How The SFJAZZ Center Saved Me

The corner of Fell&Franklin saved me from almost certain ruin.

Alexa Shoen
Sep 14, 2015 · 7 min read

It’s been almost 18 months since I left San Francisco behind. I’ve bounced back and forth between never speaking of it again and trying to make sense of the 12 months and three weeks that I spent living in Lower Pac Heights and praying that, if I shut my eyes tight enough, I would open them to find that it had all just been a huge misunderstanding.

I’ve hesitated to share, because my story involves a lot of cliché themes that we often associate with Medium posts about living in the Bay. Working in tech. Following your bliss. Overcoming depression. Starting a career. The struggles of being a W-9 independent contractor.

But it’s also more nuanced than that. To keep down the minute count on this article, I’ll attempt to sum up the prologue in the following highlights:

  1. Prior to San Francisco, I had spent a year and a half in the rolling hills of Yorkshire. As in England. The north of England. I completed my MA in Jazz Performance (Vocals, First-class, with Distinction) and stayed right up until my student visa ran out.
  2. I loved England. Really, really loved it. I loved my flat. I loved tea and cask ale. I loved my coursework. I loved belonging to a small, bonded community of creative people who were all into the same niche stuff I was into — and then some.
  3. I left England for two reasons: (1) UK immigration is notoriously rigid and difficult, so I didn’t have much of a choice. And (2) just as importantly, I felt a deep-set, self-inflicted, almost moral obligation to, in my own words, return home and start my real life. The kind of life that included a 401K. I knew I was supposed to have a 401K.

So, keep all that in mind.

Within a week of moving to San Francisco, something was off.

I resisted the nesting process. Everything I bought, from paper towels to new shoes, felt like one more thing I’d have to get rid of as soon as I figured out how to leave. I’d found a mediocre public relations job and knew exactly one other person in the city — and she worked 80 hours a week in Cupertino. I knew that I’d been duped by my own need to make a quick transition.

I picked the city not because I worship at the altar of TechCrunch — finding my way into tech was really just an accident. No, I’d picked San Francisco because, at the time, it seemed like the most tolerable city I could think of in the continental United States. One with some kind of creative scene, where I wouldn’t need a car, and where I knew there was some kind of economic growth happening.

Like I said, it made sense at the time.

I didn’t know that I’d be hard pressed to find any working musicians who still lived within the city limits, or about the bizarre and intense celebrification of businessmen and office spaces, or about the Tenderloin.

Jazz and tech are really quite similar. They’re both 97% male communities that tend to attract passionate and slightly quirky people. There are egos. There are patrons of the art (investors on the board). There’s the wide-spread belief that if you just practice enough (code enough), success will pour over you. There’s also that link between music and math. And, also, from personal experience: stage performance really prepares you for sales and content marketing.

In England, I had deeply integrated into a jazz community that existed inside and outside the conservatory walls. So, without a second thought, I went to a jazz jam by myself at 11PM one of my first weeks in San Francisco. Only, I wasn’t part of the club here. I was an unaccompanied 20-something girl who’d just walked into a bar by herself on a Tuesday night. A sad moment of enlightenment, that one.

I mourned the loss of that community. But it’s hard to figure out whether a new city (or decision of any kind, really) is truly a bad fit or just requires a transition period. For me, the transition turned into mourning the loss of my creative self and that mourning turned into situational depression and that depression turned into a bad habit that I really couldn’t kick.

In between bouts of crying and sitting and staring at the wall, I found myself standing on the corner of Franklin and Fell, where the SFJAZZ Center opened in January 2013. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a $64M glass building in the middle of Hayes Valley — the first center of its kind — dedicated to presenting, promoting and preserving America’s art form. I moved to the city a couple months later. We were both new in town.

I barreled into the building, blindly seeking some semblance of home base.

I stopped the first employee I could find and said, “I want to volunteer here. Whatever you need. Do you guys need an intern? Or someone to just be an extra hand on deck somewhere? I’ll file papers. I have a Masters in Jazz. Does that help?”

For the record: No, my Masters didn’t help.

But they were currently looking for volunteer ushers, to help people find their seats before the show. In exchange, I could stand at the back and watch the performances for free.


The average volunteer age was roughly 64 years old, and a lot of the other ushers were Bay Area natives, people who had volunteered for this organization for years, if not decades. They couldn’t quite figure out why a new 24-year-old in the city wanted to spend her Friday nights showing people to their seats for free, but they weren’t going to over-question my enthusiasm.

I fell deeper into the depression blackhole. I quit one job, and started another. I cried at the gym. I cried on the bus on the way to work. I cried outside the office at lunch. I went home and cried again before going to bed. I hated my situation, I hated that I had gotten here of my own free will, I hated that I was being suffocated by my own hopelessness.

Writing about it now, I do feel distant from those emotions. All I can really remember is how not myself I felt for every single day that year.

I also fell really out of touch with music. It was as if I was going through a breakup with myself, and every song I used to love now felt heavy with nostalgia for a better, happier, former me. For a while, I stopped listening to music altogether.

SFJAZZ remained some bizarre source of hope. As I was being swallowed whole by all those classic, bizarre, sadistic tech clichés of bosses that hated themselves, HR that sold you on putting the business before yourself: I found real solace in the middle of Hayes Valley.

The employees started to take me in. I made myself a little home and a few friends on the inside. I befriended the bartenders, and the production guys. I started kicking it with the girls who worked in booking.

Were they all die-hard jazzers? Not every one, no. But they had heard of Hiatus Kaiyote, and they appreciated a decent whiskey in the bar after the show.

I continued to usher. I saw Gregory Porter, and Cecile McLorin Salvant. I saw Buika. Esperanza Spalding. I saw that now half-legendary gig where Eric Harland played with Chris Dave, Lil’ John, and Mark De Clive Lowe.

I was standing in the back of the balcony one evening, having finally made the decision to leave San Francisco for good. I was with a friend who worked in the production department, a fellow jazz singer — and we were sneaking in to see the last 20 minutes of Wynton Marsalis before going to get some ice cream. And I realized: This is something I will miss. I will miss one thing about San Francisco, and it’s this. I will miss this.

I left San Francisco after 12 months and three weeks, and it was easily one of the top five decision I’ve made so far in life. I’m now happily residing in Berlin, recording an album, and planning a little tour. (I still even work in tech from time to time.)

It’s crossed my mind that I’ll visit San Francisco again someday. I’m sure I will — it feels inevitable. I actually think I’m finally in a place where going doesn’t seem all that scary and triggering and bad.

When I do someday return, I’ll be stopping by the Center. Thank you, SFJAZZ. You saved me more than you ever could have known.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end! If you want to keep in touch, you can find me singing on Instagram at @alexashoen.

I also write emails once a week about starting your career. If that sounds cool to you, go ahead and join my mailing list:


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Alexa Shoen

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Founder & Creative Director of #entrylevelboss. Mentor to panicking job seekers everywhere. Join 4,000 readers & catch up w/ me weekly: