Can Sacramento support modern jazz?

Vivian Lee—bright lights, big city

Vivian Lee—bright lights, big city

An event can sell out in the foothills on a weeknight, and, a month later, the same event can bomb in Sacramento on a weekend. The Mondavi Center’s jazz series is on the verge of selling out, seemingly an indication of a real hunger for jazz in the Sacramento area. But, despite indications of an audience, there are few jazz-friendly venues in town. For jazz aficionados, Café Mexicas’ ongoing Sunday-night jams are an oasis in a wasteland of rock music clubs. Beyond Mexicas, there are few options.

A few weeks ago, Clubber reported on a fund-raising event for the Northern California Modern Jazz Association, an organization faced with the challenge of bringing jazz back into Sacramento’s consciousness by presenting a variety of jazz styles in a quarterly concert series, and by informing the public of Sacramento-area jazz events through its Web site, The event, held on a Saturday night in Auburn, was a smashing success—a sellout event with stellar musicians.

It must have been based on these sales that NorCal Jazz held a much more ambitious event at the Radisson Hotel this past Sunday, a $25-per-seat afternoon of jazz featuring the Vivian Lee Quintet with Joe Gilman, Steve Gundhi’s New Dimensions, Habanera Quartet, the Mat Marucci Quartet, Krohn, Malone & DeFazio and Ron Cunha’s All-Star Big Band.

Based on the Mondavi Center sales and the previous sellout in Auburn, one might have expected the “Sacramento Jazz Is Coming Out” event to be huge. Unfortunately, in keeping with Sacramento’s rather lackluster audience turnout as of late, the event only lured between 150 and 200 people, a group that was spread thin over six hours and two stages. It was a disappointing turnout, to be sure, but the event did net some money—and some publicity—for NorCal Jazz.

The NorCal Jazz concert got much better publicity than other recent outdoor music events but still did not reach the level of success it could have. The fundamental problem may have been ticket prices. An initiated and enthusiastic jazz crowd may be able and willing to spend $25 per seat for a festival event, but Sacramento audiences simply are not willing to pay that much—at least not yet—and high ticket prices can alienate many potential audience members, particularly students and retirees. This is especially true of an event sponsored by a relatively unknown organization. Perhaps, then, NorCal Jazz had just a tad too much ambition for its first big outing.

Nevertheless, the event turned a profit, and NorCal Jazz founder Glenn Hair remains optimistic, despite the lack of turnout. “We really didn’t reach the uninitiated,” Hair reports, staring up at the stage as Ron Cunha’s All-Star Band swung into another big-band standard. “Most of the people here are jazz regulars. We were hoping to make a big splash by drawing some people who maybe wouldn’t normally come to a jazz event. That didn’t really happen.”

But Hair and NorCal Jazz will not be giving up the project anytime soon. Their next event will be smaller and more low-key, most likely to be held this winter at Harlow’s, of which Hair says, “Harlow’s is a great classic-jazz venue. They just don’t know it yet.” Harlow’s would indeed be a prime venue for quality jazz shows, particularly for acts like sultry chanteuse Vivian Lee, a favorite of NorCal Jazz events.

Keep watching for details.