If you happened to have walked by the SFJazz Center the other evening and peered into the floor-to-ceiling windows encasing the street-level lobby you might have noticed—maybe even wondered why—there were skateboard videos playing on several large screens.
In fact, while the videos were playing downstairs, Jason Moran—a MacArthur “genius” Grant recipient and one of the nation’s most renowned jazz pianists—was upstairs performing for a sold-out 700-seat auditorium as about a dozen skateboarders exuberantly “sessioned” a mini-ramp erected in front of the stage.
Moran had organized the event (“Jason Moran’s Bandwagon & Skateboarders”) as a way to pay homage to some of his most significant early influences.
As Mr. Moran explained to a reporter earlier in the week, he has been carrying a flame for San Francisco’s early-‘90s skateboarding scene ever since the fateful family vacation he and his Houston-bred brothers paid a virginal-visit to the Embarcadero plaza—at the time skateboarding’s unsurpassed, red-brick-bay Mecca.
He breathed briefly but deeply of its fertile, illustrious, maritime air.
“We were on summer vacation with our parents and they would let us roll by ourselves. They’d let us play in the city for a couple of hours,” he said, adding with a laugh: “I’d never let my kids do that. I guess my brother knew Embarcadero was the spot. I lived in a black community [in Houston] and we all started skating. Steve Steadham and Ray Barbee1 were our heroes. It was interesting to come out here [to California]. It was like with jazz in the late ‘40s. If you went out to Harlem and you went to Minton’s Playhouse and you saw Charlie Parker. You’d be like, ‘Oh shit. This is where it’s actually happening.’ It was just very fresh.”
“I thought this was a way to christen this institution, this new venue,” said Moran, a Resident Artistic Director at SFJazz, the Hayes Valley-based nonprofit center that opened this past January and describes itself as the nation’s only freestanding venue devoted to jazz. “When I think about San Francisco I always think about skating. I am always looking at skaters even when I am driving. Like, ‘How are they going to hit the curb? What are they going to do?’”
That Sunday night Moran mashed the piano while simultaneously turning his head2 to watch the skaters in rapturous Matissean delight.
Similarly appreciative, the crowd ooh-ed and ahh-ed as skaters rose and fell and colored lights swirled across the auditorium’s fragrant oak walls.
Live jazz seemed to suit all of the skaters, but none quite so well as Jake Johnson, an uncommonly earnest Alien Workshop pro. By analogy: It was as though the music was a skilled, slightly drunken puppet master pulling at his arms with invisible strings. (Johnson, incidentally, was wearing a plain green T-shirt and shorts over what appeared to be baggy grey cotton pants—a willfully eccentric outfit even by skateboarding standards.)
Between songs Mr. Moran, the cool cat in a herringbone flat cap and unbuttoned cardigan, preached the skate-jazz-Gospel in an appropriately improvisational manner.
“What was coming out of San Francisco [skateboarding in the 1990s] was helping the world’s adolescents,” said Mr. Moran. “Skating saved! What I found out is that I didn’t know anything about skating until I came to San Francisco and watched really great skaters downtown at EMB. I was like, ‘Oh shit. So this is how you do this.’ And you go home and watch skateboard videos and just chill and maybe get more serious about piano. I didn’t want to mess my wrists up. But anyway, when I got serious about piano at the same time my neighbor and some cats built a mini-ramp in his backyard. At the same time he was DJ-ing and making beats. So all that culture—making music and skating—seemed to be in the same space. Having a ramp. Sharing music. It seemed to be all together. So I thought the best way to pay tribute to this city was to honor it with all that is here in front of you today… the Kennedy Center asked me when they get to have an event like this. And I’m like, ‘You have to earn it.’”
The crowd roared.
As the music concluded and the audience rose from its seats there was a sense that many had been enlivened and illuminated, that the revival had found some converts.
Delroy Lindo, the actor and Oakland resident rakishly sporting a backwards hat, silk scarf and hoop earring, was walking to the lobby.
“I enjoyed it,” said the star3 of Spike Lee’s film Crooklyn. “It will get even better as they do it more.”
It’s not news that skateboarders—amateur and professional—love skateboarding.
Still it was touching to see that even after the crowd dispersed, Jake Johnson and a couple cohorts were still skating the ramp4 as though the show were far from over. (Imagine Lebron James and Kobe Bryant playing H-O-R-S-E after a big game.) As anyone who has logged serious hours skateboarding knows, the sound of the tail slapping the ramp has the Proustian power to send you through space and time; this was all the truer in so pristine an acoustical setting. It was jazz. It was pure poetry. Wack. Woosh. Wack. Woosh.
“Hey Jake, what did you think of the combination of jazz and skateboarding?” a reporter wondered.
“It was awesome,” Johnson said. “There should be bigger ramps, more skaters, more people.”
As for his pants, were they sweatpants? Yoga?
“Shorts over long johns,” he said. “They’re good for ballet, you know.”
Right on, Daddy-O. Right on.
1 Barbee and Steadham were both seminal African-American professional skaters in the 1980s and 1990s.
2 To borrow a skateboarding colloquialism: He was “fanning out.”
3 “Who’s that guy again?” a young photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle asked of Mr. Lindo. “I’ve skated for 10 years. You’d never know it in this stupid jacket. Guess you’ve got to fit the part. Well, you’re wearing a tie.”
4 Kent Uyehara, owner of the stalwart FTC skate shop, had the ramp built expressly for the occasion. The shop also sells Western Edition brand decks with album art from the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew. I’d run into Uyehara earlier in the week at the Safeway in Diamond Heights. He showed me a picture of the ramp being built on his smartphone. FTC is the shop most closely associated with the Embarcadero era so beloved by Moran. In another homage to that particular cultural moment the pianist’s T-shirt read “93 ‘TIL,” a reference to the Souls of Mischief rap group’s hit song “93 ‘Til Infinity.”