Friday, June 09, 2006

Fillmore's Jazz Scene predated Bill Graham

Many of us have heard of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and associate it with hippies and modern rock because of the pioneering shows that Bill Graham booked there. Prior to this, it was the home of a vibrant jazz and blues scene from the forties until urban destruction (aka urban renewal) destroyed much of it. Chronicle Books has issued a marvelous volume Harlem of the West, by Elizabeth Pepin & Lewis Watts, two San Francisco photographers, instructors and historians. Ms. Pepin in fact was a former day manager of the Fillmore under Bill Graham. 

Through interviews with musicians, club owners, patrons and local photographers and through the inclusion of more than 200 previously unpublished photographs, they bring forth an overview of the socio-cultural history of the area that is richly illustrated. As they write, “This book is meant to be a slice of life, not a completist’s history nor analysis of events. Such locally photographers as Jerry Stoll. Ricardo Alvarado, Steve Jackson, Jr, David Johnson *(who was Ansel Adams’ first African- American student) are among those whose works are included here. Among the individuals interviewed are bassist Vernon Alley, singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, former mayor Willie Brown, community activist Steve Nakajo, saxophonist John Handy, club owner Wesley Johnson Jr., record company founder Jim Moore, John and Francis Lynne Coppola, saxophonist Bobbie Webb, musician, producer, radio host Johnny Otis, and others.

The book has four sections, a general introduction; a historical section on the neighborhood that tracks its change from a predominantly Japanese community into an African-American one during the incarceration in internment camps of Japanese-Americans and the emergence of the Fillmore district as a vibrant cultural center; a discussion of the various nightclubs in the Fillmore area including such long-closed rooms as Jack’s Tavern, the Club Alabam, the New York Swing Club; The Texas Playhouse/ Club Flamingo; The Long Bar; The Ellis Theatre; Bob City and others including of course the Fillmore Auditorium which dates back to the 1912 as the Majestic Hall & Academy of Dancing which in 1928 became the Majestic Ballroom and in 1936 the Ambassador Dance Hall. 

It [the Fillmore Auditorium] was a roller skating rink between 1939-1952 although Charles Jordan Hines began holding dances there in 1949 and Charles Sullivan took over booking bands in 1954, renaming it the Fillmore Auditorium and in December 10, 1965 allowed Bill Graham to use Sullivan’s dance hall permit to book a benefit for the San Francisco Mine Troupe, leading Sullivan to allow Graham to book shows when he had no shows booked. Graham took over booking after Sullivan was murdered in 1966. The final section of the book details how urban renewal destroyed most of the Fillmore community.As mentioned this book has over 200 previously unpublished illustrations which range from street shots, pictures of patrons and performers. 

The cover has John Handy, Pony Poindexter and John Coltrane (it is also on page 61, while others pictured include tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, Louis Jordan outside the Manor Plaza Hotel where a blown up photo of him is in the window; Eartha Kitt with neighborhood children; Sugar Pie DeSanto; Duke Ellington and friends relaxing at the Manor Plaza Hotel; Ruth Brown at the Booker T Washington Cocktail Lounge; T-Bone Walker with Wesley Johnson Sr.... at the Texas Playhouse; Earl Grant; Lionel Hampton; Billy Holiday with her beloved dog and Wesley Johnson Sr..... at the Club Flamingo; And Little Richard at the Fillmore with Jimi Hendrix on guitar. 

The young white photographer that caught this priceless shot {of Hendrix with Little Richard] from October 1964, John Goddard, remembers being up front taking lots of photos. “It was only years later that I found out that the guitar player, who kept getting in the way, was Jimi Hendrix. I remember him because he played with his teeth and behind his neck, but to me that night, he was just this guitar player who kept getting in the way of me taking pictures of Little Richard.” It should be noted that Goddard used a Brownie for many of his photos and Hendrix is in the forefront of the picture, although a bit blurred and Little Richard looks outrageous with curly blond hair. And there is plenty of interest into the pictures of yesteryear. Even those of the patrons show people who dressed up to go out on the town, in contrast to us today who dress down often.

Harlem of the West is a marvelous overview that delivers what the authors promise. Perhaps the only thing lacking are suggested recordings, but there is a bibliography, list of various websites including several for some of the musicians who are still active. A highly recommended book that will lead to a fuller study and evaluation of this scene.

No comments: