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Composition / Improvisation

A conversation with Alistair Monroe, co-founder of the North Beach Jazz Festival

I'm speaking today with Alistair Monroe, who, together with Herve Ernest, is one of the founders and producers of the North Beach Jazz Festival. In its seventh year, the festival will be held in various locations in North Beach from July 28th through August 5th.

SF Station: The website for the festival has a really good section on the history of jazz in North Beach. It seems that this area had a good jazz scene with a bunch of small clubs--why did it go away?

Alistair Monroe: Well there was the politics involved, and the beatnik era. The music was bringing a lot more cultures to North Beach, but people didn't like the shorts and the hippies and the color coming in. The musicians and the music lovers were seen as invaders: "we don't like the longhairs, we don't like a lot of the color," and all that. Basically what happened was, the city went to the police department and said "how do we get rid of these people coming into North Beach and how do we stop the music?" Well, the city then required all of these cafes and establishments to have permits and cabaret licenses, which they couldn't afford. And once they did that, the jazz scene died down because it couldn't sustain itself.

SFS: How did you and Herve get into producing the festival?

AM: I was influenced by my step-father who is a jazz musician; he still plays today with Ed Kelly and the Jazznuts. I've always been a big fan of jazz, and I thought it was important to start a jazz event in the cafe that I was working at, the North End in North Beach. So I started booking jazz and I noticed that there was a supply and demand for artists who wanted to play. I felt that it was important to bring together all of these jazz artists wanting to perform here. So that's how the festival first started in 1995, in Washington Square Park. Then I met Herve, and asked him if he wanted to be a part of it--and he said yes, so we just did it.

SFS: Is there something about North Beach that makes it a good place for jazz?

AM: It's the feeling and the flavor of North Beach--it's a mini city in itself. It's very similar to the French Quarter in New Orleans. Any sort of entertainment that you need is five minutes away. There are small alleyways, small cafes; it's very intimate, and that's the same with music, you want to be intimate with the music.

SFS: How has the festival evolved over the years?

AM: It has grown because we're hungry for creative ideas. We want to be able to extend out to what people want to listen to, so we've been able to branch out into different categories. We really call it the people's jazz festival--the city is excited about it, and it's just become a tradition for people to come and visit the festival.

SFS: With your Jazz Forward show, you mix jazz and electronic music--how did that get started?

AM: It started off as a taste of acid jazz a few years ago, and it got into being much more than acid jazz, so we had to sit down and figure out a name for it. Jazz Forward is the future of where this sound is going. A lot of our friends DJ and perform, so we wanted to capture what was happening nationally and put it into a night. This year we have the special treat in that we're doing the 75th anniversary celebration to Miles Davis, which will have an electric and an acoustic set, and we're going to add in some DJ flavor as well.

SFS: What is the show you're most looking forward to seeing in this year's festival?

AM: The greatest thing about being the producer and the artistic director is that I get to organize shows that I love. My co-pilot with the bookings is John Miles of Sunset Promotions, so we sit and brainstorm on all the shows that we'd like to go to and we bring the show here. I'm pretty biased when I say that I do enjoy every night of the festival.

SFS: Any other comments?

AM: We're going to be producing about fourteen shows in nine days during the jazz festival. Everybody will get a taste of a little bit of everything within that one week. There's Latin jazz, there's a taste of New Orleans which goes until 4AM, we've got Afro-Cuban hip-hop, we've got Insight coming (they're an Afro-Cuban group from Connecticut, and they're all kids, around 17, 18, 19 years old.) Plus, the free performances in the park on August 4 and 5 are going to blow minds--we've got some phenomenal talent lined up. We hope everybody can take off the entire week and join in.