For vocalist Kim Nalley, it all started on Fillmore

Photograph of Kim Nalley by Walter Wagner

By Thomas Reynolds

Sultry, soulful, swinging singer Kim Nalley remembers when she got her first big break in San Francisco. It was the early ’90s, and the manager of Harry’s on Fillmore called to see if she might fill a slot for a band that had cancelled.

But Nalley was otherwise engaged. She had a house to clean — a job that was helping to pay her way through UC Berkeley. She called her client and explained she wouldn’t be able to come. “How much are they paying you to sing?” the woman wanted to know. “Well, you make more here cleaning — and this is an ongoing thing.”

She called back Harry’s and told the manager she wouldn’t be able to make the gig, but that she hoped to sing another night. “This is your chance,” he told her.

So she gave up domestic work. And she started her rise to a place of prominence and respect in the jazz world, toured and lived in Europe, then came home triumphantly to take over Pearl’s, the North Beach jazz club.

“In a lot of ways, it all started on Fillmore for me,” Nalley says. She remembers those early days of singing at Harry’s as something special.

“Now that I’m older, Harry’s is a pub. But for a girl of 18, it seemed pretty fantabulous,” she says. “For me, Harry’s was an upscale place that had jazz.” The owner loved her, and so did the customers. She sang on Thursday nights, and sometimes on Sundays as well.

Naturally Ruth Dewson stopped by for a drink. The proprietor of Mrs. Dewson’s Hats on Fillmore had — and has — a special interest in encouraging achievement in young black women. She spotted star quality in the new singer.

“I saw her at Harry’s,” Dewson recalls. “She had style. She was bright. She was beautiful. And she could sing.”

Dewson booked Nalley on a jazz cruise that raised money for St. Dominic’s School. And she went up the street to the Fillmore Grill, then at the northwest corner of Clay where the Alta Plaza club had been and would be again, told owner Ed Petrillo about the new singer she’d heard at Harry’s and encouraged him to hire her. He didn’t have a cabaret license, but that didn’t stop Petrillo from giving it a try. When the ownership changed a few months later and the Alta Plaza Bar & Grill was reborn, new owner Peter Snyderman booked Nalley to sing every Tuesday night.

“She had this incredible voice,” says Snyderman, now the managing partner of the Elite Cafe. “Very few singers could handle that big room without amplification. But she could do it as if it were Carnegie Hall.”

Snyderman had managed by then to get a cabaret license, but only by agreeing to continue to have no amplification, to quiet the concerns of his neighbors.

“She had an amazingly powerful voice,” he says. “She would walk from the bar into the restaurant and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to somebody — and still be connected to the band. It was just something to behold.” He adds: “She was so professional and so great to work with — not at all a diva. And yet she had total confidence when she sang. She had all of the good and none of the bad.”

One night San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and his partner Joshua Robison were walking to a movie at the Clay Theater a couple of doors south when they heard Nalley singing and wandered in. The maestro was mesmerized. She had no idea who he was.

“He was so emotional,” she says now. “He would conduct while I was singing. I thought he was a little nutty, frankly.”

He became a big fan. He was there “a ridiculous percentage of Tuesday nights,” says Snyderman. And he was determined to record Nalley — quite a trick without a microphone — which he did on the last night the Alta Plaza was open, although the album has never been released.

“It turned out to be closing night,” Nalley recalls, “which was a really, really sad event.” It was also the end of her regular performances on Fillmore Street. But by then she was in demand in plenty of other places, traveling and touring and attracting an ever-wider circle of fans.

“From there on, she just became a star,” says Ruth Dewson.

Despite her success, by 2001 Nalley was ready for a change. She had lost her mother and her younger brother in recent months. She decided to accept the invitations that begun arriving to sing at clubs and jazz festivals in Europe. When she got there, she decided to stay.

She found a home in Switzerland. Swiss impresario and club owner Steve Sheraton and Nalley discovered mutual enthusiasms and a ripening romance. Life among the Europeans was good.

But Nalley’s fans on Fillmore missed her. And so she was invited in 2003 to return to headline the Fillmore Jazz Festival and tour the west coast.

“At the time I accepted, I thought I was coming to do that gig and then return to Europe,” Nalley says. “That festival ended up being my homecoming concert.”

After she made the date, but before the festival, came news that rocked the local jazz scene: Pearl’s, the North Beach jazz club where Nalley had firmly established herself on the San Francisco scene, was closing. Owner Pearl Wong tracked down Nalley in Vienna and asked if she might be interested in taking over.

By the time the Fillmore Jazz Festival arrived on the Fourth of July weekend — with a pearl-strewn Kim Nalley featured on the posters and t-shirts — she and Sheraton had married and returned to San Francisco as the saviors of a jazz shrine. Sheraton would run Pearl’s and Nalley would be the featured performer.

Their collaboration won kudos all around. They remodeled Jazz at Pearl’s to make it swankier, and soon it was proclaimed one of the best new clubs in the world by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Nalley sang with her band on Tuesday nights at Pearl’s and resumed an active touring schedule. She developed an uncanny incarnation of Billie Holiday, singing her songs, portraying her on stage and recording an album. Later she did much the same with Nina Simone’s music. She was on top of the jazz world — a singer at the peak of her power, a student of the music and the owner of her own club.

An email went out from Nalley in March 2008 addressed to friends, fans and supporters. “Thank you for all your support at my shows during this rocky personal time,” she wrote. “More than ever I have to say singing for you is the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.” A few days later, on April 1, came another message. “It has become clear that despite my best efforts I will be unable to gain sole ownership of Pearl’s and the lease,” she wrote. “Jazz at Pearl’s will close at the end of April.”

She and Sheraton had split, and the fate of the club was tied up in their divorce. But come the end of April, there was hopeful news. In another message, Nalley wrote, “I am pleased to announce that on April 23 we received an 11th hour reprieve and will remain open.” Her email said she had “accepted an offer from some local jazz aficionados,” but gave no details.

Nalley will say little more about the situation. “I’m doing my best to try to keep the doors open,” she says, refusing to discuss it further. “It’s personal stuff. I can’t go there.”

Late on a Tuesday night, just off a long flight from the east coast, Kim Nalley strolls into the dark majesty of the bar at 1300 on Fillmore pulling a little black suitcase and wearing a little black dress, looking like a million bucks. Over a snack of pork belly and grits with wild mushrooms, she praises the food and tells co-owner Monetta White how much she likes the place.

A fan stops by to say she’s looking forward to seeing Nalley back at the Fillmore Jazz Festival this year. “I’m excited,” Nalley says. “It’s definitely my favorite festival.”

Befitting her classy and classic style, she is planning a Duke Ellington set for this year’s festival. “I’ve been trying to work out something for a long time. Then Nina Simone died,” she says, and the timing seemed right to explore her music instead.

Nalley is especially interested in Ivie Anderson, the vocalist for the Ellington orchestra in its early years, who was a Californian from Gilroy. “Duke said her instrument was the epitome of what his music was about,” she says. Anderson first sang such tunes as “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” Nalley notes, then realizes the connection to her unfolding divorce.

What about “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” she says, starting to sing.
Thought I’d visit the club
Got as far as the door
They’d have ask’d me about you
Don’t get around much anymore.

“As you get older, you rediscover lyrics and learn they mean so much more than you realized,” she chuckles.

She was married once before — “for a whole year” — to the bass player in her band at Harry’s. “Divorce was easy then,” she says, leaving it unspoken that it’s not so easy the second time around.

“Oh well,” she says finally, flashing a dazzling smile. “What’s a jazz singer without a couple of divorces?”