Always on the lookout for a foothold in Oakland, Mario Guarneri knew he was on to something good when he first caught a show at the Temescal Art Center, a few weeks before the pandemic shutdown in February 2020. As co-founder of Jazz In the Neighborhood, a nonprofit fighting for—and offering—fair wages for musicians, Guarneri saw plenty of potential in the bare-bones performance space. Most importantly, TAC, located 511 48th Street in the heart of Temescal, boasts friendly acoustics and close proximity to good eats.
Launching what he hopes will be an ongoing relationship with the venue, Jazz In the Neighborhood kicks off the TAC Jazz Fest April 2 with an early show by the Raffi Garabedian Octet and a late set by vocalist Clairdee with the Ken French Trio.
With two concerts a night and an afternoon jam session on three successive Saturdays, the festival will turn TAC into a showcase for a vibrant cross section of the East Bay jazz scene.
The fest will encapsulate Jazz In the Neighborhood’s commitment to a broad spectrum of jazz. The first night features Oakland tenor saxophonist Garabedian’s talent-packed band premiering his new song cycle, based on his family’s flight from the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian genocide during World War I, and Clairdee, a well-traveled San Francisco jazz singer with a devoted local following.
With San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett Books and Records serving as something of a home base, Jazz In the Neighborhood has presented concert series around the Bay Area over the past decade. The group guarantees musicians pay of at least $200 per gig.
Jazz In the Neighborhood is also working closely with the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music, sponsoring the monthly third-Thursdays fundraising series, which features pianist Jon Jang’s five-piece Jangtet with spoken word artist Paul Flores on April 22. But finding a regular niche in Oakland has proven more difficult than one might expect.
Run by dancer and performance artist Leyya Mona Tawil, TAC stood out for its location, reasonable rental rate, and “a nice friendly vibe,” said Guarneri, a veteran trumpeter and Juilliard graduate who maintained his jazz chops during the decades he performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
“We were at the Piedmont Art Center for a year and a half, and we’ve tried other spaces. We’re always looking,” said Guarneri.
While Jazz In the Neighborhood’s Sunday afternoon series at West Oakland’s Dresher Studios continues on April 10 with the powerhouse improv-and-poetry duo of Oluyemi and ljemoa Thomas, the space doesn’t offer many amenities close by, which makes it less inviting for a night out. Noting that he first heard about TAC via bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, Guarneri caught a performance there by her experimental duo B. and realized it’s potential.
The TAC Jazz Fest continues April 9 with an early set by The Holly Martins, a confoundingly stimulating band featuring saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, guitarist Eric Vogler, and singular vocalist Lorin Benedict with drummer Jon Arkin. The late set features rising Oakland vocalist Danielle Wertz’s quintet with saxophonist Sam Priven. The festival concludes April 16 with shows by soul-steeped jazz vocalist Tammi Brown with violinist Mads Tolling and bassist Dan Robbins, and a set by Oakland tenor sax great Howard Wiley, who was featured last month at the Cal Performances presentation of Jason and Alicia Hall Moran’s Oakland-centric production “Two Wings: The Music of Black America In Migration.”
TAC Jazz Fest will include free jam sessions
Taking full advantage of TAC’s day-long rental rate, Jazz In the Neighborhood is also hosting free jam sessions each Saturday from 2-4 p.m. anchored by a cast of Bay Area jazz heavyweights.
The idea for the jam session came about when Musicians Union Local 6 contacted Guarneri about putting on some April events in recognition of Jazz Appreciation Month. In keeping with Jazz In the Neighborhood’s policy of always compensating musicians at a respectable rate, the Music Performance Trust Fund put up money to pay for the jam sessions. The trust fund was set up by James Petrillo, the legendary, iron-willed president of the American Federation of Musicians from 1940 to 1958. Long before minimal compensation for streaming became a contentious issue for musicians, Petrillo led the AFM union’s strike against record labels from 1942 to 1944, to force labels to pay musicians royalties for recordings. The trust fund was established as part of the settlement of a second strike in 1948.
The TAC concerts are supported by JAMBAR, a new organic energy bar company recently launched by Jennifer Maxwell, who co-founded Berkeley-based PowerBar. A drummer who’s been studying at the California Jazz Conservatory, Maxwell created JAMBAR partly as a vehicle to champion her two passions. The company donates 50% of after-tax profits to organizations that support music and active living.
“We ended up with three events each Saturday, with close to 30 musicians guaranteed at least $200 a gig,” Guarneri said. “For the jam session, people can come to play or just to listen. We’ll do a short set and open it up to the public. We’ve gotten word out to the schools and we’re hoping some advanced students show up. And I invited Jennifer Maxwell to come and sit in.”
With JAMBAR’s underwriting, it’s feasible to present a large ensemble like Raffi Garabedian’s octet, which is making its debut. He’s assembled an unusual combo with some of the region’s most respected and influential improvisers, including Oakland saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and drummer Scott Amendola. The group also features vocalist Danielle Wertz, vibraphonist Mark Clifford, Jonathan Seiberlich on tuba, and trombonist Danny Lubin-Laden, who’s been collaborating with Garabedian since they were in the Berkeley High Jazz Band together.
Drawing lyrics from letters written by his paternal grandparents who fled the Armenian genocide, and his father’s historical fiction inspired by the family’s experience settling near Boston, Garabedian said the suite is a work in progress with at least half a dozen songs. He started working on the project the year before his father’s death in 2020, and it’s evolved as a vehicle for communing with him and sharing writing that he never had the chance to publish.
“For each song I’ve gone through different stories he’s written from his historic fiction,” said Garabedian, who also performs April 16 at the California Jazz Conservatory with Amendola and Lubin-Laden in the stripped down trio SticklerPhonics. “I’d take phrases from passages and rework or adapt content from his pieces. Each piece is a different story or chapter in his life, and it’s a way I can celebrate who he was as a person.”