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With big shoes to fill, SFJAZZ taps Terence Blanchard to lead the way

Terence Blanchard, the new Executive Artistic Director of SFJAZZ, at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.
Scott Chernis
Terence Blanchard, the new Executive Artistic Director of SFJAZZ, at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.

Last year, when Randall Kline announced his intention to retire as executive artistic director of SFJAZZ, the obvious question was: how do you follow that? Today the San Francisco arts organization revealed its answer, naming composer, trumpeter and bandleader Terence Blanchard as its new creative leader, and Kline’s successor.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Randall’s, and of SFJAZZ,” Blanchard tells WRTI. “They treat the art form like it’s current and alive, and they have given artists a chance not only to display their music, but also challenged them to do other things. I look at what they’ve been doing for the last four decades as an incubator for creativity in the jazz world. And I really want to be a part of that in some way.”

Blanchard has deep history with SFJAZZ’s programming, even relative to his peer group: his opus Champion, staged this spring by The Metropolitan Opera, was presented at SFJAZZ back in 2016, near the end of his two-year tenure as a Resident Artistic Director. His most recent performance there was last year, with the E-Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet. Prior to that, he took part in a 2019 tribute to Wayne Shorter, which SFJAZZ shared the following year as part of its “Fridays at Five” subscription webcast.

Kline — who considers that moment a rare highlight (“I mean, it was just unbelievably jaw-droppingly great”) — regards Blanchard’s appointment as both a continuation and an extension. “Terence brings something to this role that I kind of faked for a long time,” he says. “He’s got a real gravitas. My growth into the position was all kind of iterative, as it happened: from starting to do a particular thing to learning a lot of other things.”

The particular thing that Kline started in 1983 was a two-night festival, called Jazz in the City. Now known as the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and just underway, it’s only one facet of SFJAZZ, which functions as a year-round presenting organization. Kline was instrumental in building up that presence, just as he was the key figure rallying support and raising funds for the SFJAZZ Center, a $64 million facility in the Hayes Valley neighborhood, which opened to great fanfare a decade ago.

Randall Kline
SFJAZZ
Randall Kline

Blanchard, who has arguably never been more prolific or preeminent, was quick to quell any worry about his new position infringing on his creative output: “We’ve come to an agreement where I still have time to do all of those things.”

In conversation, both he and Kline expressed enthusiasm for the technological possibilities yet untapped at the SFJAZZ Center, including an immersive visual media system installed during the pandemic. “We have the opportunity to do some really interesting things,” Blanchard says. “There’s already an infrastructure there at the building that’s not being totally utilized yet, because it was just put in. So I’m looking forward to taking advantage of all of those things.”

Kline voices similar enthusiasm, but as someone already preparing for a view from the outside, to the extent that such a thing is possible. “This is just a beautiful thing for him,” he says, referring to Blanchard. “He’s got the toys here. He’s got an open audience. He’s got technology to further what he’s interested in doing. You know, he has a platform to really do something important for jazz.”

Among Kline’s deeper behind-the-scenes achievements at SFJAZZ is the cultivation of its Board of Trustees, and there appears to be unanimous support for the new hire. “We could not be more thrilled to have Terence leading and inspiring SFJAZZ in the fulfillment of a vision started 40 years ago,” says Denise Young, the board chair, in a statement. “Terence’s expansive impact upon so many areas and genres was a perfect match for the vision we have at SFJAZZ.”

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.