabrillo Music Festival, Linda Burman-Hall’s annual baroque music fest. I also think of the days when the centerpiece of the Pacific Garden Mall was Don McCaslin’s band, “Warmth,” filling the sidewalks in front of Copper House.

I glance at the listings and see that 36 local clubs currently offer live music sometime during the week—blues, salsa, hip-hop, country, Cajun. How many counties this size can come up with that much live music? We have in our midst an abundance of sound, a lot of gifted musicians, and audiences know to be appreciative and knowledgeable.

The late Joe Henderson, who headlined Kuumbwa’s first concert back in 1975, returned for performances numerous times. On one occasion, after playing two sold-out shows to standing ovations, the legendary tenor saxophonist remarked, “Playing here is like playing for connoisseurs. They know what’s going on.”  

The Kuumbwa gift is found right there, in the opportunity for that kind of dialogue. Actually, two dialogues are going on at once. Inside the club, the performer interacts with the crowd. Outside, the club interacts with the larger community that spawned it and supports it. With a national reputation and yet so much local access, this is a rare jazz club indeed. What’s more, after twenty-six years it can proudly claim to be the longest running year-round jazz venue on the west coast of the United States. We should all be proud. It is something to celebrate—this room designed to enhance the jazz experience, and named for the act of creation. Kuumbwa could only happen in Santa Cruz.


James D. Houston was the author of 15 works of fiction and non-fiction, including Continental Drift, Californian and The Men in My Life. His books have earned him an NEA Writing Grant, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and a Rockefeller Foundation residency. For several years he made his living as a musician, and from this experience came his award-winning second novel, Gig. Houston was based in Santa Cruz since 1962. He passed away in 2009.

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