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Swing the Fillmore
A look back at San Francisco's bebop era by The Fillmore's associate producer Elizabeth Pepin.

Billie Holliday singing at the New Orleans Swing Club. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Kenny Dorham. Dexter Gordon hanging out at Bop City. During the musical heyday of San Francisco's Fillmore District in the 1940s and 1950s, the area known as the "Harlem of the West" was a swinging place where you could leave your house Friday night and jump from club to party to bar until the wee hours of Monday morning. Nonstop music in clubs where Young Turks from the neighborhood could mix with seasoned professionals and maybe even get a chance to jump on stage and show their stuff. A giant multi-block party throbbing with excitement and music and fun.

"You might have four clubs in a block, two on each side of the street. And then you go around a couple more blocks and then you have another couple of clubs," Earl Watkins recalls in an interview with Carol Chamberland for her documentary on Bop City. "You had the Club Alabam (1820-A Post Street), which was one of our old established jazz clubs. Across the street was the New Orleans Swing club. They had a (chorus) line of girls in there. The guys had an excellent band. On Fillmore between Sutter and Post, you had Elsie's Breakfast Club... Then down the block was the club called the Favor. Across the street from that was the Havana Club. And then when you went down the next block, Fillmore between Post and Geary, you had the Long Bar, which had Ella Fitzgerald. Then down another couple of blocks and you had the Blue Mirror. Then across from the Blue Mirror, they had the Ebony Plaza Hotel. In the basement, they had a club. And if you went up Fillmore to Ellis Street, you had the Booker T. Washington Hotel. And on their ground floor, in the lounge, they had entertainment."

Looking at the Western Addition today, it's hard to imagine that for almost 50 years it was one of San Francisco's most thriving shopping and entertainment areas. After the earthquake and fire of 1906, most of the city's major businesses temporarily relocated to the relatively undamaged Fillmore. Although many of the shops returned to Market Street after the city was rebuilt, the area continued to thrive as a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, with a small pocket of Japanese Americans and African Americans.

By the mid-1930s, the neighborhood began to shift as the Jewish families moved to the suburbs and other parts of the city. But World War II forever changed the face of the Fillmore district. Prior to World War II, the African American population of San Francisco numbered 4,846. By 1950 it had exploded to 43,520, thanks to the many southern African Americans encouraged to come to the West Coast to work in the shipyards. The Western Addition, with its small but established population of African Americans, seemed the obvious place for the newcomers to reside. When the area's Japanese population was forcibly removed and interned in camps away from the coast, almost overnight, large chunks of housing and businesses opened up. Writer Maya Angelou, who spent part of her youth in the area, recalls the change in her novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

In the early months of World War II, San Francisco's Fillmore District... experienced a visible revolution. On the surface it appeared to be totally peaceful and almost a refutation of the term "revolution." The Yakamoto Sea Food Market quietly became Sammy's Shoe Shine Parlor and Smoke Shop. Yashigira's Hardware metamorphosed into La Salon de Beaute, owned by Miss Clorinda Jackson. The Japanese shops which sold products to Nisei customers were taken over by enterprising Negro businessmen, and in less than a year became a permanent home away from home for the newly arrived southern Blacks... The Japanese area became San Francisco's Harlem in a matter of months.

The shipyard work was difficult and the hours long, and thousands of people crammed into small Victorian flats, but the money was good and racial barriers were slowly being broken down. People wanted to forget the war by being entertained. Within a few months, a network of musicians, bands, clubs, and bars began popping up to fill the void.

Jack's Tavern (1931 Sutter) was one of the first clubs to open in the Fillmore in the early part of 1933. Although dances and balls were held at venues such as the Fillmore Auditorium, known from 1913 until 1942 as the Majestic Dance Hall, Jack's was the first space in the neighborhood to cater specifically to African Americans; it featured the hot sounds of the Saunders King band.

Jack's Tavern was quickly followed by Club Alabam, the New Orleans Swing House, on Webster at Post, and the Texas Playhouse. Drummer Al Smith, now 70, came to the Fillmore in 1942 with his parents, who worked in the shipyards. "The Fillmore used to swing. During the heyday we could go to work Friday night and not get off work until Monday morning. We never stopped. Jam sets would go on for hours. We went from club to club, playing," he told me.

Tenor sax player Lee Hester, 70, concurs with Smith. He recalls the war years with a smile: "There was so much live music in this city I'd work around the clock. One night I was sitting in as a sub at the New Orleans Swing House and Billie Holiday came in and began to sing. Back in those days you never knew who was working, you just showed up."

Even before the 1940s musical explosion in the Fillmore, and despite the prevailing prejudices of the city, which forced the local African American population to remain small, at least some of the residents of San Francisco were open to black music. Douglas Henry Daniels, in his book Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco, writes of the wild days of the World War I and postwar Barbary Coast area "where leading San Franciscans and fashionable society ladies frequented certain Negro night spots." Clubs like Purcell's, the Jupiter, and the Olympia hosted dozens of African American musicians, including New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who apparently could not stay away from the excitement of the area. The first printed use of the word jazz in connection with syncopated, nonclassical music occurred in 1913 in a San Francisco Call-Bulletin newspaper article written by "Scoop" Gleason.

However, not everyone was happy with the open atmosphere of the Coast. A series in the Examiner in 1913 and again in 1917 reveals how upset many San Franciscans were by the Coast nightclubs where "alcohol drink flowed, Black music pulsated, and entertainers and customers danced in a loose-hipped style." Eventually, reformers won out, and by the 20s the rollicking Barbary Coast clubs were silenced. It wasn't until World War II, which gave many people exposure to different races for the first time, that local clubs would be as open and feature African American music.


As World War II ended and the decade changed, so did the music. Bebop, which had been introduced to San Francisco just after the war, was being embraced by the city's musical community like a long-lost child. Jazz clubs began opening up all over, especially in the Tenderloin and in North Beach.

The Western Addition music scene was also growing larger. You could hear jazz, blues, and R&B at the dozens of clubs in the neighborhood. Vout City (1690 Post) was a club run by the handsome and colorful musician Slim Gaillard, who had a good ear for music but lousy business sense. The club quickly folded and Gaillard took off for Los Angeles, leaving Charles Sullivan, a prominent African American businessman and entrepreneur who owned the building, to find a new tenant. Sullivan approached Jimbo Edwards, one of San Francisco's first black automobile salesman, to rent the space. Jimbo agreed to open up a cafe, which he called Jimbo's Waffle Shop. However, local musicians had other ideas.

In an interview with Carol Chamberland, Jimbo tells more: "Now I opened up this little cafe thing with Jimbo's Waffle Shop. But there was a big old room in there. So musicians didn't have no place to play their work and whatnot. About eight, ten musicians come and say ‘Let's take this back room and have us a hangout house.' So when I opened it up, I said, yeah, OK. Now when we opened it up, we didn't even have a bandstand... So I built me a bandstand... And so that's how Bop City came. Now it didn't have no name, so we figured since Bop City's closed in New York, we might as well name it Bop City. But the bottom line, it was never Bop City, it was always Jimbo's Waffle Shop."

Bop City quickly became the place to play. After all the other clubs in the city shut down, everyone would head to 1690 Post for amazing after-hours jam sessions and parties. Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Billy Eckstine, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Dinah Washington, and John Coltrane were but a few of the many musicians who graced the club's stage.

Pony Poindexter describes the scene: "One night, or should I say one morning, Art Tatum was honored with a special party at Bop City. There was lots of food... Up on the piano were cases of liquor. After everyone had stuffed himself or herself, we all settled back to look and listen to some real piano playing. Still, several hours went by and no one moved. It was daybreak. No one moved. Finally it came to an end. When I left there, I was spent -- both from playing and listening...The very next weekend we had at Bop City the big three trumpet players of the bop style: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Kenny Dorham. Dexter (Gordon) was also there. The session went on til early noon the next day. Jimbo honored them all with a special dinner. The next week the Woody Herman band came to into town, and there was another party for them. That night we heard Stan Getz and Zoot Sims stretch out."

Saxophonist John Handy, who later went on to play with Charles Mingus, began sneaking into Fillmore clubs at the age of 16 in 1949. For Handy, Bop City was like a second home, and musically it was his first home, having been a member of the house band at one time or another. He told me the club was a place where young aspiring musicians could sit mesmerized for hours, watching their heroes play on stage, and maybe even be given a chance to join them on stage.

In bebop, if you couldn't play, the musicians would tell you to get right off the stage, even during your solo," Hester says. "They didn't care. You had to be good, or forget it."


By all accounts it was an amazing time to be growing up as an aspiring musician in the Western Addition. Sugar Pie De Santo, now 62, was raised in the Fillmore. She told me that she began singing on stage at 11, when she and her cousin, Etta James, would sneak out and go into clubs that would let them in. " It was like a little Vegas during that time," she recalls. "You could party night and day. You could find music anywhere, anytime. I'd go to Bop City a lot. Thelonious Monk, Nancy Wilson, any famous person could walk in and get up on stage and jam, and a lot of people did. It was our hangout. Everyone would get dressed up in those days. We really got sharp. Everyone was nice, and there were no fights. The crowd was mixed, and for a while the police didn't like it. They hassled us for a little while, but it stopped. We told the cops to leave us alone. We didn't care about color, we cared about music."

De Santo says that band leader Johnny Otis would come to another venue, the Ellis Theater (1671 Ellis) to pick up talent to bring back to Los Angeles and record. She recalls the night Otis discovered her. "I was up on stage, singing with the house band. After I was done, he came back to the dressing room and asked me my name, which was originally Umpeylia Balinton. (De Santo is half African American and half Filipino.) He said, ‘Well, you sure do look like a little sugar pie to me!' I was small. The name stuck. Then Johnny offered me a recording contract, and I went to Los Angeles two weeks later and did my first recording with him."

The 76-year-old Otis remembers when he discovered De Santo's cousin, Etta James -- or, rather, Etta James discovered him. "Etta came up to the hotel in the Fillmore where I was staying," he told me. "She was 16; arrogant, yet shy. She turned toward the bathroom and started singing at the tile for better acoustics. I was impressed and offered her a job singing on the spot. She said she had to call her mom, so I handed her the phone. She had a conversation, her mom said yes, and she came with my band that night to Los Angeles. I later found out that there was no one on the phone, and her mother didnt know where she was for a few days!"

San Francisco differed from most other cities in the United States in that most of the Fillmore music venues were black-owned and -operated. In fact, one of the largest promoters of music catering to the African American community was Charles Sullivan, who also controlled a lot of the jukeboxes in San Francisco. He owned several buildings and booked many of the local clubs, including the Fillmore. Blues musician Joe Louis Walker spent his teen years at the Fillmore at Pine and Baker and recalls the bands Sullivan booked: "I saw the Temptations, James Brown, and Bobby ‘Blue' Bland all at the Fillmore. It was like the Apollo of the west."

The Blue Mirror Cocktail Lounge (935 Fillmore), owned by Leola King, was another small but important club. Hester, who played the club often, says that King would host bands that would also play at Sullivan's larger clubs. The musician recalls seeing Earl Grant, Little Willie John, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy McCracklin, and Louis Armstrong all on the Mirror's tiny stage in the back of the room.


The 1950s and 1960s were the glory years for the Western Addition in a social context, but they were disastrous in other ways. As the shipyards closed, African Americans were finding it increasingly difficult to compete for jobs with returning soldiers. Racial discrimination mounted, and unemployment in the neighborhood grew to more than 30 percent. By the mid-1960s the Fillmore, which had been vibrant with hope and economic vitality just a decade and a half earlier, was now being called a low-income ghetto.

During this time, the makeup of the neighborhood began to change. The Western Addition had been earmarked by the S.F. Redevelopment Agency a decade earlier for urban renewal, and now the agency began to move forward with its seemingly well-intended plans. Blocks of Victorian houses were either moved or torn down to make way for Japan Center and new housing. As African American homeowners began to sell to the city and move away, the financial base for the neighborhood's businesses eroded, and owners were forced to close.

Besides Jack's, the Can-Do Club (1915 Fillmore), which opened in 1940 and turned into Minnie's Can-Do in the late 1960s, was one of the last holdouts, remaining open until 1975, when it moved to Haight Street. According to Mel Simmons, who runs Culture on the Corner, a youth arts program in the Western Addition, it was a funky hole-in-the-wall, owned by Minnie, who was serious about music. Local writer Burr Snyder recalls strolling into the small bar and seeing Dave Alexander, a blues pianist and singer, who would be banging away at the keyboard in the back of the room all day, six days a week. "I'd sit down at the bar, order a drink, and Minnie'd come over and sit beside me and ask, ‘How ya doin', sugar?' She was a sweet, friendly woman. What was amazing about her was that besides music, she'd let this radical women's dance troupe called the Tumblewoods perform. You'd also see poetry readings. The club had a great, eclectic mix of people and events."

Other clubs opened up on the outskirts of the neighborhood. The Both And Jazz Club (350 Divisadero) was one of these. Open from 1965 to 1972, the tiny space quickly became one of the last major jazz clubs in the area.

Handy was part of one of the first bands to play the Both And. He says that he was responsible for putting the club on the map and "taking it from sandwiches to a liquor license" when Chronicle music reviewer Ralph Gleason came down to one of Handy's shows and wrote about the club.

Joe Louis Walker also has fond memories of the Both And. He remembers seeing Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery there. "It was a cool atmosphere at the Both And, the premier jazz club for a while. It had a stage to the right and an upstairs area. John McLaughlin played there one night out of a Marshall amp. No one could believe it. Jazz chicks were going crazy. It was an excellent show."

Across the street was Pal's Rendezvous (298 Divisadero), another bar that featured music. A few blocks away was the Half Note (628 Divisadero), owned by H. Warren. The club mainly featured jazz, but also offered jazz and funk. The club was later switched to alternative music in the early 1980s and renamed the VIS Club, changing to the Kennel Club in the late 1980s and recently reopening as the Justice League.

For those interested in blues and R&B, there was Nickie's Bar-B-Que (still at 460 Haight) and Dottie Ivory's Stardust Lounge (597 Hayes), owned by a former blues singer.

"The Stardust was a small neighborhood bar with a little stage, but it would get jumping sometimes," Walker says. "I played with Charles Brown and Fillmore Slim there. Dottie was good to musicians. She Was one herself. She lost a bundle, but she loved it."

But eventually even the holdouts had closed up or moved across the bay.

In the late 1970s, the music scene was so bad that I had to quit playing music for a living," Hester says. "There were no clubs. The Fillmore was finished.

The S.F. Redevelopment Agency is trying to mend the errors of the past by encouraging new music clubs to open in the area. Simmons and others interviewed are hopeful that the agency's plan will work. However, according to Simmons, of the nine slots for jazz clubs on the planned Fillmore jazz corridor, only one has been filled, by the Rasselas Club, which is moving from California and Divisadero to Fillmore and Geary. The Boom Boom Room, John Lee Hooker's blues club on the corner of Geary and Fillmore, does not occupy a redevelopment space.

Many people interviewed share Simmon's wariness. "The Fillmore was ruined when the redevelopment came in," De Santo says. "The neighborhood lost a lot. Redevelopment ruined the authentic feel. Now it looks a mess. Houses on Fillmore? I never would have believed it! Time brings change, but (the redevelopment agency) can never bring the neighborhood back like it once was."

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