Bay Area Music Venue Profile – Yoshi’s, Oakland

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Located in the Jack London Square in Oakland, California, Yoshi’s has had a past that’s as interesting as its present. The venue opened its doors in 1972, as a simple sushi bar – one of the first in Berkeley. The founder was Yoshie Akiba, who had been orphaned during World War II, and who later arrived in the United States in the hope of learning art, dance, and dance therapy. Together with two of her friends (Kaz Kajimura, a journalist and carpenter, and Hiroyuki Hori, a painter and Japanese cook), Akiba founded Yoshi’s – and the story is just the story of a restaurant until 1979, when Yoshi’s moved to Clairmont Avenue in Oakland, where it expanded to include a mini lounge and nightclub that catered to jazz music lovers.

Even in the late 70’s, this was a risky move. Nightclubs, where you could eat and get great music, were a huge part of America’s musical history, but by 1979 their appeal was flagging nationwide, as the veneer of style started to slip like a poorly-fitted wig. Yoshi’s was a new idea though – a fusion of Japan’s cuisine and America’s first original art form that drew shows from the thriving local jazz scene, as well as national acts. It’s thrived ever since.

Over the years – including a move from Clairmont to its current location in Jack London Square in 1997 – Yoshi’s has expanded its set list to include international artists, and today, its calendar is almost always full. From founding Beach Boy Al Jardine last month to Mexican-American percussionist and bandleader Pete Escovedo’s orchestra in July, and vocalist Jacqui Naylor in September, the last few months have been a great showcase of what’s happening in jazz today, and the next few months have a great lineup as well.

Starting with 80’s New York jazz-rooted hip-hop heroes Digable Planets this Saturday, November 18th, the shows lined up for the rest of this month include percussionist and leader of the Birdland Big Band Tommy Igoe, Cuban-American trumpet genius Arturo Sandoval, and soul virtuoso Will Downing. Yoshi’s is also set to host the 5thAnnual Bay Area Harmonica Convergence – a crazy party if ever there was one – next Monday, November 19th. And after that, they’ve got The Spinners, Jeff Ryan, and Carl Verheyen lined up.

Today, Yoshi’s is an Oakland institution, creating great food and giving a home to great music, without compromising on either: a place for two different kinds of creativity to collide. Working at 17,000 square feet, with 310 seats in its live music space, and an additional 220 seat restaurant space next door, it’s a true survivor: an example of what was great about a different time, showing that, of all things, the food-and-music model that could have died out in the age of velour suits and cigarette smoke has stripped itself back, kept what makes it special, and is alive and well at Yoshi’s.

With the spirit of Thanksgiving in the air and Christmas just around the corner, the vibe at Yoshi’s could be perfect for a night out – if you’re looking for something laid-back but high-quality, check it out.

Photo by Yolanda Cotton-Turner (CC/Flickr)

Having released albums under Digital Nations, a label founded by Steve Vai, music critic Louis Raphael has remained deeply connected to the pulse of the San Francisco music scene. Following his tenure as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he embarked on creating Music in SF® to authentically highlight the vibrant offerings of the city's music scene.

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