To celebrate this month’s music issue, we’re posting a piece written by Joseph Bien-Kahn on San Francisco Jazz trombonist, Danny Grewen.
Even dressed up, Danny Grewen is a little disheveled—in a pinstriped suit, a polyester button-down with the collar open, and a fedora he’s still all herks and jerks. Grewen is lugging around a taped-up trombone and a messenger bag open and overflowing with tape recorders, loose wires, and microphones when I interview him. He has a head of curly black hair and boyish good looks that clearly serve him well. But the thing that strikes you most about Grewen are his hands—they are strong and calloused and cracked; the hands of a blue-collared worker. The stereotype of the coddled artist continues to persist, but in today’s San Francisco, if you want to play jazz and pay rent, you have to work.
I met Grewen at Trouble Coffee in the Outer Sunset. Every once in a while he’d say something too sharp and a little too dark when talking about the city, and then burst out into untended laughter. He talks the way he moves, quick spurts with long breaths, a mischievous grin peeking out of his stubbly jaw. He kept his bag over his shoulder and recorded the interview on an ancient tape recorder he’d found at the corner of 45th and Kirkham for his own records. Grewen’s well loved in the neighborhood—at the coffee shop and later at the Flanahan’s Pub a few blocks down, everybody knew his name. But because of a jump in rent, he’ll soon be forced to move.
It hardly needs restating that San Francisco’s rents are rising at an alarming rate. According to a November 2013 article in the New York Times, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is a staggering $3,250, the highest price in the nation. Only 14 percent of homes are accessible to middle-class buyers.
The city is changing which is what cities do. But it means it’s becoming harder and harder to be a musician in San Francisco, especially a jazz trombonist. It’s nearly impossible for Grewen—who grew up in the Richmond, San Francisco’s sleepy northwestern district by the beach, with his mom (also a musician), and attended the School of the Arts—to stay. Now he’s crashing on couches, looking for something affordable in the most expensive renters’ market in the nation.
He left the city once, briefly, to play jazz on cruise ships—“Well, that’s not really jazz is it?”—but has spent the last fifteen years gigging around San Francisco. It’s been a long time since music was lucrative here, but Grewen has made a fine living playing jazz trombone. But now, at 36, his steady gigs are disappearing. He says the jazz scene was “happening” in the late 90s, right when he came back to the city: “Bruno’s was a great club. It’s still there, but if you remember what it was like, it was a beautiful place. There was even two bands going in one night—one in one room and then that one would stop and the band would start in the other room.” Bruno’s no longer hosts jazz performances, according to its website: “Every week, we present a brilliant line up of entertainment featuring a collection of the Bay Area’s finest DJ’s spinning an eclectic mix of party jams and dance music.” If you want to run a club in San Francisco, hip-hop and house music are the way to go. Jazz just doesn’t fill a room in today’s city music scene. Grewen says he doesn’t want people to go see jazz because it’s something they ought to do—he wishes people would get excited about it again. He doesn’t think it should feel “like your supporting a relative that’s down on their luck or something; it’s fun music.”
Grewen told me he’s seen a lot of San Francisco’s jazz musicians move away—some to the East Bay and many to New Orleans. The problem is, when a city becomes too expensive for musicians, it changes its character. The success of eccentrics like Grewen was one of things that gave San Francisco its flavor. “You want to try to hold onto the things that made great cities great,” Randall Kline, the founder and executive artistic director of SFJazz, explained. “What was great about this city, San Francisco, was this whole creative class—people who lived here who were not just musicians, there were tons of artists, actors, it was just a vibrant scene. Now there’s a lot less of that per capita then there was.”