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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.

A concert series in an Arts & Crafts treasure

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church by Laurie Passey

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Andrew Dodd lives nowhere near the neighborhood, but he’s brought something special to it. Dodd created the Second Sunday Concert Series at the Swedenborgian Church, at Washington and Lyon Streets, offering live music in the stunning 1895 Arts & Crafts-style church.

You live in Concord. How did you get involved with a small church more than 30 miles away?

After I got divorced, someone I dated in San Francisco showed it to me, and I couldn’t believe it. It’s more like a meetinghouse than a church — the original design didn’t even have a cross anywhere near the altar. Everyone who experiences it comes away amazed at its beauty and humility and simplicity and authenticity. I wanted more people to have that kind of experience.

It sounds more peaceful than religious.

The best way to explain it might be John Muir’s statement that, to him, a grove of redwoods was a cathedral. This church was conceived of and designed by a friend of his, Joseph Worcester, and it embodies in a very humble way that feeling of being in a natural, very intimate, personal place to explore one’s spirituality — much like Muir did in the wilds of California. You know, the trunks of madrone trees from the Santa Cruz mountains hold up the roof.

What about other Arts & Crafts elements, like the chairs?

The chairs were handmade by a friend of Worcester’s of hard maple with no screws or nails, just perfect craftsmanship. The rush-woven seats are from reeds in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The notion is that handmade things are imbued with the spirit of the maker. One of the prototypes of the chairs is in the Smithsonian collection.

So the idea of adding beautiful music to this beautiful place….

Yes, it seemed like a natural recipe for the experience I wanted. I came up with the idea because many people living in the neighborhood, with a National Historic Landmark right in their front yard, were not aware of it.

How do you select the performers?

I want to, as is often quoted in scripture, cast a wide net. Emanuel Swedenborg felt that all faiths are equally important in heaven, so all are valuable paths to the divine. And so many musicians are drawn to San Francisco because so many styles are appreciated here. I enjoy doing my own crossover. I find the musicians, negotiate the fees, schedule the shows and produce the advertising.

What’s your background?

I had a career in advertising for almost 30 years. I organized photo shoots, supervised copywriters and illustrators and designers. I was responsible for budgets and a year-long calendar. So I had all the tools I needed.

EARLIER: “The Arts & Crafts movement started here

The colors of jazz

By JASON OLAINE
Artistic Director, Fillmore Jazz Festival

What is the sound of jazz? And can jazz mean different things to different people, perhaps even different things to the same person?

Since its birth in New Orleans near the end of the 19th century, jazz was a hybrid: a mixed-up, beautiful child of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and South America. The self-described inventor of jazz, pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, said: “If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right ‘seasoning’ to call it jazz.”

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Music at the market

Budding musicians from the SFJazz High School All-Stars perform at the Fillmore market.

MIA SIMMANS, manager of the Fillmore Farmers Market since last May, is a true believer — both in farmers markets and in the music that makes the Fillmore market unique.

Her cred on both scores is impeccable: For the last seven years, she’s been both a vendor and musician at several of the farmers markets in the area. “It’s a great way for a musician to make a living,” she says. “You get to play during the day, and then go home and sleep in your own bed.”

In fact, two of the combos that regularly perform at the Fillmore market — the Dave Parker Sextet and the group now headed by Kenny Rhodes — have been playing at the Saturday morning market at Fillmore and O’Farrell for more than a decade.

But it can be a tough way to make a living. Most markets can’t pay musicians anywhere near what they’re worth. The mothership organization, the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, is a nonprofit and is typically strapped for funds. The Fillmore market currently pays nothing at all; musicians only pocket the tips from grateful listeners and passersby.

But Simmans is determined to change that. She takes inspiration from the pluck and perseverance of Tom Nichol, who founded and managed the Fillmore market for a dozen years until shortly before his death in 2015. The two were friends.

“Tom was able to raise money to pay the musicians from within the community,” Simmans says. “And I want to keep that going in his memory.”

With some help from market headquarters, Simmans recently applied for two grants, and at least one of them looks promising. “If we get that grant, we may be able to pay something — maybe $25 to each musician,” she says. “And if we get that second grant, well, then we could be talking about something real.”

Simmans still makes music, playing and singing under the stage name Mama Mia d’Bruzzi when she’s not out managing markets. She also manages the Castro and Alameda markets. “But the Fillmore is my favorite,” she confesses. “It’s got the music — and, really, some of the greatest vendors.”

Says she: “I really believe in the farmers. These are the guys sweating in the fields. And I really believe farmers markets are an important way to take back the country from the big corporations. It’s a peaceful revolution.”

A knack for the timpani

Photograph of San Francisco Symphony timpanist Ed Stephan by Kristen Loken

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Being the San Francisco Symphony’s principal timpanist is just one of the things keeping Ed Stephan busy these days. He’s also head of the percussion department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; on the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at Northwestern University in Chicago; and timpanist of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he’s spent much of the summer.

The Pacific Heights house he calls home is being sold, so he’s been looking for another place in the neighborhood.

And the symphony’s new season begins this month. Stephan is particularly looking forward to the Stravinsky Festival. The orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, will perform the composer’s Persephone and The Firebird from September 21 to 23; and his Violin Concerto, Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) from September 27 to 30.

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Kim Nalley comes home

Photograph of Tammy Hall and Kim Nalley by Dante Miguel

Q & A | KIM NALLEY

Jazz diva Kim Nalley and her band return as headliners at the Fillmore Jazz Festival again this year, appearing on Saturday, June 30, at 4:30 p.m. on the California Street stage.

It all started for you on Fillmore Street, right?

Yes. I was cleaning houses and I got a call from Chris Provo at Harry’s. They had listened to my cassette demo that had three tunes on it: Just Friends (bop jazz), Moonlight in Vermont (ballad) and Never Let Me Go (R&B ballad) They needed someone to work that night — and if it worked out I could have it weekly. They had a grand piano and the gig paid $300 for a quartet; my rent was $200 a month.

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Throwback to the ’90s

By JASON OLAINE
Artistic Director, Fillmore Jazz Festival

Throwback is a term usually used in a positive way to refer to a bygone era that conjured great memories, which is what this year’s Fillmore Jazz Festival means to conjure up — positive memories of a time when all seemed right with the world: the mid-1990s.

The Bay Area music scene 20-something years ago was a melting pot that no one had tasted before or since. It simmered with a seasoning so potent and spicy, so seductive and sweaty, that it influenced artists and music around the globe. The genres didn’t need to have names — although some people tried to define the music as acid jazz or hip-hop jazz or jazz fusion or jump/swing.

The important thing was that the bands and the artists had names. They became synonymous with the scene and defined who you were, what you did and when you did it. Thursdays were the new Fridays. Mondays could be a Saturday. A handful of local bands — many of which are playing this weekend — were the hottest tickets in town, the artists recognizable and famous, the music infectious and seductive.

It was a time when everyone was listening to and performing with everyone else. Retro jazz was being influenced by Latin groove music and vice versa; rappers were riffing with saxes and horns; straight ahead beboppers were playing funk at midnight. And it was all good, as they say. The nightclubs were booming and new music rooms were popping up all over town.  The cats would be out all night, running into each other, jamming with and sitting in with each other, forming new bands. You’d find them at familiar spots like Cafe du Nord or the Up and Down Club. They were upstairs at the Elbo Room, in the front of Enrico’s, in the back at Bruno’s, in the loft at Club 11, or on the patio at Jupiter — even at Yoshi’s living room-like venue on Claremont Avenue that played host to the first ever T. J. Kirk show with Charlie Hunter, Will Bernard, John Schott and Scott Amendola back in ’94.

It was the heyday for the Bay Area scene. And then, it vanished. The music never died; the scene just changed. The Bay Area still swings and grooves hard to this day, filled with amazing artists. We just want to tip our hats to that moment in time, that bygone era, that window in the past that was truly special and life-changing for many, on the stage and off.

So let’s enjoy some of the best of the best of that Throwback era. Let’s welcome them back as old friends. Just don’t call ’em old.

ENTERTAINMENT SCHEDULE

Spreading the gospel of jazz

Photograph of Jason Olaine at Yoshi’s on Fillmore by Kathi O’Leary

Q & A | JASON OLAINE

Jason Olaine returns to San Francisco to book the Fillmore Jazz Festival when he’s not booking Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.

You’re throwing us back this year to the 1990s — where were you back then?

Well, 1993 was really the beginning of what would be my professional life in jazz. Before applying to grad school or law school I thought I should at least look for a job in “jazz,” as if jazz music had jobs to offer.

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He has his own quartet

Michael Schwab’s four street banners celebrating the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

Q & A | MICHAEL SCHWAB

The poster for the 2018 Fillmore Jazz Festival is the fourth jazz image Michael Schwab has created for the Fillmore festival. All four now hang as banners on the street.

Are you a jazz fan?

Sure. I’m not an aficionado, but as a kid, back in southern Oklahoma, I remember hearing my dad playing cool jazz albums on the hi-fi in our living room — a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. In high school, I’ll never forget being introduced to Mose Allison: “You know a young man … ain’t nothin’ in this world these days.” Wow.

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It was the Dave Scott era on Fillmore

Dave Scott: “such an amazing, gentle and talented soul.”

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

The news was as mournful as the sound of taps in the distance. When word spread that widely beloved trumpeter-composer-teacher-bandleader Dave Len Scott was decamping from the Fillmore to be near his family in Arizona, there was no joy in jazzville.

But it’s true. For the first time in many years, Dave Scott will not be playing on Fillmore — nor anywhere else in San Francisco — on a regular basis.

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