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Fillmore Jazz Festival celebrates 35 years

SAN FRANCISCO’S ICONIC Fillmore Jazz Festival returns for its 35th year on July 6 and 7, promising a vibrant weekend of music, arts and community spirit. Spanning Fillmore Street from Jackson to Eddy, this year’s festival is back at full strength, presenting an impressive lineup across five stages and showcasing the talents of 25 local and nationally known artists.

Music enthusiasts can enjoy performances at three outdoor stages located on Fillmore at the intersection of California, Sutter and Eddy streets. Indoor concerts at Calvary Presbyterian Church and Jones Memorial Methodist Church offer intimate settings for more music.

This year’s festival — which attracts more than 100,000 people to the street every Fourth of July weekend — kicks off with a special concert honoring three Bay Area musical legends. “Remembering Calvin Keys, Bobby Hutcherson & Joe Henderson” takes place on Saturday, July 6, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Sugar Pie DeSanto Sutter Stage. The stage is named for a favorite performer from Fillmore’s days at the Harlem of the West, the theme of this year’s festival.

Renowned vocalists Paula West and Kim Nalley headline the Saturday lineup on the Mary Stallings California Stage, named for another longtime local with an international following. The Sunday lineup is a triple treat, with The Dynamic Miss Faye Carrol, Kenny Washington and Fillmore’s own Kim Nalley all performing. 

For a complete lineup of performances and more details, go to fillmorejazzfest.com.

Calvary’s choir on a European tour

Members of the choir before the tomb of William the Conqueror in Caen, France.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Members of Calvary Presbyterian Church’s choir are on a two-week tour of Europe, taking the high-level musicianship of the Fillmore Street church to historic sites in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The choir joined singers from other choirs in commemorating the 80th anniversary of D-Day in the Normandy region of northwestern France. On Monday night they performed Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, written just after the end of World War II, at the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, the burial place of William the Conqueror, in Caen, France. Earlier they toured Omaha Beach and the hedgerows of Pointe du Hoc and sang America the Beautiful at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

“It felt sacred in all the right ways,” said Calvary pastor Marcie Glass.

Under the leadership of Calvary’s music director, Michael Conley, the choir will perform on Wednesday in Beauvais, France, and then on to Ghent and Antwerp, Belgium, over the weekend. They will conclude with a concert on June 25 in Amsterdam.

This is not the Calvary choir’s first European tour. Three decades ago, longtime music director Alden Gilchrist led the choir on a similar tour.

“A meaningful, memorable day touring the beaches of Normandy,” said Michael Conley.
At the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

The murals at Jimbo’s

Harry Smith with one of his murals at Jimbo’s Bop City, circa 1950.

IT’S NOT EVERY DAY that a photo from the neighborhood is published in The New York Times. But today is that day. Alongside a review of Cosmic Scholar, a new biography of anthropologist/artist/filmmaker/mystic/music collector Harry Smith, is a photograph of Smith before one of the murals in the legendary Fillmore jazz club Jimbo’s Bop City.

Wikipedia confirmed: “The painter and filmmaker Harry Everett Smith painted the walls with abstract motifs and created a light show that ran to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.” The entry added: “Admission was only $1, and musicians came in for free, but Jimbo Edwards always chose who he let in and who he did not: “We don’t allow no squares in Bop City. If you don’t understand what we doin’, then leave and don’t come back.”

MORE: The Art of Harry Smith at the Whitney

Coming soon: wine, a woman, and song

Victoria Wasserman is bringing wine and music to 1870 Fillmore.

NEW NEIGHBORS | CHASE ROBERTS

There will be no jazz festival on Fillmore this Fourth of July weekend, but Victoria Wasserman is determined to bring music back to one block of the street. Wasserman is opening Vic’s Winehouse at 1870 Fillmore and turning the Wine Jar into a wine bar with music.

“I was devastated to see all the closures on Fillmore Street,” Wasserman says, “and given its rich history of music and culture, I decided it was time to fulfill my lifelong dream of opening my own bar.” 

The new name, Vic’s Winehouse, has a double meaning. Not only will there be locally sourced wines not found in stores. The name also reflects Wasserman’s love for the late singer Amy Winehouse, and her music — jazz, R&B, blues and hip hop — will set the theme for the bar.

Wasserman previously led an eight-piece Amy Winehouse tribute band, “The Back to Black Band,” which played at the Blue Note in Napa and other venues. Wasserman sings and plays the ukulele, and her husband, Jacinto Castaneda, sings and plays bass and guitar. Both are rooted in the Bay Area music scene.

Most of the wines will be from small family-owned wineries in the Russian River, Sonoma, Lodi and Paso Robles. Happy hour specials will be offered daily from 3 to 6 p.m. Flights will be offered from Argentina and from Balletto Vineyards, a family-owned winery in the Russian River Valley that grows its own grapes on what was once the largest vegetable farm in Northern California.

Vic’s will also offer Argentine empanadas handmade and baked locally by Nuchal Empanadas, a family-run business in San Francisco. Brunch will feature its quiche and frittatas.

Wasserman says a familial and community spirit will be at the heart of her new venture, and that she hopes to create “a neighborhood place for gatherings and community events such as art exhibits and CD releases.”

Updates on the opening and the offerings are on the Vic’s Winehouse website.

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?

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…)

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