Gabbing jazz with Brass Mafia don, Adam Theis


“A lot of what makes a great jazz city is having a real mix of different kind of people who end up working together and influencing each other,” says Adam Theis. “It’s got to be big enough to have this great variety of musicians, but intimate enough that they end up interacting with each other.”

Theis is the founder of Jazz Mafia, a loosely organized coalition of local musicians who have collaborated on more than 100 projects and performances throughout the Bay Area over the past 17 years. He’ll lead one of the organization’s many sub-groups—the New Orleans styled Brass Mafia—in a rousing pair of pre-Mardi Gras jams at Feinstein’s at the Nikko this Friday and Saturday night.

“The Bay Area has some of what it takes to be a significant jazz hub: We’ve got small but seriously legitimate scenes for Latin Rock, Carribean music, Balkan music, funk, and traditional jazz. Jazz Mafia helps them all rub off on each other and do some amazing crossbreeding.”

What the Bay Area is short on, says the Sonoma-raised Theis, is venues with consistently scheduled, modestly priced jam sessions and performances; places where community can be built in a hands-on, week-in/week-out fashion.

While Theis loves to play gigs at Feinstein’s and at SFJazz, where he leads the Monday Night Band—a music class that culminates in recording sessions and live concerts, he acknowledges that the economics behind these venues demand celebrated headliners and significant ticket prices.

“To really build a lasting local jazz scene, you’ve got to have those spots that the front desk of any good hotel can automatically recommend for dropping in to have a drink and hear some really good live music—not a DJ, not a cover band—without planning ahead or buying an expensive ticket.”

“The economics make it hard for bars to commit to live jazz on a regular basis, let alone to pay musicians. And then musicians have trouble affording the cost of living here, so they’re not necessarily staying for long enough to help build a healthy ongoing grassroots scene.”

Theis points to Club Deluxe at the corner of Haight and Ashbury as an exemplar of the sort of venue the Bay Area could use more of, with its solid schedule of live jazz seven nights a week with minimal cover charges (entry is often free before 9 p.m.) and inexpensive cocktails (Cash only!).

The week ahead finds Theis and Brass Mafia playing radically different venues: first the Nikko and then the streets of San Francisco, where they’ll lead their fifth annual Mardi Gras parade, stopping traffic and amassing revelers as it marches from Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley to the Brick and Mortar Music Hall south of Market.

For brass band afficionadoes—and horn players like himself—Theis says such wildly different environments allow unique aspects of the music to be showcased.

“When you’re in a parade,” he says “You tend to play really loud all the time, its about calling attention to the festivities and fueling the party. At Feinstein’s we get to show a wider range of what we can do: more varied dynamics, bringing some classical warmth to the sound of the instruments, more soloing. Of course, our roots are in New Orleans brass band music, so its always a celebration, but we deliver the big volume in more nuanced, calibrated doses—We’ll have a smarter kind of party.”