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The legacy of Fillmore jazz

Local favorite pianist Tammy Hall is featured in a new video on Fillmore jazz.

SAN FRANCISCO’S Fillmore District — known as the “Harlem of the West” in the 1940s and ’50s — was once a cathedral of jazz, its dozens of clubs inhabited by celestial beings such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.

The Fillmore’s heyday marked an important chapter not only in jazz history but also in the Black American experience; its legacy lives on in the work of passionate artists who believe jazz — its freedom, movement and expression — is a state of mind, a way of life.

In a new video in its “Currents” series, the San Francisco Symphony tells the story of the Fillmore’s rich jazz history and explores its legacy.

CURRENTS: Bay Area Blue Notes from San Francisco Symphony on Vimeo.

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 has headlined the Fillmore Jazz Festival for years.

‘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

Boom Boom Room on the ropes

Photograph of the Boom Boom Room by Susie Biehler

FILLMORE’S ONLY remaining joint — the Boom Boom Room, hard by the Geary Street bridge — is closed and may not reopen without an infusion of fresh cash.

“We are faced with permanent closure without emergency funding,” says owner Zander Andreas in a fundraising campaign seeking to raise $60,000. “The survival of our intimate and iconic San Francisco live music institution depends on you. Our rent is massive and compounding. Our vendors are breathing down our necks. Our repairs and utilities are unfunded.”

Andreas said the actual emergency need is $150,000, but that he hopes the GoFundMe campaign “will get people discussing the urgency of our need to keep this institution alive.”

EARLIER: “Was it really John Lee Hooker’s joint?

A final farewell to the Clay

Fixtures and furnishings being removed from the Clay Theatre.

DEMOLITION OF THE interior of the 110-year-old Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street began today, with workers hauling out the seats, the projectors and the popcorn machine.

Landmark Theatres, the company that operated the Clay in recent decades, has instructed its staff to leave the building empty by the end of the month.

The theater closed at the end of January, but ongoing discussions between building owner Balgobind Jaiswal and the S.F. Neighborhood Theater Foundation — which had offered to buy or rent the theater — had given supporters hope the Clay might continue as a nonprofit.

Those negotiations have proved unsuccessful and the landlord’s agent, neighborhood resident Pamela Mendelsohn of the Maven real estate firm, has been showing the space to other potential tenants.

EARLIER: “Clay Theatre to close

Lights, Camera, Washington Street

Eleanor Coppola shot her new film at 2561 Washington Street.

By ALISON OWINGS

The audience gasped.  

Eleanor Coppola’s triptych, “Love is Love is Love,” comprised of three shortish California-based films, was having a solo showing a few weeks ago at Dolby Laboratory’s splendid theater in downtown San Francisco, her purpose partly to thank people involved in the production. The longest and final of the three, “Late Lunch,” opened simply with an exterior view of a house.

Located at 2561 Washington Street, between Fillmore and Steiner, the fancifully handsome Victorian was home for decades to neighborhood notables John and Carol Field and their children Alison and Matt. John, an architect, remodeled the rear of the house, fashioning a soaring solarium and library and a rustically sophisticated kitchen; while Carol, among other accomplishments, baked and breaded and simmered, creating recipes that often made their way into her Italian food-themed cookbooks. 

John and Carol died within three weeks of one another in 2017. Now, in “Late Lunch,” the house re-appeared, a touchstone for many in the audience to the Fields’ years of hospitality and friendships.

Thus, this October evening, the gasp.  

As it opened, the first of the 10 actresses in the film began walking up the familiar front wooden steps to the landing. A door opened into the living and dining room — more gasps — to reveal their home had been converted into a movie set — an especially cozy movie set. The gasps turned to tears as the plot unfolded, especially for Carol’s women friends.

An email exchange with director Eleanor Coppola provided the backstory.

How did you and Carol and John meet?

“Francis [Coppola, my husband] and I met John and Carol in 1969 when we moved to S.F. from L.A. We bought their house a few blocks away on Webster Street, which was a small Victorian that John had renovated in his stylish good taste for his family.”

When the Fields moved from Webster Street to 2561 Washington Street, the two families, their children about the same ages, stayed in touch.

Carol and John Field died within days of each other in 2017.

“I found myself asking Carol to recommend a pediatrician, where to buy kids’ shoes, where she bought her groceries, etc. She was super helpful and always had the best information. So much so that when Francis bought City magazine (a publication about what was going on in the city at the time), he began asking Carol to write articles about where to get the best bread, the best meat, etc. Her articles were terrific, and I think may have been the beginning of her food writing. We remained friends over the years.”

“Then our family moved to the Napa Valley in 1977 and we drifted out of touch. Some years later I joined a writing class that met once a week in Marin and there was Carol, part of the group. We reconnected. In the writing group, we often made an altar in the living room of our instructor’s house with photos of people we were writing about, or objects from seasonal nature walks we took together for inspiration before sitting down to write.”

“I was feeling isolated living in the Napa Valley and, along with a friend, hosted a number of weekends at our ranch for 10 or 12 women from near and far to talk about their lives, aspirations and whatever was on our minds. We’d hike, eat from the garden, etc. I was very interested and often surprised by what the women were willing to reveal about themselves. I found that women in a group with no men in the room spoke differently than when there were men present.  I always wanted to try and capture that experience on screen.” 

How did the idea for the movie come about?

“At a memorial lunch [for Carol] I had that feeling again, with just women attending, who talked so openly together and so fondly of Carol. I decided to write a script. I set it in the house where the lunch was held.”

The lunch was co-hosted by Carol’s daughter-in-law, Camilla Field, at her home a few blocks away, and Carol’s daughter, Alison. The film centers around a candid reckoning at a lunch the deceased woman’s daughter has for her mother’s best friends. In fact, Eleanor planned to shoot the movie at Carol’s daughter-in-law’s house. Camilla was willing, but she and Matt have two children of their own, and a family of four on a movie set meant “attendant problems for a movie crew.” Camilla suggested 2561 Washington Street, which was then empty, pending a family decision to move in or sell.

“It was perfect for our production needs. Of course I had visited Carol and John there numerous times. I have fond memories of going to the Fields’ house to watch the Academy Awards with Carol and John and their friends. Carol was a huge movie fan and we would always have the ballot printed out and guests would make their picks for the awards in advance. At the end, we’d count up who got the most right. Carol always won. So I was especially touched to be able to shoot a movie in Carol’s house in the very room where we watched the movie awards. It was a miracle that it worked out.” 

The 10 actresses on set in the Fields’ house, which was empty after their deaths.

Friends in the audience gasped again at certain scenes — especially when the daughter gives each of her mother’s friends a scarf from her collection, which is precisely what Camilla and Alison did at their lunch. 

“Late Lunch” is indeed an homage to Carol Field, but the director said her movie is more about women’s friendships. 

Rosanna Arquette, Nancy Carlin, Polly Draper, Maya Kazan, Elea Oberoin, Valarie Pettiford, Alyson Reed, Cybill Shepherd, Joanne Whalley and Rita Wilson filled the bill, but not each was planned for the part. 

How did the casting work?

“I wrote the parts for the women with specific actors in mind, but when it is actually time to cast there are always many variables. I was able to get some of the actors I had envisioned, but since I was casting 10 women, it was impossible to find all of actors available at the same time.” A casting team brought her up to four candidates to interview for each of the parts. “Amazingly, the actors came together as an ensemble stronger than I had originally imagined.”

What happens now? 

“ ‘Love is Love is Love’ is in the hands of a sales agent who is strategizing as to how best to get it to its intended audience. It may be sent to a film festival or two, it may or may not have a theatrical release. It may go directly to streaming. I await the fates.” 


Since the movie wrapped last April, John and Carol Field’s house at 2561 Washington Street starred in another act: a difficult family decision not to move in, but to sell. The house was spiffed and staged, and sold in three days.

Alison Owings is a neighborhood resident and the author of three books. She is currently writing a biography of Del Seymour, “the mayor of the Tenderloin,” a study about homelessness. 

An opera star on the fast track

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen at Glaze on Fillmore Street.

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

At only 25, opera singer and neighborhood resident Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has already had a head-spinning career. 

Cohen graduated from Princeton in 2015. Just two years later, he was one of 12 artists to join S.F. Opera’s prestigious two-year, performance-oriented Adler Fellowship Program, which is what brought him to San Francisco. 

He made his S.F. Opera debut this summer in a major supporting role in Handel’s Orlando. By then, he’d already held the limelight in an important tryout for future stars: the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions Grand Finals, in March 2017. New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe saw several good singers onstage, but “only one complete artist,” noting that Cohen “stood clearly apart from the pack.” He was one of six winners.

Cohen is a countertenor. Singing above the vocal terrain of a tenor, he and the other 50-some quality countertenors working today perform music written in the 17th and 18th centuries for castrati — men castrated before puberty so their voices would remain high. After the practice was banned, much of that music lay dormant for a couple of centuries. When Baroque music made a comeback, the high, pure, sonorous countertenor tradition was born.

Among its most lauded practitioners, Cohen will be performing here early this month in two programs: “The Future Is Now,” his final Adler Fellows concert, with the S.F. Opera orchestra, at Herbst Theatre on December 6; and as a soloist in Handel’s Messiah, with the S.F. Symphony, at Davies Hall on December 13 and 14.

(more…)

Yet Another Hole in the Head

FILM | ANDREA CHASE

The 16th Annual Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, brought to you by the fine people at SFIndieFest, gathers a scintillating collection of the best of the genres of sci-fi, horror, fantasy and just plain odd films currently out there, along with the now traditional rescoring of a classic.

The fest is running now through December 15 at the New People Cinema in Japantown, and there’s not a dud in the program.

(more…)

Buster Keaton on Divisadero

A still from the opening scene of The Navigator, filmed in the neighborhood.

FILM | CLASSICS SHOT LOCALLY

Atop the crest of the hill on Divisadero Street, looking north between Pacific and Broadway, a car slowly makes a U-turn, then stops on the opposite side of the street. Buster Keaton filmed almost exclusively on Hollywood lots, but traveled to San Francisco to get this one shot. 

The first five minutes of The Navigator, from 1924, are among the funniest in the entire film. The opening gag introduces Keaton’s character to us as the rich bachelor Rollo Treadway, who wakes up with the bright idea that he should get married — immediately. The caption card reads: “He had completed all the arrangements — except to notify the girl.”

Treadway instructs his chauffeur to take him at once to his girlfriend’s house. The car starts and does a U-turn and stops across the street. Treadway exits clutching a hopeful bouquet of flowers and marches up the brick-lined steps. His girlfriend, played by Kathryn McGuire, is caught off guard by Treadway’s epiphany and rejects his offer of “Will you marry me?” with a “Certainly not!”

Dejected, Treadway slinks back down the steps to the street below and quietly informs his chauffeur that he won’t be needing the car; instead what he chiefly needs is a nice long walk to clear his mind. He then walks back across the lonely street to his own mansion. 

The hilarity of this scene only works due to its extravagance. In seconds, we learn that Rollo Treadway is a young man with more dollars than sense, coupled with a keen inability to read a situation. The fact that the chauffeur is not surprised in the least to be instructed to drive his boss a mere 180-degree turn across the street paints a picture of the blissful wastefulness of the young millionaire. Keaton’s brilliance was his ability to create a character no one could relate to, but with whom everyone would instantly sympathize.

The casual viewer will laugh at the scene, but the extravagance goes past the joke. Keaton picked this spot on Divisadero Street purely because the northerly crest prevented other structures from cluttering the scope of the scene. His minimalist vision makes this scene that much more endearing. It’s as if these two giant mansions and a few others exist all by themselves. That makes the fairy tale of the two young lovers that much sweeter, even when she rejects him. 

The ivy-choked mansion on the right, which was meant to belong to Rollo Treadway, is now sadly long gone, demolished in the 1930s. But his girlfriend’s mansion is still in place at 2505 Divisadero. Built in 1899, it was more recently known as Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett’s residence. It sold for $10 million three years ago, a price at which Rollo Treadway might barely blink an eye.

There is something magical and unique about the top of Divisadero Street. Buster Keaton saw it in 1924, and we can see it still.

— Mark Fantino

VIDEO: Buster Keaton goes for a ride in The Navigator

Alfred Hitchcock on Buchanan

The entry at Sacramento and Buchanan appears in Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

FILM | CLASSICS SHOT LOCALLY

Walking north on Buchanan Street across Sacramento, you hardly notice the home on the corner. Built in 1900, this sheepish three-story house seems to endeavor not to draw attention to itself. But Alfred Hitchcock saw it differently. It was here that he filmed climactic scenes of his very last film, Family Plot, released in 1976. 

It may never be considered one of Hitchcock’s greats. While it does include many of his trademark suspenseful moments and thrilling intrigue, Hitchcock injected a level of zaniness in this film he had not mastered. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern play the out-of-their-element young couple dead set on uncovering the truth about an unclaimed family fortune, as well as an enormous diamond. But instead they get caught up in the sinister skulduggery of the shiny-toothed villain William Devane’s murderous schemes.

The main entrance of the corner home at Sacramento and Buchanan is used a couple of times in the film. Around the corner on Buchanan is the garage door (below) where some deliciously dastardly scenes take place. 

— Mark Fantino

From Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

Fillmore’s own Sonny Lewis

NEW RELEASE | SCOTT YANOW

Sonny Lewis is a jazz legend who almost slipped away into history. A superior tenor-saxophonist and flutist based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1960s, Lewis made relatively few jazz recordings during his career.

He can be heard with Smiley Winters (playing next to altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald) and on two records with trumpeter Dr. David Hardiman — but until now, no albums have been released under his own name. The previously unknown music on Fillmore Street Live is a major find that gives us the chance to appreciate his inventive style and artistry.

Pianist Rob Catterton, who produced the release for Sonoma Coast Records, met Sonny Lewis at a session in 1987. Catterton says:

“I was young and green but Sonny was gracious and very kind. After those sessions ended, I eventually summoned up the courage to call him, and we would rehearse on piano and tenor or flute, just the two of us. Sonny lost the ability to play in the late 1990s due to something called focal dystonia. Despite going to a hand specialist, he had to retire from playing. We’ve remained friends all these years, and recently he brought me 25 or 30 cassettes in a paper bag. They were mostly audience tapes, but two tapes stood out. They were recorded directly from the soundboard at an outdoor fair on Fillmore Street on July 2 and 3, 1988, and they really show what a great player Sonny Lewis was. As soon as I heard them, I knew this material had to be released.”

At that point, Sonny Lewis had already had a productive career. A professional since he was a teenager in Boston, he gained early experience playing with R&B and rock-and-roll bands. Always a versatile player, Lewis could fit comfortably into almost any setting. After studying at the Berklee School of Music, he spent time in the early 1960s working in Europe, performing with Bud Powell, Kenny Drew, poet William S. Burroughs and classical composer Terry Riley, and appearing on the original recording of Riley’s In C.

After moving to San Francisco in the early ’60s, Lewis created his own combos featuring several young musicians who would go on to fame, including Eddie Henderson and Tom Harrell. During the ’70s he went on the road, touring with Barry White for a year, gigging with Merle Saunders and Art Blakey, and touring and recording with R&B group the Whispers for over a decade. Lewis played on many of the Whispers’ hit recordings, including three gold albums.

Returning to San Francisco in the 1980s, Lewis led a series of quintets featuring vocalists, including recording artist Micki Lynn, who was also featured on these dates. The Fillmore Street sessions have already provided enough material to release a full album of incredibly well-played instrumental jazz, and Sonoma Coast Records may be able to obtain the rights to release Micki Lynn’s set in the future.

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

Sonny Lewis’s quartet includes Percy Scott, a well-known Bay Area keyboardist for more than 30 years. Percy toured extensively with the Whispers, and appears playing next to Lewis on one of David Hardiman’s albums. Bassist Harley White Sr., an influential educator, has been prominent in Northern California for some time, recording with pianists Earl Hines, Ed Kelly and Jessica Williams, singer Margie Baker and many others. In addition, Harley worked with all-stars Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt. Drummer Paul Smith recorded with Sonny Simmons (Manhattan Egos, 1969), violinist Michael White, bassist Paul Brown and organist Gerry Richardson. 

All three of these fine musicians give Sonny Lewis strong support, with each of them taking concise and consistently worthy solos.

Jazz journalist and historian Scott Yanow is the author of 11 books, including Jazz on Record 1917-76. This article is adapted from his liner notes for Fillmore Street Live, which is available on Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and other major music outlets.