The Fillmore mess around

Pub date November 14, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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San Francisco’s Fillmore District, Willie Brown once said, "had to be the closest thing to Harlem outside of New York." The Fillmore was in its golden era when the future mayor, then a teenager, arrived in 1951 from segregated Mineola, Texas. The 20 blocks that constitute the heart of the Fillmore then bustled with commerce and culture. It was a vibrant African American community, renowned for its nightlife.

People from throughout the Bay Area and around the world came to clubs such as Bop City (1690 Post), Jack’s Tavern (1931 Sutter), Elsie’s Breakfast Nook (1739 Fillmore), the Blue Mirror (935 Fillmore), and the Booker T. Washington Hotel’s cocktail lounge (1540 Fillmore) to see local attractions like Saunders King and Vernon Alley, as well as such national stars as Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Slim Gaillard, Art Tatum, T-Bone Walker, Roy Milton, and Ruth Brown. It was not uncommon for audience members to bump shoulders with Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Robert Mitchum, Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Dandridge, and other visiting celebrities. Saxophonist John Handy remembers jamming with John Coltrane at Bop City, then going around the corner to Jackson’s Nook (1638 Buchanan) to share tea and conversation with the then-little-known musician, who was in town with Johnny Hodges’s band.

"Coltrane was quiet," onetime Bop City house pianist Frank Jackson recalls over a plate of short ribs at 1300 on Fillmore, a new upscale soul food restaurant two doors down from the new Yoshi’s San Francisco club. Willie Brown is dining a few tables away.

By the time Brown became mayor of San Francisco in 1996, the Fillmore was pretty much a ghost town and had been for some two and a half decades, the victim of a botched redevelopment plan. Small groups of aging African American men gathered on corners and in vacant lots that stretched for blocks, bringing folding chairs and tables to play dominos or poker.

In a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle about 20 years ago, an African American minister from the Fillmore who was opposing plans to revitalize the area’s nightlife claimed there had never been much of a jazz scene in the area. But those old men, as well as many musicians from the Fillmore’s heyday, knew better. Visual proof can be found in page after page of historic photographs collected by Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts in Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era (Chronicle, 2006). Many also fill several walls in 1300 on Fillmore’s lounge. Some can be viewed in rotation on a screen above the bar and outside, on the Eddy Street side of the building, which also houses Yoshi’s, the Jazz Heritage Center, and 80 condominiums.


"The Fillmore was hot," says trumpeter Allen Smith, who moved there from Stockton in the late ’40s. "You could hit two or three clubs in one block, each with a band. Racial prejudice was practically nonexistent. You gotta remember that blacks weren’t even welcome on the east side of Van Ness Avenue — but all the races could mix in the Fillmore. You could be out all hours of the night, partying with whomever you cared to, and you didn’t have to worry about anybody mugging you or bothering you. It was just very cool." The 82-year-old musician — who has played in the Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, and Gil Evans orchestras — will perform as a member of the Frank Jackson Quintet on Dec. 3 at the new Yoshi’s.

"There were a lot of after-hours clubs," says Jackson, also 82, a Texan who settled in the Fillmore with his family in 1942. "Bop City was about the most popular thing in this area. I was one of the house pianists. I would play different nights. We would all fill in for each other. If you got a better gig, you’d go and take it. There was always somebody that could take your place."

Bop City was owned by promoter Charles Sullivan, who in the 1950s and early ’60s was presenting such attractions as B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Ike and Tina Turner at the Fillmore Auditorium before Bill Graham ever set eyes on the building. The after-hours club opened in 1949 and was originally called Vout City, with Slim Gaillard as host and attraction.

Famous for such songs as "Flat Foot Floogie," "Vout Oreenee," and "Popity Pop," Gaillard was a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and purveyor of jive talk. "He spoke several different languages and invented some of his own," says Jackson, who was a member of Gaillard’s band at Vout City. The eccentric Gaillard was as likely to bake a cake in the club’s kitchen and serve it to customers as he was to perform. After several months Sullivan let Gaillard go and hired Jimbo Edwards to run the room.

"Jimbo was a used-car salesman downtown or somewhere," Jackson says. "He knew absolutely nothing about jazz, but he got his jazz lessons right there with Bop City as his workshop. He got to know exactly what was going on and who was doing what and whether they were good at it."

Besides such then–resident musicians as Handy, Pony Poindexter, Dexter Gordon, and Teddy Edwards, Jackson remembers playing during his seven years at Bop City with many out-of-town talents, including Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Frank Foster, Stuff Smith, Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, and Philly Joe Jones. And he especially remembers the night his idol, pianist extraordinaire Art Tatum, came in to listen but not to play. "They gave him a seat right by the piano," Jackson says. "I did not wanna play. The place was packed. There were seven or eight piano players in the house, but nobody wanted to come up and play."

Edwards relocated the club to Fillmore Street in the mid-’60s, but it closed shortly thereafter. The action had shifted to Soulville at McAllister and Webster streets, where younger players like Dewey Redman and Pharoah Sanders jammed, and to the Half Note on Haight Street, where George Duke led a trio with vocalist Al Jarreau. And just down the street Handy’s explosive quintet with violinist Michael White appeared regularly at the Both/And, which also presented such touring artists as Betty Carter, Milt Jackson, Roland Kirk, and Archie Shepp.


By the end of the ’60s, however, jazz was all but dead in the Western Addition. Only Jack’s, which had moved from Sutter Street to the corner of Fillmore and Geary in the building that is now the Boom Boom Room, survived into the ’70s. Some, like Handy, blame the decline of jazz on the popularity of rock, others on rising crime and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

"To me, they just destroyed the area," Jackson says of the city agency. "They took away the music. They took away homes from people. They were in a hurry to get people out of their homes."

Allen Smith’s son Peter Fitzsimmons has long been active in efforts to bring jazz back to the Fillmore and currently runs the Jazz Heritage Center, which includes an art gallery, a screening room, and a gift shop. "There were a lot of variables in place that kinda brought down the jazz scene," he says. "The music trends went away from jazz into the big stadium-rock concerts. There were some black families moving out of the Fillmore, so there wasn’t as much nightlife. And it got a little more dangerous. Like in major cities everywhere else, destitute people, drugs, and other things came into the sociological picture.

"In the ’50s and early ’60s, Jimbo was there," Fitzsimmons adds. "He marshaled his club. It wasn’t a dangerous place. People were coming from all over the world to go to Jimbo’s." Fitzsimmons and a lot of other people are confident that jazz in the Fillmore will again rise to such heights. *


Dec. 3, 8 and 10 p.m., $16–$20


1330 Fillmore, SF

(415) 655-5600