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Bourbon Street by the Bay

A live-music nut is bringing a New Orleans institution to the Mission.

In a stream-of-consciousness riff lasting upwards of an hour, Jack Knowles must have said some variation of “I’m all about neighborhoods” close to 10 times. This may sound clichéd, but Knowles—whose newly opened Preservation Hall West on Valencia Street joins Oakland’s Rumbo al Sur and À Coté restaurants in his budding food/entertainment empire—is the kind of guy who can make you believe. 

Knowles is an odd but endearing mix: part community preacher, part rough-hewn entrepreneur, and part, of all things, retail enthusiast. “My thing is the ground floor,” he says. “Retail is where a neighborhood comes to be together.” He’s done so much renovation in the town of Alameda that it proclaimed August 16, 2005, as John (his given name) Knowles Appreciation Day.

He’s also the moving force behind Preservation Hall West, the first-ever outpost of the great jazz venue in New Orleans. Why in the Mission, which has never had much of a live music scene? “You just knew this place should be a music hall,” Knowles says. The building, which was constructed in 1917, used to house a mortuary, and the chapel serves as the performance space. “So it’s got super-great acoustics,” Knowles says. “And there’s something spiritual about music—it gets right to our soul. The big acts are going to love playing in this intimate space.”

So, how did Knowles convince the Preservation Hall folks to expand the franchise? They’ve rejected a stream of requests for spin-offs over the years. Knowles explains that his good friend Ben Jaffe, whose father founded the Hall and who now serves as its creative director, decided that the best way to preserve New Orleans music was to send it out and merge it with other genres, like bluegrass and rock. Jaffe also wanted to export the Hall’s philosophy of community involvement, including residencies for visiting artists and music education programs for local youth. As for the choice of  San Francisco, Jaffe spent childhood summers here with his family and always felt a spiritual kinship with the city. “Ben used to hang out in Caffe Trieste as a kid,” Knowles says.

One last question: How is Knowles planning to deal with any neighborhood concerns about noise? This query creates the first noticeable break in the conversation—Knowles knows that community relations in this hard-to-please city always present a problem, especially since the venue will have a dining patio. He’s put a lot of effort into the soundproofing, but he also believes that noise is just a price you pay to live in a vibrant urban center. “You can’t sell your house in Danville to come to the city and then say, ‘Hey, how come it’s so loud?’”

Knowles is convinced that people will succumb to the winning combination of stellar bands (Elvis Costello, Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, Allison Moorer) and a fabulous space. “We’re going to listen to music together. We’re going to hang out together. We’re going to eat together. It’s gonna be a house of fun!”