Arts Listings

The Marsh Moves In As Anna’s Moves On

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:39:00 AM

After months of reports and rumors, it’s official: Anna’s Jazz Island is out and The Marsh is in.  

Anna De Leon closed down her jazz club in downtown Berkeley’s Gaia Building and The Marsh, the San Francisco-based center for the development and staging of performances (solo performance in particular), is back in. The Marsh will open tomorrow night (Friday) with Oakland-bred comedian Don Reed performing his solo show about growing up on East 14th, “with some Berkeley adventures newly added.” 

Anna’s Jazz Island has featured music—and many community benefits—with nightly programming at Allston Way’s Gaia Building for nearly five years, according to De Leon, who is currently looking for a new East Bay location. The Marsh held its earlier tenancy from 2005 for a little over a year, said Marsh founder Stephanie Weisman, before leaving in September 2006, when the caterers from whom The Marsh was subletting the space pulled out. The Marsh will now occupy the back hall that it formerly occupied as well as Anna’s former front room on the ground floor. 

The ongoing situation with building tenancy for Anna’s Jazz Island was complicated, much of it documented in these pages. “Pretty much since I opened,” said De Leon, “the whole time I was there, there was never the enforcement promised on the use permit.” The back hall was regularly leased, rented or sublet, first to a church, then to an ongoing series of private parties, some of which had private security enforcement that interfered with the jazz club and its customers.  

De Leon was honored as “Outstanding Woman of Berkeley, even after the police declared the Gaia Building arts space a public nuisance—twice! “It makes me very sad,” said DeLeon. “I put my life into this place. I’m a kind of fatalistic person; things happen the way they happen. But I usually know why they happen—and I just don’t. I can only speculate.” 

There were times when her customers were stopped at the building door and asked for ID, or times “when nobody could get in or out”—and other, more notorious occasions of violence, even gunfire, at the parties, elsewhere in the building or the street outside. Once the block was cordoned off, riot-style, by Berkeley police. 

“The city chose not to enforce the use permit,” De Leon commented. “ And Mr. [Patrick] Kennedy never had a business license. It was such a strange thing to happen. I wouldn’t have expected that of Berkeley. Nobody ever said my business wasn’t a plus for the city—or that the parties were. My first lawsuit—and I never sued for damages, just for the enforcement of the permit—won. With the second, the judge agreed that the terms of enforcement were discretionary for the city.” 

De Leon faced a choice—“living with the parties or being bought out. Originally, I thought The Marsh would move back in with me here, which would have been a big plus for downtown. But they had issues with the sound bleeding through, which was reasonable. The buy-out was contingent on their signing a lease, which has been in the works since last June, so I was never sure what was going to happen or when. I only learned on the 7th of this month I’d have to be out the next day.” 

Weisman commented that The Marsh had “loved being in Berkeley” in 2005–06, and had intermittently talked with the Gaia ownership from 2007 about moving back, “but nothing happened, until Equity [the present ownership] bought the building. They came to us. Things just kept unfolding. In October, we had a real crunch at our San Francisco venue: so many shows, we didn’t know where to put them all. So we contacted Equity—and Marines’ Memorial [in downtown San Francisco], where we’ve put up Dan Hoyle’s show.” 

Weisman continued: “It wouldn’t have been a viable alternative for us unless we could take over both spaces, have two theaters. We found out two weeks ago it could work, it was finalized—and Don Reed’s opening this Friday, the perfect show for the East Bay.” 

Weisman spoke of “the long and wild ride” that’s resulted in the opening this week; her happiness at this bigger venue “and one where I can stand at the front door and greet people!”—as well as “getting the word out to the East Bay community that we’ll be available for benefits by other nonprofits, even musical pieces ... It’s bigger than our San Francisco venue; it’ll evolve based on its own, particular character. The front space will be more cabaret-style, pretty much the way Anna had it set up. And we hope to have classes, especially children’s programs, with what’s developed in them staged on site. Right now, there’s a little start-up period going on, until events previously booked in here are over with.” 

Weisman emphasized “how much positive feedback we got from our audiences since we got the notion of coming back to the East Bay for a second space. They were thrilled—because so many of them live here. It’s amazing how many came over to us in the city.” 

Weisman recalled how “this space has always attracted us. We’re in our 20th year, and this is a nice way to celebrate, opening here again. We had lots of deep, wonderful experiences here: ‘Walkin’, Talkin’ Bill Hawkins,’ my own piece—and Ellen Hoffman, the composer for it, used to lead the open mic’s at Anna’s. And Don Reed, whose wife I think is from Berkeley, has added bits to his show, like about going up to the UC campus on his unicycle. The Friday show has to be at 9 p. m. because he finishes [opening] for Jay Leno in L.A. at 5!” 

Anna De Leon looked back on her 10 years of owning clubs in and near Berkeley as she began her search for a new location, for a perfect room for the music—“though not in Berkeley.” 

De Leon recalled the fire that started upstairs from the club she’d had before, for three years, at Ashby and Alcatraz in North Oakland. She’d owned that building; the fire “made me not want to own again.” 

She reminisced about events over the years. “The huge number” of benefits (“any cause we could believe in”), “from Haitian Relief to the Green Party to foster-care programs, “all free for the cause or at the cost of a bartender.” “It’s hard, outside of the famous bands, to keep that music alive, do more than rehearse, to keep its vitality”)—and of appearances by “unbelievable” traditional jazz groups like Mal Sharpe’s and Ray Skellbred’s, with Barbara Dane.  

De Leon said she felt good about hosting many benefits and celebrations for musicians, including a benefit for Yancey Taylor to cover medical expenses, followed shortly afterwards by a birthday party for the recovered old pro. 

Something particularly close to De Leon’s heart—an acclaimed singer herself, she’s performed and recorded live at her club—have been the singers “hosted with an open mic for nine years every Tuesday, mostly unknown. And some went on to have their own shows. But also Faye Carol, Madeleine Eastman—and shows with and for singers like Ed Reed, Kenny Washington, latin jazz masters Pete Escovedo and Roy Obiedo ... drop-ins by trombonist Steve Turre, a live recording by the late Joe Beck, the night her good friend Taj Mahal, who’d been sitting at the bar, accompanied an aspiring vocalist on piano, “who had no idea who he was! ... just unbelievable to hear artists like these in my humble venue!” 

Most important, De Leon emphasized, was having a place—“and there aren’t many”—where musicians like that could play and be treated respectfully, along with “children and people of all ages. Countless musicians have thanked me for that, having a place that wasn’t a pick-up bar, where people came to hear, which isn’t always the case with jazz ... Where there’s community between the musicians and the audience. After all, that’s the way jazz began.”