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No jazz on Fillmore this year

Fillmore’s own Kim Nalley performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades, there will be no jazz on Fillmore Street this Fourth of July weekend.

The annual Fillmore Jazz Festival has been canceled due to the coronavirus and the ban on large gatherings of people.

“Sister! I just want to cry because there’s no festival this weekend,” said jazz vocalist Kim Nalley, who got her start on Fillmore Street and has been a perennial headliner at the festival. “It doesn’t even seem like the Fourth of July without the Fillmore Jazz Festival. I can barely remember when I haven’t sung at this festival.”

Jason Olaine, the festival’s artistic director for the last decade — and also the director of programming and touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York — also lamented the cancellation of this year’s event.

“We will miss — terribly — the mass of humanity in all its colors and generations, tastes and sounds, that make up the Fillmore Jazz Festival,” Olaine said. “We take solace in knowing that when we do come back, we’ll all be safe and strong and seriously ready to party. That will be quite a weekend — when we can all truly embrace one another without fear and dance all day.”

Fillmore saxman Sonny Lewis performing at the street fair in 1992.

The festival was begun in 1986 as a way to keep jazz alive on Fillmore Street, once a thriving mecca of music known during the ’40s and ’50s as the Harlem of the West. Most of its clubs and joints were lost during the 1960s as part of an ambitious but ultimately misguided redevelopment plan, which bulldozed large swaths of the neighborhood.

The annual jazzfest began as a modest street fair called “Jazz and All That Art on Fillmore” and sponsored by the Fillmore Merchants Association. It was spurred by the self-proclaimed Mayor of Fillmore Street, Ruth Dewson, longtime proprietor of Mrs. Dewson’s Hats. She recalled approaching promoter Terry Pimsleur, who had earlier started the Union Street Festival, about creating a similar street fair on Fillmore, where new businesses were opening and trying to improve the struggling commercial strip. But she was rebuffed, told there weren’t enough people or merchants on Fillmore at that time to make a street fair successful.

“I told her, ‘Honey, you got one of me, that’s enough,’” Dewson recalled in 2011. “Right from the beginning, it was a success.”

Ruth Dewson helped start the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

After being held the first two years in the fall, the festival moved to the weekend nearest the Fourth of July. It has remained there since, until this year. It was expanded and renamed the Fillmore Jazz Festival in 1999, and grew with the neighborhood into the largest free jazz festival on the west coast, drawing more than 100,000 people and shutting down Fillmore from Jackson to Eddy Streets.

“Let’s celebrate in our own socially responsible ways this weekend,” said Olaine, “and look forward to the future. Here’s to us — the Fillmore community. I just love us!”

Kim Nalley at the Fillmore Jazz Festival

‘The death of my youth’

FIRST PERSON | KIM NALLEY

This Fourth of July has been a very emotional day for me. For the first time since I started singing professionally, there is no Fillmore Jazz Festival. I have headlined at this festival consecutively on the California Street stage for more than a decade, and before that I played at the festival here and there on non-consecutive years.

As one of the last and largest remaining free jazz festivals, it was very special because I saw people who otherwise might not necessarily have been able to afford to come to some of my concerts, as well as people who have been following me from the very beginning, plus other friends and family who planned their trips to San Francisco around this festival. I really looked forward to seeing everyone every year, and to seeing the babies in the front row grow up to be dancing toddlers and then sitting and listening as big kids.

I loved seeing all the dancers at the Fillmore festival — not just the Lindy and swing and blues dancers, but also the Jamaican man who jumped on the stage to dance with me when we did an Etta James song with a ska beat. I loved singing “America the Beautiful” or “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the yearly anthem. And of course I loved working my way up and down the street to see and hear my friends perform on the different stages.

I have enjoyed the largesse of the Fillmore merchants for my entire career. My first paying gigs were in the Fillmore, I got married in the Fillmore, I shop in the Fillmore, my kids went to daycare and preschool in the Fillmore, and many of my closest friends I either met in the Fillmore or they live in the Fillmore. My first album was produced by Michael Tilson Thomas at the Alta Plaza on Fillmore and Clay. I got the news that my mother died while singing on Fillmore Street.

Little did I know, when singing last Fourth of July, what would be in store for 2020. I have no idea if the Fillmore Jazz Festival will be able to continue in the future given the challenges of the coronavirus, and the need for sponsors and production, and all the many people responsible for producing any outdoor festival.

It almost feels like the death of my youth. And it certainly doesn’t feel like the Fourth of July without the Fillmore Jazz Festival. I know as a country we are facing much more difficult problems than this, but I cannot help but mourn.

Happy Fourth of July! I hope better days are ahead and that I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.

Musically yours,
Kim Nalley
July 4, 2020