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in the 1940s and 50s, the heart of Fillmore jazz…
by 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.”
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 ÔLet’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.”
“THE LEGEND OF BOP CITY” 1998 directed by Carol Chamberland