The amazing new SF Jazz Center, hurtling toward a January 2013 completion date, will not only house a terrific performance space but also three murals by Sandow Birk and his partner, Elyse Pignolet. Birk likes to do more than one of a kind. He translated and illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy; he is completing a translation of the Qur’an that takes the form of over 300 paintings illustrating the sura (chapters) of the book (each image contains text and image together). And he did an impressive spin on romantic landscape painting with his Prisonation series, a set of 32 oil paintings, one for each California prison, that mimic the romanticism of earlier painters but always include disturbing reminders of the incarceratory function of the remote regions of the state, usually in the form of distant glimpses of these 2001-like monoliths, though in some cases they all but dominate the painting.
The murals for the Jazz Center have a lighter touch. Done on tile and painted and fired in Southern California then shipped north, the 2500 or so tiles tell the story of jazz in America. They have a light, airy feel to them. They allude to famous clubs, performers and eras. The third mural, which Sandow threw in as an extra enticement during the bidding process, will be in the area of the dressing rooms and is the most humorous of them all: people anxiously wait to see if they will get to Heaven, but those who ascend find only the instruments absent from jazz (harps, violins, and so on) while those who descend to hell find themselves in jazz heaven, which joy and pleasure in every moment. A wry work that performers will certainly enjoy as they head out for the stage.