Tim Jackson, the Kuumbwa’s co-founder and executive director.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

Ready to be jazzed once again? Iconic Kuumbwa poised to welcome audiences back in September

The Kuumbwa Jazz Center will have been dark for a solid year and a half when it opens again for business on Sept. 13. It will will operate at two-thirds capacity, about 140 seats, early on, then be at full capacity for an Oct. 26 visit from Branford Marsalis.

After almost exactly a year and a half without audiences, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz is springing back to life in September.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the Kuumbwa has existed essentially as a converted television studio, the site of “Mondays With Kuumbwa,” a series of recorded performances on its fabled stage by jazz musicians themselves rendered unemployed by COVID-19.

But the longest pause — by far — in Kuumbwa’s 45-year history is finally coming to an end. On Sept. 13, the nonprofit jazz club will welcome celebrated saxophonist Joshua Redman, a longtime regular at Kuumbwa, to do two shows. And yes, it will be for a paying, in-person audience.

For the first five weeks, the Kuumbwa will operate at two-thirds capacity, about 140 seats. Then, on Oct. 26, when the great Branford Marsalis comes to visit, the space will be at full capacity.

Tim Jackson, the Kuumbwa’s co-founder and executive director.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Tim Jackson, the Kuumbwa’s co-founder and executive director, said that the two-thirds capacity is the club’s decision and not imposed by any outside regulation: “We just want to be careful and move kind of slow, make sure our audience is comfortable and that they know we’re looking out for their best interests.”

The most recent show at the Kuumbwa with an in-person audience was March 10, 2020, with Chilean-born saxophonist Melissa Aldana performing a show inspired by iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The club closed for the duration after that show.

“We didn’t know at the time that was going to be our last show,” said Jackson, “but we knew stuff was coming down the pike.”

Jackson and his board and staff at the Kuumbwa decided to wait until after Labor Day to reopen, partly because they needed time to convert the space back into a live jazz club. Since its closing, the Kuumbwa has turned into a high-tech recording studio to record the “Mondays With Kuumbwa” performances, roughly 75 video recordings available for free at the Kuumbwa’s website or on YouTube.

When the club is back open for business, audiences will likely notice nothing much different from before of experiencing live music there. But the Kuumbwa will be outfitted with four high-quality video cameras suspended from the ceiling to issue in an entirely new era of recording performances on stage.

Tim Jackson
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Like many venues around the Bay Area and across the country, the Kuumbwa will be weighing the benefits of offering streaming or recorded performances to their audiences at home. But even though the club is poised to use its new equipment, it has yet to develop a policy or business model for it.

“I’m not exactly sure how that’s all going to manifest itself yet,” said Jackson, “because our first concern now is just getting audiences back in, getting the audiences comfortable and the artists comfortable and that’s going to take a minute.”

Once it’s back up to speed, the Kuumbwa will largely reserve Mondays and Thursdays for its showcase jazz shows, and continue to offer the club for rent, including the new audio/visual technology, to outside bookers and artists during the other days of the week.

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The Redman shows will take place just a couple of weeks before the newly reconstituted Monterey Jazz Festival (Sept. 24-26), of which Jackson also serves as artistic director.

“I am emotional about certain things,” said Jackson when asked if he’ll get emotional when Kuumbwa again fills with people for the first time in 18 months. “But I’ll probably be so caught up in the production issues that it probably won’t sink in. It’s been a long haul, and you take the journey with the artists as well because they’ve been in the same boat. They couldn’t work and now they’re just getting back to it. So, yeah, I think there will be a joyous feeling in the air, for sure.”