The jazz don

Pub date November 9, 2010

MUSIC Adam Theis says his school teachers always told him that to succeed, he’d have to learn how to focus. Surely what they meant was that he’d have to find enough things to focus on. For like all great connectors, Theis finds his genius in the multitudinous.

At least, that would explain why Theis’ loose network of funky jazz bands and musicians, the Jazz Mafia, has expanded to 70 members over the past decade — and why he has difficulties naming all the instruments he’s proficient at playing. His primary toy is the trombone, followed in no particular order by the electric bass, keyboards, tuba, conch shells, didgeridoo, and laptop.

Theis thrives on the large scale, and his current project has more moving parts than any he’s attempted in the past. A recent grant gave him the means to take a break from his 30-gigs-a-month schedule to compose a 50-piece orchestral symphonic score, Brass, Bows, and Beats. It debuted at the Palace of Fine Arts in 2009 and has since been touring jazz festivals across the continent. The production gathers together some of the Mafia’s finest wind, string, and percussion players, seats them behind hip-hop vocalists and MCs, and does much to convince one of the epic grandeur of hip-hop — if anyone still needs convincing in this day and age.

Brass, Bows, and Beats does all this while mixing a lot of other genres into the pot. Theis says he isn’t bothered by critics’ allegations that the work doesn’t rightly fit into the hip-hop tradition. “We’re not trying to do something that’s pure,” he says. “That’s pretty much never been the trip with our groups.” A friend who caught the piece’s SF debut summed up the scene aptly enough: “It’s like you’re watching something that has maybe never been done before.”

In the early aughts, Theis and many of the original members of his networks played a regular Tuesday night gig at North Beach’s Black Cat Club. The theme of those nights — when the Mafia was conceived — was improvisation. “We would always invite musicians to jump up — we’d give them space to do something and we’d vibe off it,” Theis says.

A recent transplant to the city, Theis couldn’t stop inviting in more players. “I’d meet an amazing new musician every day,” he explains. From these impromptu sessions came many of the Mafia’s lasting artistic collaborations. Even now, most Shotgun Wedding Quintet (Theis’ touring group) shows begin with a jam — some versions of which have made it into the score of the symphony.

You’d think that the guy that holds the Mafia baton would have an overarching vision for the crew. They’ve reached symphony status, and another orchestral piece is in the works. What’s next, a jazz army? A hip-hop city-state?

For now, Theis seems happy to let the capable musicians surrounding him riff off his beat. When I ask him about plans for the decade to come, he envisions his network becoming looser (“more of a structure for other musicians”), and the Jazz Mafia website ( morphing into a blog where one can read news about the bands involved, perhaps getting more involved with youth music education. Theis already holds concert-classes for hundreds of schoolkids at a time.

Which, of course, could mean Theis is on the hunt for new lieutenants. What can the Cosa Nostra do for you, young trumpeter?


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