Interviews

Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era author Elizabeth Pepin

Elizabeth Pepin,

co-author (with Lewis Watts),

Harlem of the West:

The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era

 

 

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Billie Holiday singing at the New Orleans Swing Club. Dexter Gordon hanging out at Bop City. Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane all swinging through town for gigs. Sound like a nostalgic snapshot from the New York jazz scene, or perhaps New Orleans? Nope. This particular sentimental journey describes San Francisco’s Fillmore District in its heyday.

   The Fillmore in the 1940’s and 1950’s was an eclectic, integrated, and hopping neighborhood dotted with restaurants, pool halls, theaters, and shops — many minority-owned — and boasting two dozen active nightclubs and music joints within its one square mile. Although it has been commemorated in songs, poems, and in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, few people today know of the rich history of the Fillmore and its musical legacy because it vanished abruptly and so thoroughly due to redevelopment in the 1960s.

Through dozens of archival photographs and oral accounts from the neighborhood residents and musicians who experienced it at its height, Harlem of the West celebrates this unique and rediscovered chapter in jazz history and the African-American experience on the West Coast.#

In an August 16, 2006 interview, Elizabeth Pepin, who along with co-author Lewis Watts wrote Harlem of the West, talks with Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Adrienne Wartts about the Fillmore’s history as the San Francisco Bay area’s jazz and cultural center.

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A photo essay follows the interview.

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All photographs published with the consent of Elizabeth Pepin

photo Steve Jackson, Jr.

John Handy, Pony Poindexter, John Coltrane and Frank Fischer at Bop City, c. 1950’s

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“During the musical heyday of the Fillmore District in the 1940s and 1950s, the area known as Harlem of the West was a swinging place where you could leave your house Friday night and go from club to party to bar until the wee hours of Monday morning.  For more than two decades, music played nonstop in more than a dozen clubs where Young Turks from the neighborhood could mix with seasoned professionals and maybe even get a chance to jump onstage to prove their musical mettle.  Filling out the streets in the twenty-square-block area were restaurants, pool halls, theaters, and stores, many of them owned and run by African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Filipino Americans.  The entire neighborhood was a giant multi-cultural party throbbing with excitement and music.”

– Elizabeth Pepin

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Some Other Spring, by Billie Holiday, 1939

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AW  Your book jacket describes San Francisco’s Fillmore District during the forties and fifties as “a swinging, eclectic, and integrated neighborhood, its streets full of restaurants, pool halls, theaters, and stores — many minority-owned.” Can you talk about the development of African American owned businesses between the 1906 earthquake and the advent of World War II?

EP  Before the 1906 earthquake, the African American community in San Francisco was actually growing, and there was even a tiny middle class as African Americans were able to find employment. However, after the quake, many of the city’s labor unions got together and basically barred anyone of color from working in the hotels, downtown offices, or within a building trade. As a result, San Francisco’s African American population stopped growing, and many moved across the Bay to Oakland because they were able to find work on the railroads, which were located in the East Bay. Because of this, San Francisco’s African American population was around five thousand up until World War II, which was extremely small for a major U.S. city.

World War II brought thousands and thousands of African Americans from states such as Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma to the West Coast. They were recruited by ship building companies like Kaiser, who were contracted by the government for war-related work. This work is the predominant reason for the large African American community that exists in the San Francisco Bay Area today.   While the number of businesses owned by African Americans between the earthquake and World War II was small, there was enough of a community presence that, during the 1920’s, the community got together and built the Booker T. Washington Community Center, located on the outskirts of the Fillmore District.

The first jazz scene in San Francisco was in the Barbary Coast area, near what is now known as North Beach. Several of the clubs were actually owned by African Americans — Jelly Roll Morton being one of them. The clubs catered to both African Americans and whites, and spawned several new dances which became nation-wide dance crazes. The Barbary Coast and the jazz clubs were closed down in the late teens, due to a crackdown on vice. While there were some jazz clubs scattered around San Francisco in the 1920’s, there was not another jazz center until the birth of the Fillmore jazz scene, which began in 1933, with the opening of Jack’s Tavern; the first Black owned jazz club in the Fillmore District. Jack’s Tavern was also known as Jack’s of Sutter due to its location on Sutter Street. Soon after, the Town Club and the Club Alabam opened, and the Fillmore Jazz Scene was born.

AW What were the Fillmore clubs like?

EP  The early Fillmore clubs tended to serve meals in the front and the stages were in the back, and all of them were surprisingly small. The most popular at the time was Jack’s of Sutter, which was owned by an African American family. While her third husband opened the venue, Lenna Morrell really ran the place — unusual for that era. Jack’s mainly featured jazz music, and many of the local San Francisco musicians got their start there. The bass player Vernon Alley was discovered by Lionel Hampton while playing at Jack’s of Sutter in 1939.

The Club Alabam’ was described as more of a “down home” kind of place. It was actually opened in 1935 by Lester Mapp, the former owner of a club called Purcell’s, which was one of the most popular clubs in the Barbary Coast. Mapp was from Barbados who came to San Francisco as a sailor on a boat, and then never left. He also owned some clubs in Oakland. The Town Club was one of the smallest Fillmore clubs — opened in 1936, and generally featured only trios or duos due to it’s size.

AW Were the owners of these jazz clubs African Americans?

EP  They didn’t necessarily own the building, but they usually owned the businesses within them, which is surprising in itself.

AW Did jazz contribute to the breakdown of racial tension in San Francisco after the war?

EP  Yes, and I think it did even before the war. This book had to rely on oral histories because, in general, very little was written about African Americans in San Francisco. Many of the musicians I interviewed said that African American’s weren’t allowed to play in the major downtown clubs or in any of the clubs east of Van Ness Avenue until the late fifties. Now, if you were Duke Ellington or another prominent African American musician, you could play at the big hotel downtown, but even Duke Ellington couldn’t stay there — he’d have to get in a cab and go back to the Fillmore District to spend the night. Additionally, none of his African American friends from the Fillmore could go and see him play in the downtown hotel, so after his downtown gigs, Ellington and other musicians of his caliber would play at the smaller clubs in the Fillmore for their own community. As a result, the Fillmore became a hotbed for African American music. The white musicians who were into hearing jazz would come to the Fillmore clubs, which led to them eventually jamming with the African American musicians. The police were not particularly happy about this form of integration, however, and there were many raids on the Fillmore clubs during the forties and fifties.

AW What about the race relations between the Asian and the African American jazz musicians and club owners?  How did jazz affect their relationship?

EP  Japanese Americans made up the predominant Asian community in the Fillmore neighborhood, although there were small Chinese and Filipino communities. Apparently everyone got along very well. However, most of the clubs were attended by African Americans during World War II, mainly because the Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, and any businesses they owned were sold or completely shut down and the spaces were leased out, usually to the new African Americans residents.

Following the war there was some mild tension between the returning Japanese Americans and African Americans because of the major changes in the make-up of Fillmore, but for the most part, everyone got along, and a few Japanese American musicians even began playing in the Fillmore clubs.

AW  Did the Fillmore District become well known to the musicians who made their living primarily on the East Coast?

EP  The Fillmore became part of the circuit in which jazz musicians played when they came to the West Coast. There isn’t a jazz musician I can think of who didn’t play in the Fillmore during that era, and some of them even stayed for a while. However, I don’t think there was a “San Francisco” or “Fillmore” sound. Dave Brubeck played in the Fillmore jazz clubs at times, and while his music was indicative of West Coast Jazz, he wasn’t really part of the Fillmore scene.

AW Redevelopment in the form of urban renewal eventually destroyed the Fillmore community…

EP  Urban renewal was the major reason for the community’s demise, but not the only one. The Fillmore had some of the oldest houses in San Francisco — many of them were built in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s as single-family homes. While it had always been among the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods west of the Mississippi, it was known primarily in the Bay area as a Jewish community until the 1920’s. When the racial covenants preventing Jews from owning property in the suburbs were lifted in the late twenties and early thirties, they moved out of the city but continued to own the property they vacated. I understand that a majority of the homes in the Fillmore throughout this period and into the fifties were owned by absent landlords. Also, because of the Depression no one had the money to improve the housing. Then, during World War II, because the racial covenants prevented African Americans from living in many Bay Area neighborhoods, thousands poured into the Fillmore. The population grew from five-thousand to almost fifty-thousand during the war years, causing these single family homes to be divided into rooming houses, with tons of people crowded into small places. It made the housing situation even more rundown, although the area thrived during the war.

After World War II, the African American community suffered a great deal because of layoffs. Many of the soldiers were coming home from the war and returning to the jobs African Americans held in their absence. People of color were being laid off, creating unemployment issues in the neighborhood.

While the idea of urban redevelopment was being kicked around as early as the twenties, it didn’t get very far because of the Depression, and then the war. Once the war was over, the federal government began pushing for it, and projects began taking place in all the major cities of the country, San Francisco being one of them. The Fillmore was actually the second project the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency set their sights on — the first one was in the Embarcadero area of downtown, which was quite successful mainly because the area primarily consisted of old warehouses. Since there was very little housing, all they had to do was bulldoze the warehouse area over and build shops and housing.

The Fillmore was a different situation, because it was a huge neighborhood in which people lived, and very little thought was given to where the people displaced by urban renewal would move. The Redevelopment Agency claimed that all Fillmore residents would be relocated into the new homes once they were re-built, but this is not what happened. Instead, once these residents left, they were pretty much gone for good. No one was about to hang around for a couple of years while their neighborhood was being put back together — they had to get on with their lives. Another problem was that many of the people who lived in the Fillmore were renters, and the Redevelopment Agency did not feel they had any rights or say in the matter since they were not property owners.

AW  Was there a crime problem in the Fillmore during this time?

EP  There was a bit of a crime problem because of the high unemployment during the late forties and early fifties, but I didn’t find any evidence of a huge problem which was hyped up in local newspapers. The neighborhood became a target of newspaper articles that told of its overcrowding, often being referred to as a slum. These articles were ridiculous, National Enquirer-type exposes on people living in the neighborhood. In one story, a woman and her five children were described as “dirty, wearing ragged clothing, having runny noses, being school dropouts”, and that kind of thing. These stories reinforced the idea that the Fillmore District needed to be “wiped away” and started over with a clean slate.

However, the people in the neighborhood didn’t feel that way at all. From their perspective, living in the Fillmore was a wonderful experience, where people of color could own their own homes, the numbers of African American-owned businesses and social clubs was rising, and music was everywhere.

AW The photographs in your book fully capture what you just described. It seemed to be a great district, one full of life and opportunity. The redevelopment process certainly changed that.

EP  Yes, it did. But it wasn’t just Redevelopment; popular music changed — rock n’ roll came along — so the interest in jazz began to drop. Redevelopment caused people of all colors to leave the city. Today, it seems as if everyone wants to live in the city of San Francisco, but during this earlier period, people wanted to escape it and move to the suburbs. Refurbishing the city wasn’t what people thought about, instead, they wanted to just tear it all down.

The neighborhood probably would have changed regardless of redevelopment, but I do think it removed the heart and soul from the neighborhood. The old Victorian homes that were so unlike any others in the city were removed, replaced by poorly built one-and-two-bedroom apartments. And, because the process of redevelopment removed the people, the neighborhood businesses that remained couldn’t survive. About fifteen years ago, real estate agents renamed a part of the Fillmore — one of the only parts which was not bulldozed by Redevelopment, — “Lower Pacific Heights,” to connect it to the more affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood just a few blocks away. This part of the Fillmore has become very affluent, while in other parts of the neighborhood, poorer residents live in public assistance housing which is what Redevelopment put up after removing all the Victorians. Its present form is a very strange dichotomy between rich and poor. The rather sad irony is that the very thing Redevelopment tried to fix — run-down housing and overcrowding  — is the legacy of Redevelopment today, while the Victorian houses, which Redevelopment tried to get rid of because they considered it poor housing, are worth a lot of money and mainly owned by wealthy individuals.

The Agency has made many attempts to bring back the jazz clubs, but this has not met with much success. It will be interesting to see what happens to the neighborhood once the jazz history center, Yoshi’s Jazz Club, and several restaurants open in mid-2007. While the Redevelopment Agency can’t bring back what they tore away, it is my hope that a new, but smaller jazz scene can once again thrive in what was once known as “Harlem of the West.”

 

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photo by Jerry Stoll

Paul Gonsalves of Duke Ellington’s orchestra at Bop City, 1950’s, with Flip Nunez on piano

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Over The Rainbow, by Paul Gonsalves

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Harlem of the West:

The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era

by Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts

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Editors Note:

An exhibit called “Harlem of the West,” curated by authors Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts, has been picked up by the Smithsonian Institution and will be traveling around the country for the next three years. Please contact the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibits for details and museum locations.

Watch footage of Lowell Fulson playing at The Blue Mirror in the Fillmore.

 

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About the Authors

Elizabeth Pepin is a photographer, public television producer, and former manager at the historic Fillmore Auditorium. She lives in San Francisco.

Lewis Watts is a photographer and professor of art at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a long-standing interest in African-American history in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

 

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Elizabeth Pepin products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on August 16, 2006

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Times Square historian Anthony Bianco, author of Ghosts of 42nd Street: A History of America’s Most Infamous Block

 

 

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Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews

# Text from publisher.

 


Photo Essay

 

 

A collection of selected photographs and excerpts from the book:
Harlem of the West:

The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era

by Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts

All photographs published with the consent of Elizabeth Pepin

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The Majestic Hall (later known as the Majestic Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium)

Geary at Fillmore, 1914

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The earthquake and fire of April 1906 changed the course of the city forever.  With most of downtown in ruins, the closest area left relatively untouched happened to be the Fillmore.

– Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts

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photo by David Johnson

Outside the Dog House Bar, late 1940’s

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“African Americans had been living in the Fillmore District since before the earthquake, but their numbers were quite small.  Racism in employment and a ban on nonwhites by nearly all labor unions kept San Francisco’s Black population from growing…”

– Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts

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photo by David Johnson

Melrose Record Shop, 1226 Fillmore Street, 1947

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“World War II dramatically changed the face of the Fillmore.  By the 1950 census, San Francisco’s Black population had exploded to 42,520, due to the many African Americans from the South who were encouraged to come to the West Coast to work in the shipyards.”

– Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts

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photo by Steve Jackson Jr.

Sammy Davis, Jr. at Bop City, c. 1950s

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“The neighborhood was very music-oriented…You could walk down Fillmore Street and see all kinds of clubs lined up one behind the other, and the musicians could gig all the time.  I mean, just music out of the doors, windows, people’s houses.  It was just music, music, music.”

– Blues singer Sugar Pie Desanto

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Louis Armstrong and wife in front of Bop City, 1950s

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“It was a great, great time.  I would say it was Harlem.  And I say that because Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, they all fell into San Francisco like the artists that I read about that would fall into New York.  It was the way many people wrote about  the renaissance in Harlem.  That was what Fillmore Street was like in those days.  It had to be the closest thing to Harlem outside of New York.”

– Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown

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photo collection of Wesley Johnson Jr.

Wesley Johnson Sr. and T-Bone Walker inside the Texas Playhouse, 1950s

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“Music in the Fillmore was organic.  In the air.  It was from the community and belonged to the community…It was exciting and even as a child, I always wanted to know what was happening there.”

– Musician Wayne Wallace

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photo by Steve Jackson Jr.

Pony Poindexter and Leo Wright at Bop City, 1950s

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“I did not live in the Fillmore, but I was getting introduced to the happenings there when I was in high school.  The Fillmore had all these little places, these little clubs, these eating joints or chicken houses.  All had some sort of music going.  They would have their doors and windows open and would be blaring the music out into the street.”

– Musician Federico Cervantes

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photo by David Johnson

Bass player on the floor of the Primalon Ballroom, 1950s

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“The Fillmore club scene was a mixture.  You’d go in one club, maybe the Sportsman, and they’d be doing blues and jazz.  You’d go down the street, and they’d be doing jazz.  Then another place would be records.  You could just go from one end of the neighborhood to the other, and every block had a club.  If you were a musician and needed a gig, you just went to the Fillmore.  You could make a living.”

– Sugar Pie Desanto

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photo by Steve Jackson Jr.

1940s patrons of the Texas Playhouse

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“We came out full dressed.  Suits and nice hats.  Dressed to kill!  You didn’t go to the clubs during those days looking hoochie coochie.  Hats, minks, whatever — everybody dressed up.”

– Sugar Pie Desanto

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photo by Steve Jackson Jr.

Dexter Gordon at Bop City, 1950s

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“One night I saw Dexter Gordon leaving the New Orleans Swing Club, walking across the street toward a bank to get into a car.  I thought he was the most handsome man in the world.  And dressed!  His clothes were so tailored and beautiful.  He had an incredible top coat on.  But at the same time, it wasn’t a big deal.  You’d see famous people all dressed up walking around the Fillmore all the time.  I saw Duke Ellington in the Fillmore.  Miles Davis in the Fillmore.  Dizzy Gillespie was in the Fillmore.  You name them, they were there.  It was a big party, and you never slept.  We were young and anxious!  One of the best times of my life.”

– Musician Allen Smith

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photo collection of John Goddard

Sugar Pie Desanto, 1958

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“I used to come up to the Fillmore from Los Angeles, looking for talent.  I found a lot of musicians and singers that way.  It was fertile ground.”

– Musician Johnny Otis

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photo by David Johnson

In front of the Fillmore Street Cleaners, 1950s

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“When I came back to the Fillmore, there were some other piano players on the scene, but I wasn’t impressed with them.  Jimbo let me come back whenever I wanted, but a lot of places, like the Plantation Club, had closed.  Bop City and Jack’s of Sutter were the only ones left.  I think integration started it, being able to go into the clubs where you couldn’t go before, or you could play there but you couldn’t go in through the front door to sit down.  A lot of the players who had been around for ten years or more started getting into drugs.  Plus, the Redevelopment Agency started tearing down a lot of the apartments.  Because of all this, a lot of African Americans were leaving the Fillmore.”

– Federico Cervantes

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photo San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

Demolition of Fillmore, mid 1950s

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“When redevelopment began, the vibrant community I knew, my friends, my whole world, started to change.  I used to look down the street and see nothing but Victorians.  And then, at one point, you’d leave in the morning and there would be a bulldozer parked in front of some buildings, and by the time you came back from school, the houses weren’t there anymore.  Block by block, gone. Totally leveled.”

– Community activist Steve Nakajo

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photo San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

Redevelopment, Fillmore Street, mid-1950s

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“It was very traumatic to see it all go away.  We all made a living playing music, and all we did was play our music, and then it was gone.  I don’t know why you would think this, but you kind of think it’s going to go on forever.”

– Musician Earl Watkins

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photo by David Johnson

Dancing at a Fillmore nightclub, late 1940s

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“I think that the people who wanted to redevelop the Western Addition saw the commercial value of the space.  It was centrally located; the dividing line between downtown and the Avenues in every sense of the word.  I think they saw land and they had to clear the land, and the only way to clear the land was to use the tools of government to achieve that goal.  You look at the results and it does appear to be ‘Black Removal,’ but I think the motivation was pure commercial greed.  But it was devastating to the Black community.  The churches began to lose populations.  The black businesses, which had been viable, wonderful, and productive, were totally destroyed.  The entertainment world for African Americans virtually ceased to exist in San Francisco.  The great life that was Harlem-ish for us was destroyed by the redevelopment process.  It was a blow to African Americans.  A blow from which we frankly have never really recovered.”

– Willie Brown