The Geese who runs SFJazz

The catwalk of SFJAZZ leaves me feeling slightly dizzy as I peer down between the lights, wires, and railing to an apparently miniature stage below. While I peer hesitantly over the railing, Michael Graphix leans over it to point out the harnesses for a light, completely at ease. But it doesn’t take long for him to set me at ease too. He cracks a joke about the “evil gondola” they use to fix issues above the stage. As we’re on the catwalk, he tells me that he overcame his fear of heights by skydiving. He is so utterly lighthearted, so eager to teach me about everything in the building that I forget my acrophobia and let myself be carried away by his effusiveness.

Michael Graphix is a casual dresser. He wears a cornflower blue polo shirt and smells vaguely of black licorice; his favorite cough drop flavor. There is no severe expression on his face after spending hours reviewing budgets and spreadsheets, though that does summarize part of what he does as the director of production at SFJAZZ. His job consists of figuring out how to put on a production: whether that means poring over contract riders like what an artist wants in their dressing room, to keeping track of schedules of when practically anyone arrives. It is a far cry from what he’s done in the past, where he spent 25 years as a sound engineer and roadie for bands like Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, and Hiroshima. One of the many things that’s stuck with him through his shifting career was his nickname, “Geese”, given to him on the road when two Michaels were working the same show. Geese listens to music from Miles Davis to Metallica and decorates his cubicle with jokes about OSHA violations—no matter where he’s gone, he’s carried parts of his past with him.

As we leave the forty-foot-drop to tour SFJAZZ, he navigates the building with an ease that doesn’t even seem practiced—is as natural as if he was born knowing how to tread the auditorium and walkways in pitch dark. Throughout the tour, it is obvious that he loves working at SFJAZZ. “I think I was destined to be at a place like this. It’s a real joy to work here.”

Destiny might not have seemed like the right word to the young Graphix. Born in upstate New York, he was raised in a family of construction workers that built warehouses and schools. He was always interested in the technical work, leading him to pursue degrees in architecture and broadcast engineering at State University of New York College, Buffalo. It wasn’t until he met his roommate that he considered doing anything in the world of music. His roommate offered him a job handling the sound system for local bands. “He said, ‘I’ll give you twenty-five bucks a night and all the beer I could drink, and I was like, ‘Sold!’” His interest was piqued through the electrical work involved in speakers and microphones and he discovered he had an ear for mixing sound for performers. He started out doing local shows at bars with simple systems, then graduated to mini-tours through upstate New York, eastern Ohio, and northern Pennsylvania. His first big gig in audio engineering was touring with U2 for six dates.

But before touring with rock bands, Graphix had travelled around the United States for a completely different kind of rock. In 1979, he had a summer job collecting geology samples from all over the United States, leading him to his first trip to the West Coast. When he got to San Francisco, he said, “It just felt like home.” In 1984, Graphix picked up and moved to San Francisco. Through his connections at a local sound company, he became a system engineer for three Metallica tours. Graphix worked with Guns ‘N Roses on the ‘Use Your Illusion’ tour in 1992, did three tours with Nine Inch Nails, and worked with Barry Manilow for fifteen years, who was his longest running connection. “As far as sound mixing went, I was his guy,” Graphix says.

He says that he feels there is a certain power in being a mixer for artists. “I could make an audience’s evening great or not so great and I always wanted to do my best because of that. Someone’s making me responsible for interpreting these people’s music. For a band to give me that kind of trust…I’m interpreting hopefully, in the best way possible.” While he doesn’t miss the lack of sleep on the road, he still looks fondly back on his time touring. “I was lucky. The eighties and nineties was a fun time to be on the road. We had a lot more flexibility—and a lot more vices.” He laughs, low, gruff, and cheerful.

As we walk through SFJAZZ, he points out the kinds of things he pays attention to: snack and drink preferences of artists who come through, how to fix a broken light on the catwalk, the administrative codes for the sound and light boards. His job includes a mind-boggling amount of multitasking and items to pay attention to—even with a team as large as SFJAZZ’s, it’s still impressive to see the duties he juggles.

Amy Heiden, the technical manager at SFJAZZ, has worked with Graphix for three years. “Geese is always quizzing our team with random trivia and he is a walking joke book,” she says. “Like, I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday and he’s here telling stories from thirty years ago.” Other people on Graphix’s team smile and wave at him as we pass, if he hasn’t already stopped to say hello and check in on them. He keeps up with everyone he works with—he even enlisted the help of the crew that moves instruments in SFJAZZ to help him move to San Rafael. He smiles at security guards and pats the back of people carrying pallets of water bottles.

In the lobby, a coworker comments on the mangoes that someone brought in the other day. “Was that you?” It was, in fact, Graphix who shared them—apparently such good mangoes that they ran out. His rapport with his team is like their banter: quick, witty, and effortless.

The next stop on our building tour is Miner Hall, where just a month earlier I saw Kid Koala at a listening party, an occasional event where members of SFJAZZ can listen to an artist talk about their influences and their work. The stage has been completely transformed since I last saw it, a process that SFJAZZ has down to a T after doing around 400 shows a year. It’s shrunk in size, the “plugs” that they attach to widen the stage have been removed, and the bulky equipment that dominated it has now been reduced to a few instruments illuminated by the pale blue lights blinking on the stage. At the center of the stage is a single bright light. “Do you know the history of the ghost light?” He asks me, pointing to the lamp. I do know, but I want him to explain anyways. “There are two explanations. In most traditional theatres, they have an orchestra pit. If you put a light center stage, you can see where the edge of the stage is and the pit. So, the ‘ghost light’ was for safety. The other reason you have a ghost light is that for the ghosts of the theatre—if you give them a light, they’re won’t sabotage your show.” He grins. “I like the second one better.”

With the lights in the theatre on, we sit in the third row of the orchestra and talk about his propensity for trivia. In a conspiratorial voice, he says, “You’ll love this one. Do you know what the big arm that comes up on a sundial is called?” He looks at me expectantly—I have no answer. For a moment, I am a little worried that I don’t know. But he breaks through my nervousness yet again with a smile that says he is delighted to be the one to share this fact with me. “It’s called a gnomon. G-N-O-M-O-N.” Some, myself included, might bemoan the fact that some of their brain capacity is dedicated to arcane bits and pieces of information like that, Graphix celebrates it.

His eyes sparkle when he recounts how when SFJAZZ hosted Google. Their technicians helped with setting backup generators in place and taught him things he didn’t already know about the building. “I have a twelve-year-old boy, and I keep trying to instill in him, ‘Luka, every day your dad tries to learn something new. Even if it’s tiny, that’s what makes life interesting.’”

Sharing knowledge is something that Graphix holds very near and dear to his heart, especially knowledge about the arts—not just music, but visual and performing arts, too. When we migrate to a discussion about SFJAZZ’s education programs, he leans forward intently. “What do you do at the end of day when you have a normal job? Do you start looking at accounting spreadsheets? No. The arts are what fulfill us. And why schools think that’s something they can chuck when the budget gets tight, it’s really disappointing.”

Veronica Limcaco, the assistant to the admin for the educational department, works with the production team to make sure that they can put on programs. After receiving a grant to make sure that jazz education is provided to students in public schools in San Francisco and Oakland, the educational program has relied on the production team to get anything from transportation, lighting, and catering. “Production is a crucial part of getting us across the finish line. They have to sign off on everything.”

While running the educational programs makes SFJAZZ’s tight schedule even tighter, Graphix says that the impact on both the team and the schools is a positive one. He puts a hand over his heart when he recounts a letter they received from a girl who thanked them for introducing her to saxophone and how she had started lessons thanks to a neighbor’s help. He is especially elated showing me what was originally going to be a studio for recording, but now serves as an educational room for kids coming through SFJAZZ.

He’s constantly looking for ways to improve the programs already in place when he starts somewhere. “Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always tried to bring the good side of a rock and roll mentality.” To him, that means he’s avoided burning bridges, made connections, and built quite the reputation by following that mentality.

Graphix said he was destined to work at a place like SFJAZZ, but to me, it doesn’t quite seem like fate or coincidence that got him where he is. Honestly, it seems more like an inevitability—after all, he apparently never wanted for a job before coming to SFJAZZ. No matter what point in his career he’s talking about, he is always adamant about bringing the best of what he’s learned with him. And the people he’s worked with cite his cheerful personality, his skills, and his work ethic in saying that he’s made the place they work a joy to be at too.