In Berkeley, everything old is new again, at least when it comes to music venues. Sam Rudin, a jazzy blues pianist (or a bluesy jazz pianist, depending on the gig) has opened his new club The Backroom, based on the original Freight & Salvage, the venerable Berkeley folk music spot where he played frequently after moving to the Bay Area in the early 1980s. Intimate and comfy, with rows of couches, impeccable sound, and unobstructed sight lines, the Backroom fills an East Bay void by providing an ideal living-room environment for singer/songwriters, small jazz combos, and bluegrass bands.
Rudin used the old Freight as a model because the institution’s third incarnation, a glorious 490-seat venue two blocks away in the downtown Berkeley Arts District, is simply too big for many of the artists who once performed at the original storefront. There, on San Pablo Avenue, was “where I established myself as a performer,” says Rudin, a.k.a. Hurricane Sam. “Not having similar places after it moved was always a disappointment. Anna’s Jazz Island was my next home, but the original Freight had a hold on my imagination.”
On the same block as the current Freight & Salvage, jazz pianist Susan Muscarella is getting ready to break ground on a new wing for the California Jazz Conservatory across from the school’s present site on the corner of Shattuck and Addison Streets in the historic Kress Building. The CJC, formerly known as the Jazzschool, already presents regular concerts in Hardymon Hall by local jazz artists, touring musicians, and students studying at the school. The need for more classrooms, rehearsal studios and a second concert space reflects the CJC’s steady growth, and underscores its essential role in the Bay Area jazz ecosystem.
The new CJC venue is modeled on Minton’s Playhouse, the legendary Harlem nightspot that served as a proving ground for bebop in the 1940s.
“I was really inspired reading about Henry Minton, how his personal mission was to provide up-and-coming musicians of the day a place to experiment,” said Muscarella. “We’re trying to meet our $1.5 million goal, and have about one-third to go.”
Muscarella hosted some next-generation players on Sept. 25, with an event featuring Opaluna, a duo of Colombian-born vocalist Susana Pineda and guitarist Luis Salcado, who recently graduated from the CJC with a bachelor’s in music. Playing original songs and standards reimagined with an array of Latin American rhythms, Opaluna just last month released a gorgeous eponymous album produced by bassist and CJC Professor Jeff Denson.
With the beautifully reconditioned UC Theatre up and running one block over, a nightly roster of jazz, funk and Americana up the street at Jupiter, and the experimental offerings two blocks over at the storefront Berkeley Arts Festival space, the neighborhood now rivals Oakland’s Uptown district for musical outlets. There might be some competition for acts, but the vibe is mostly communitarian according to Rudin, who presented a series of CJC student recitals in May.
“I hadn’t even opened yet when the Jazzschool contacted me and asked when would the space be available,” Rudin said. “Shortly after that, Susan played with saxophonist Michael Zilber in their band Zilberella, and other people from the Jazzschool have found their way here. I have the same cordial connection with the Freight & Salvage.”
Rudin’s decision to open a club spans back to the previous decade, when gigs dried up for Hurricane Sam and the Hot Shots during the Great Recession. He spent years looking for the right spot in the East Bay, and eventually settled on the brick building formerly used as a publishing office just off Berkeley’s University Avenue.
Investing a big chunk of his own savings wasn’t part of the original plan, but “we talk about improvising in jazz as jumping off a cliff together, and that’s an appropriate metaphor for this,” he says. “This whole thing is my late-life adventure. It’s not intended to make money, though hopefully I’ll make it back so I don’t lose it. It doesn’t make financial sense, but I hope it makes artistic sense.”
The Backroom’s opening night was headlined by bluegrass great Laurie Lewis, a Freight regular for decades, and word quickly spread on the musicians’ grapevine. Rudin’s eclectic mix of acts speaks to the need for an 80-100 seat venue — the same size that Muscarella’s planning for the new CJC space. Her ambitious vision for the institution is less Boston’s sprawling Berklee School of Music and more “the Juilliard of jazz on the West Coast, a small, high-quality school,” she says, with a concert hall designed to put listeners in the middle of the action.
“I like the more intimate spaces, where you’re up close to the artists,” she said. “Jazz doesn’t always attract 400 people. With a 100-seat room, you can sell out — or, if you have 50 people, it still feels good.”
This article first appeared on KQED Arts on Sept, 22, 2016.
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