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New & Noteworthy


Kuumbwa Jazz Center on the Cusp of 50th Anniversary

By Mat Weir

Welcome to a new series where we're highlighting the quintessential businesses that make Downtown Santa Cruz so vibrant. 

For our debut installment we’re shining the spotlight on a local non-profit and venue that has been the hub of the Santa Cruz jazz scene. Of course, we’re talking about the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. 

Next year the Kuumbwa–as Santa Cruzans lovingly refer to it–turns half a century old and if there’s one name that’s had a hand in leading the venue into the present, it’s Tim Jackson. 

“The music speaks for itself,” he says. “And through our presence in the community and through our consistency through our programs, we’ve brought a lot of new audiences to jazz.” 

Jackson should know.

He’s one of the three founding members of the Kuumbwa Jazz Society in 1975, along with Sheba Burney and Rich Wills. 

“Rich was a jazz programmer at KUSP,” Jackson remembers. “And he had this idea of starting a nonprofit jazz organization in Santa Cruz that would ultimately have its own venue.” 

Their inaugural concert at the London Nelson Community Center (nee Loudon Nelson)  featured local players The Hy-Tones, Evidence and headliner, Joe Henderson, the great tenor saxophonist who was living in San Francisco at the time. Shortly after they acquired their 501C non-profit status and immediately hosted over a dozen more shows. 

So why the name Kuumbwa?

“It’s a Swahili word that means ‘the act of creation’ or ‘spontaneous creativity’, which is essentially the definition of Jazz,” explains Jackson. 

“I’m sure if there was a marketing director in the room they would’ve poo-pooed it, but we didn’t care. We liked it and the values it stood for.” 

Two years later Kuumbwa Jazz acquired the old, 3,000 square foot Parisian Bakery, where it’s still located today. At the time it only had three walls, a giant hole in the floor and no doors. But for a rent of only $450 a month, it was an opportunity they couldn’t refuse. 

Three months later the space was transformed through the help of donated materials and a community that believed in their mission. It was with that same community support in 1987–along with some funding from the Packard Foundation–that Kuumbwa was able to expand to the 200 seat capacity we all know and love today. 

“It was like nothing I’d ever seen in Santa Cruz,” exclaims Chanel Enriquez about her first Kuumbwa experience.

 “I was the guest of a friend and I loved the whole experience of coming into the courtyard, being greeted by the volunteers and–of course–the music was incredible.” 

After that first visit Enriquez decided to volunteer at the venue to be a part of its magic. That was seven years ago. Today she is the Kuumbwa’s managing director, in charge of the organization’s many educational programs like its two week Summer Jazz Camp. 

“It’s offered to middle school and high school students and held at Cabrillo,” Enriquez says. “Anyone can attend and we offer scholarships to any students who need financial assistance.” 

Then there’s the Kuumbwa’s Jazz Honor Band. Directed by David McGillicuddy–an Aptos High, Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz alumni–the Jazz Honor Band features some of the county’s most talented high school jazz musicians. 

Every year a new group of students audition and the chosen few are taught improvisation, music theory, teamwork and critical thinking during weekly rehearsals. Throughout the year they play 10 local gigs culminating in a headlining show at the Kuumbwa. 

“It’s part and parcel of being a non-profit organization,” Jackson states of the educational programs. “To further the music and build audiences and artists for the future. It was a core value from day one.” 

As part of that core value, the Kuumbwa also offers a once a month, free to the public, Master Class. This experience gives the community a rare opportunity to expand their knowledge and learn a new trick or two from industry professionals. Past classes have included discussions by Tammi Brown, Jon Dryden, Hristo Vitchev and more.

“During the pandemic we started streaming Master Classes,” Enriquez explains. “[Previously] we did a few a year but since we’ve returned our goal has been to present one Master Class a month.” 

The 2020 pandemic severely impacted the Kuumbwa as it did the entire music industry. By Jackson’s own admission all earned income the venue had previously raised was depleted by March of that year, only one month into the lockdown. Thankfully they received federal assistance in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP loan) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). 

“We were also able to pivot and came up with a weekly [online] series called ‘Mondays With Kuumbwa,’” says Enriquez. 

“We basically turned our venue into a sound recording stage. That went on for about a year and we did 65 episodes that featured new artists every week for free.” 

In order to keep the lights on and doors open the Kuumbwa takes in a diversified income. There’s the usual sources for non-profits like federal, state and private grant funding. Of course, ticket sales from their concerts also contribute. 

However–even more–the income generated by renting the venue to independent promoters, such as Pulse or Snazzy Productions, also plays a huge roll. 

“At least 40 percent of the shows at Kuumbwa are independent productions,” Jackson says. 

Another major source of funding comes directly from the Santa Cruz community and the roughly 800 paying Kuumbwa members. For anywhere between a $75 and $5000 tax deductible donation, anyone can become a Kuumbwa member. Each level has its own benefits such as early ticketing, reserved seating, waived service fees and VIP events. 

Events that couldn’t happen without the center’s team of 55 dedicated volunteers. 

“A majority of the folks you’ll see working at a Kuumbwa show are volunteers,” Enriquez admits. 

“We literally have programming 50 weeks out of 52 weeks every year,” exclaims Jackson. “We become the community’s living room, in a sense.” 

So what does Santa Cruz’s premiere jazz club have in store for their golden, half a century anniversary next year? They’re keeping the specifics tight in the pocket but there’s mention of a possible San Lorenzo Park concert, which was where the very first Kuumbwa concert was originally scheduled for prior to being moved to the London Nelson Center. 

There’s also talk about a new monthly series to celebrate the big 5-0. Regardless, details or not, one thing is certain: 

“We want our community to celebrate with us as they’ve been the ones supporting our organization for the last 50 years, says Enriquez. 

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