Trombones issued long tones from a balcony on the corner of Franklin and Fell streets in San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood. Soon more brass players answered from another balcony, as if the building itself were sounding off.
In a way, it was. On a warm, sunny Monday last week, a crowd assembled at the former site of an auto-repair shop for the opening of the $64 million, 35,000-square-foot SFJazz Center. Trombonist Jacob Garchik's cleverly positioned 16-piece brass choir inaugurated what was billed as "the first stand-alone structure built specifically for jazz." Such distinction might sound like a mere technicality, in contrast to the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex tucked within Manhattan's Time Warner Center, were it not for architecture's power to communicate ideas and stake claims within an urban landscape.
The new building's sleek three-story exterior reflected the sunlight, its irregularly spaced glass panels suggesting contrapuntal rhythms against a steady beat of steel. Inside was the Robert N. Miner Auditorium, named for the late Oracle Corp. co-founder, with flexible seating for 350 to 700 people; the Joe Henderson Lab, an 80-seat black-box space named for the late saxophonist; a digital learning lab; offices; and a street-level 60-seat café. Within a six-block radius stood War Memorial Opera House, Herbst Theatre, Davies Symphony Hall and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, all venues used by SFJazz during its 30-year rise from upstart weekend festival to standard-bearing year-round jazz nonprofit.
Earlier Randall Kline, SFJazz's founder and executive artistic director, recalled talks a decade ago with the city's symphony and opera about a shared site. Spurred on by an anonymous $20 million donation, the organization's board pursued a dedicated home. "The vision wasn't a citadel to culture," he said, "but something that projects jazz's energy and openness—a place that's integrated into the neighborhood." In fact, a driver at a red light where Franklin meets Fell might just see straight through transparent glass to the new auditorium's stage as concertgoers file in. Architect Mark Cavagnero described gaining inspiration from "gathering spots like Boston's Old South Meeting House and Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple." The steeply raked design of the Miner Auditorium, he said, owes to practicality as well as to saxophonist Joe Lovano's description of European amphitheaters "where the musicians look into the audience's eyes."
At Wednesday's opening-night concert nearly all the featured musicians had close ties to SFJazz. Miner Auditorium, on which Messrs. Kline and Cavagnero collaborated with acoustician Sam Berkow and theater consultant Len Auerbach, was itself among the star performers. The narrow white-oak slats banding its walls and ceiling promoted mindful serenity while helping to create an admirably dry sound. Basses and drums seemed correct, not overblown or blurred. Strong sightlines and close proximity, even from the balcony, conveyed the tenderness of pianist Chick Corea's first-ever duet with guitarist Bill Frisell on the standard "It Could Happen to You" and the honking intensity of Mr. Lovano's exchanges with saxophonist Joshua Redman on Mr. Lovano's tune "Blackwell's Message." Pianist McCoy Tyner's forceful left hand rang just right, especially on his "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit." The precocious talents in the high-school all-star group backing singer Mary Stallings and violinist Regina Carter came across as clearly as the mature glow of a solo by 72-year-old vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. The bonds during drummer Eric Harland's duets—exuberant with pianist Jason Moran, blissful with bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding—were palpable.
A tiled mural in the center's second-story lobby depicts storied San Francisco clubs, including Jimbo's Bop City, home to all-night jam sessions during the music's heyday, and the Keystone Korner, last of the city's iconic jazz rooms. In the Bay Area as elsewhere, jazz clubs are not as viable as they once were. Yoshi's, in Oakland, continues with distinction but its sister club, in San Francisco, recently removed the word "jazz" from its moniker. Some locals question whether SF Jazz's season, expanded from 100 to 200 shows, threatens a delicate ecosystem. Others expect a rising tide that lifts all boats. It's worth noting that the center features chef Charles Phan's street-level café, open all day, serving customers who aren't ticketholders. Also, unlike Jazz at Lincoln Center, there is no nightclub here.
Jazz at Lincoln Center is staked to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's impressive appeal and his clearly expressed aesthetic of what does and does not constitute jazz. At SFJazz's ribbon cutting, the first musician to speak was 18-year-old singer Laila Smith, who described jazz as "about passion and vulnerability, heart and soul, and telling a story." Next up was Mr. Santos, who grew up in San Francisco, of Puerto Rican descent. He talked about jazz as "a noble mission that gets past 'isms,'" and chanted for Eleggua, the Yoruba deity who "opens the door to the path."
The organization's flagship group, the SFJazz Collective, is a flexible octet of established players, each with his own stylistic bent. It performed with power on Wednesday night, as did SFJazz's five resident artistic directors: Messrs. Santos, Frisell and Moran, Ms. Carter, and saxophonist Miguel Zenón. Through four-night residencies, SFJazz's season will tease out some far-flung connections, as with tabla player Zakir Hussain, and strike unexpected local chords, as when Mr. Moran collaborates onstage with skateboarders. ("When I came here as a teenager," he said, "that was part of the culture.")
Meanwhile, jazz's past looms large, literally. Blown-up Herman Leonard photos of legendary musicians cover the windows of the former Commerce High School, directly across the street from the new center. Last week, Mr. Hutcherson glanced at them during a break. He recalled playing San Francisco clubs like the Blackhawk, where Miles Davis famously recorded. "There are a lot of musicians up there on that wall," he said, "that would have liked to play here."
Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal. He also blogs at blogs.artinfo.com/blunotes.
A version of this article appeared January 30, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: This Building Sounds The Right Note.