SFJAZZ Center: A High-Tech Home for Jazz Music in San Francisco

Apr 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Matt Gallagher


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Pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland perform as a duo on February 8.

Pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland perform as a duo on February 8.

Billed as a “sanctuary for jazz,” the SFJAZZ Center, located only blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall, received national press coverage and rave reviews when it opened on January 23, 2013, with a gala star-studded concert emceed by Bill Cosby. Purpose-built from the ground up for presenting jazz, SFJAZZ Center is the culmination of a vision developed by the SFJAZZ organization, which for 30 years presented the SFJAZZ Festival in rented venues. SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline says the new center is “the first freestanding building for jazz in the country.”


Acoustical Design for Jazz Music

The two-story 35,000-square-foot facility stands at the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets on the former site of an auto-repair shop. Its centerpiece is the Robert N. Miner Auditorium, which seats up to 700 in an amphitheater setting that’s designed to feel and sound as intimate as a small club. The main hall has an Avid Venue Profile console at front-of-house and an Avid SC48 for monitors. On the ground floor, the Joe Henderson Lab seats up to 80, hosting concerts as well as workshops, rehearsals, clinics and lectures for the organization’s Education Department. Practice rooms and a digital lab are also available. Every room is connected via a cabling infrastructure that wires the building for audio and video recording and broadcast.

The acoustic canopy and Meyer Sound loudspeaker system designed by SIA Acoustics

The acoustic canopy and Meyer Sound loudspeaker system designed by SIA Acoustics

Designing and building SFJAZZ Center was a completely collaborative process. Acoustician Sam Berkow, the founder of acoustical consulting and design firm SIA Acoustics (siaacoustics.com)—along with his colleagues Jeff Friedlander and Adam Schulman—worked closely with Kline, architect Mark Cavagnero, and theater designer Len Auerbach to define the bowl-shaped auditorium’s dimensions and develop optimal acoustics to coincide with optimal sight lines for both musicians and audience—acoustics that serve the nuances, dynamic variations, improvisation and interaction that are particular to jazz music.

“It’s rare that a client tells you, ‘We want to aim for greatness.’” Berkow says. “Randall Kline has a vision where technology serves the music, and not vice versa. [SIA Acoustics] got involved early on, which we feel is always the best way to do it. It’s almost impossible to solve the problems once the rooms have been designed. We feel very strongly that successful acoustics are built into the design of a room, not done to a room. Once they found a site, Randall brought us in to work with the architects to talk about their needs: how big a stage do you need, how are we going to do seating in a way that’s acoustical. Audiences want uniform sound.”

Berkow devised a system of variable acoustics to aid in this goal. “Behind all these wooden slats are a series of different treatments that redirect, scatter and absorb sound,” he says. “The upstage wall has a series of sound diffusers. We were trying to do a much smoother, softer type of reflection—much more advantageous for microphones and musicians. When they bring in louder bands with lots of stage monitors, we can drop a series of acoustical banners behind the stage.”

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