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Keeping Up With the Jazz Mafia

September 9, 2019

The Bay Area is no stranger to audacious endeavors that fly in the face of common sense. But even in a region where an idea can take flight and transform an entire segment of the economy, trombonist, bassist, arranger, composer, and Jazz Mafia collective founder Adam Theis had little reason to hope that an ambitious jazz/classical/hip-hop mashup would have wings.

It’s not just that creating and presenting 2009’s audacious Brass, Bows & Beats, a suite for a 50-piece ensemble, required overcoming Sisyphean logistical and financial hurdles. Theis had an expansive network of musicians to draw on, but with the economy still on the ropes after the pummeling of the Great Recession, he could have easily faced a serious Jazz Mafia beatdown. In his corner there were major grants from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode and Hewlett Foundations, and a partnership with SFJAZZ.

Brass, Bows & Beats: A Hip-Hop Symphony premiered at a sold-out Palace of Fine Arts Theatre concert as part of SFJAZZ’s 2009 Spring Season. The creatively audacious work went on to earn international attention via high-profile dates on the North American festival circuit, including Newport, Montreal, Monterey, the Hollywood Bowl, San Jose, and Stern Grove.

With the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival marking BB&B’s 10th anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 14 at 1 p.m., presenting a free performance by the full 50-piece ensemble, the time seems ripe to take stock of the suite’s legacy and Jazz Mafia’s continuing influence on the Bay Area arts scene. While not all of the dozen or so ensembles that have performed under the Jazz Mafia umbrella are active these days, the moniker has come to represent the Bay Area’s homegrown proving ground for jazz/groove hybrids via collaborations with artists and institutions such as the Oakland Symphony, composer Mason Bates, UnderCover Presents, and Vau de Vire Society’s The Soiled Dove.

In the moment, Theis knew that Brass, Bows and Beats presented a tremendous opportunity, “but as time has gone on I realize more and more just how huge it was,” he says. “I was in this phase going as hard as I could in every way. Not sleeping ever, saying yes to everything, knowing I could only do this for so long. When we applied for the Gerbode grant I figured we should try to do the most ambitious thing we can, to see if that doesn’t make some headway and get us noticed. I was a jazz trombone guy leading these different bands, playing small clubs. You can’t make any money. Pulling off Brass, Bows and Beats was like winning the lottery. The odds were almost that high.”

The Jazz Mafia winning streak is still going strong. Last week, two of the most active Jazz Mafia ensembles, the hip-hop and R&B-infused Heaviest Feather and Cosa Nostra Strings, joined composer and DJ Mason Bates in Washington D.C., kicking off the Kennedy Center’s REACH Opening Festival. Bates first recruited the combos for his project bringing electronica-laced classical music into nightclub-like settings in April when Mercury Soul took over the DNA Lounge. He’s been duly impressed by the Jazz Mafia scene, which is now also overseen by violinist Shaina Evoniuk.

“Jazz Mafia is an astonishingly versatile collective of jazz ensembles, and their appearance on Mercury Soul’s spring show was mind-blowing,” Bates wrote in an email. “Adam Theis has given the Bay Area a unique fusion of a huge variety of soundworlds. He and Shaina are generous and genuine people who we’re all indebted to.”

Another creative faction that’s tapped into the Jazz Mafia talent pool is the Vau de Vire Society, which brings The Soiled Dove back to downtown Oakland Sept. 20 – Dec. 7, with shows every Friday and Saturday evening. Held under the Tortona Big Top, a grand, 12,000 sq. ft., European-style circus tent, The Soiled Dove is an erotically charged adult circus and dinner-theater production accompanied by an antic, live score composed and performed by a Jazz Mafia outfit.

The musicians were part of the acrobatic burlesque scene from the beginning, back when it was an underground show put on for a circle of friends in a Mission District art space. When Vau de Vire’s building had to make way for condos, the Society’s founders Mike and Shannon Gaines invested in the circus tent and moved the production to an airstrip on Alameda for two seasons. Last year, The Soiled Dove landed in Oakland, and it quickly became part of downtown’s thriving nightlife.

“We’ve been working on the new production a lot the last three or four months,” Theis says. “Every year we go in as performers and are amazed with what they do. It’s like going to Disneyland, how they use the space. It’s part art gallery, and part adult Disneyland.”

What makes the Jazz Mafia such a potent brand is that Theis has attracted a disparate constellation of talent that touches just about every corner of the Bay Area music scene. The roster has encompassed dozens of artists, including multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Joe Bagale (aka Otis McDonald), vocalists Aima The Dreamer and Crystal Monee Hall, drummer Aaron Kierbel, violist Keith Lawrence, and cellist Lewis Patzner. While Theis is the guiding spirit, the Jazz Mafia is a confederation that has evolved in a multitude of directions driven by the creative impulses and opportunities created by different members.

“What struck me coming in was the strong lineage of players on every instrument,” says trumpeter Ross Eustis. “I look up to a lot of the guys who are still active, Mike Olmos, Rich Armstrong, Henry Hung, Joel Ryan. They’ve all mentored me informally, hanging and talking trumpet stuff. Everyone that’s seen the Jazz Mafia over the years expects a great horn section, and I feel a responsibility to keep the level of musicianship as high as possible. Adam has kept it going by opening it up and having different musicians come in and influence its direction. He’s a joy to work with, a great connector of people.”

No realm better exemplifies Theis’s talent-honing sensibility than SFJAZZ’s Monday Night Band, which kicks off its 12-week fall session on Sept. 16. SFJAZZ honcho Randall Kline had worked closely with Theis and the Jazz Mafia in landing the generous Emerging Composer Award from the William and Flora Hewlett and Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundations that made Brass Bows and Beats possible. He thought Theis would be the ideal person to launch and run a nonprofessional community ensemble when the SFJAZZ Center opened its doors in 2013.

While slow to get off the ground, the group has attracted enough interest in recent years that Theis holds auditions for the two dozen or so spots. With teenagers, septuagenarians, and everything in between, the band features a multigenerational cast. Rather than looking for the most technically advanced players, Theis wants “people who are going to compliment the vibe of the band, who are enthusiastic and looking to grow,” he says.

“I’ve met so many musicians who have made my life richer, players I wouldn’t have otherwise met. The other night at Burning Man, I was playing in a giant band with musicians from all parts of the country and I had this weird realization that I’d met both of the singers through the SFJAZZ Monday Night Band.”

The next big project on the Jazz Mafia drawing board is releasing a pent-up flow of music from the past five or six years. “We’re about to go full bore releasing all these different projects,” Theis says. “I love recording. There’s a lot you can do in the studio that might kill you live. We’re doing Spotify, iTunes, and we’ll have stuff through our website as well. We have this giant back catalog that we can’t wait for people to hear.”

It’s an offer you shouldn’t refuse.

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.