How do neighborhoods develop distinct identities? Why was San Francisco’s North Beach an enclave for poetry, for example? Or the Castro a haven for gay men in the 1960’s and 70’s? Is it possible to engineer a neighborhood scene into being?
That’s what Mike Parayno wants to do. He’s the man behind Birdland, an underground jazz club run for many years out of his Berkeley garage. It wasn’t licensed and eventually got shut down by the city. So last summer, Parayno went legit. He moved his venue to Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood. He wants to turn the historically black, residential area into a place where late-night live jazz music brings neighbors out into the street. Sounds crazy, but he might actually be able to pull it off.
From where I’m standing, it’s too soon to tell. I’m in a driveway between two brick buildings near Oakland’s Macarthur BART station. A small group of people are huddled together in this nook, watching three jazz musicians jamming. They’re one of five bands playing along a four-block stretch.
“It’s the ‘jazzification’ versus the gentrification and … we’re going to run them over,” says Mike Parayno.
He wants to spark a musical culture in this neighborhood that’s strong enough to hold its own against gentrification. Just down the street, 624 new condos are set to open later this year.
Parayno is Filipino, with a big grin and a headband, and a hand-rolled cigarette perennially dangling from his lips. By day, he teaches Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. The rest of the time, he makes music happen.
"This area’s been in a musical slumber for like 20 years,” Parayno says. “We need to wake up.”
He moved his underground jazz club, Birdland, to Oakland last summer. Top musicians from the Bay Area and beyond perform with him. Now he wants to transform the area around his club into a full-blown music district.
Parayno says the impetus was that he “realized that the US didn’t really have a lot of late-night scenes like in Cuba or Brazil or the Philippines . . . where people stay up all night. And also, they don’t know a lot of their neighbors.”
The idea is to start out with a monthly event called Fourth Fridays. Put paid musicians in neighborhood shops, driveways, and on street corners. Parayno hopes it will bring neighborhood people together. People like Woody Johnson. He lives a few blocks from here.
He says he and Parayno met a few months ago at the barbershop across the street. Parayno stopped in and presented his idea to have a barbeque and music on ever block, every Friday.
This section of Martin Luther King Blvd. is low-key and residential – home to a few liquor stores, a couple mom and pop spots, and a watermelon and boiled peanut stand that’s been around since the 1970’s.
Getting buy-in from neighbors and business owners is key. Parayno first started going door-to-door last spring. He says he and his team began “walking around like Jehova's Witnesses – ‘Jazzista’ Witnesses, right?”
The proselytizing is still going strong. One afternoon before the music started, I followed Parayno around the neighborhood.
We stopped into Ray’s Barbershop. Mr. Ray was giving someone a shave, while a TV blared in the corner. I ask him what he thinks of having Parayno's jazz club in the neighborhood
“I like what he’s done because it was some sleazy bars over there before,” he tells me.
He thinks Parayno can pull his project off.
“It’s already off and running. He’s over the rough spots,” says Ray. “A lot of folks in the neighborhood didn’t want him over there, but I guess now that they see what it is: it’s a social club. It’s just not some bar where people get drunk and stuff, fighting and shooting and doing donuts and acting crazy. It’s a real peaceful place.”
When Parayno got to know the history of the neighborhood, he felt like the spot was perfect.
“Right next to a black church. What could be better?” he says.
This neighborhood was a stronghold for the black middle class in the 1960’s. There were two blues/rock venues on this strip where people like T-Bone Walker played. A former Black Panther headquarters sits across the street from Parayno's jazz club.
Parayno got to know the owners of MLK Cafe and the owners of liquor store, Micros market. Abdul Mohammad is working behind the counter. He says the jazz district plan is a boon to his business. He supplies the beverages.
A few blocks from the liquor store, just down the street from where the new condos are going up, is Marcus Book Store. It’s one of the oldest black book stores in the country. Janice Frasier has been working there for eight years.
“We need something different to go on around here,” says Frasier. “I mean everybody thinks of it as being so negative, it would be nice to have something positive going on that people can report on.”
Frasier, and all the other clerks and restaurant owners Parayno asked, agreed to have musicians either in their shops or right out front. So business owners are on board and the jazz club is up and running. Parayno uses the profit from the club to pay musicians on the street.
This is special in a time when a lot of clubs require musicians to “pay to play,” according to Charles Hamilton, musician and long-time jazz teacher in the East Bay. He says Bay Area musicians are dying for the kind of exposure Mike Parayno offers. Playing on the street corner is not great money.
“A lot of musicians especially young musicians are just looking for a place to perform,” he says.
Hamilton thinks traditional venues are either folding, or catering to different tastes, because paying rent is such a strain. Not because jazz fans are dwindling. In fact, says Hamilton, “it's growing in leaps and bounds. It's really on fire. These kids are really into this music.”
Back in the driveway, a new band is playing. Across the street, an older woman comes out on her porch to listen. If Mike Parayno has his way, more people be called over by the music, and “jazzification” will spread.