How a Historic Jazz District Brings Music and Culture to Life
San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood was once home to a thriving jazz scene and a vibrant black community.
KALW listener Art Persyko interviewed Hey Area, our collaborative reporting project between our journalists and listeners, about the Fillmore’s rich jazz history and heritage. The area was known for having the biggest jazz scene on the West Coast until its decline in the 1970s. Art wants to know, what happened?
the history of jazz in the Fillmore dates back to the 1940s and 50s. Many African American workers moved to the Fillmore during World War II to take jobs in the Bay Area shipyards. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans in the Fillmore were forcibly removed and incarcerated, leaving behind property. As the black community grew, Fillmore Street became lined with jazz clubs and thriving black-owned businesses. The area was a destination for jazz artists and the neighborhood gained a reputation for West Harlem.
People came from all over the country to take part in the action. Darlene Roberts, originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, arrived in the Fillmore in 1965. She landed in a vibrant black community.
Roberts recalls, “If you had a car, the best thing to do is walk because your car would take you an hour to go black. When you think of jazz, you only think of music. Well, it was more than music. It was an environment. It was the jazz environment. There was a bit of gambling on the side streets, a bit of all that other stuff, but there were legitimate black-owned businesses. There were people who had the best barbecue, it felt when you walked down the street. Then the music came out of the billiard rooms and everyone knew each other. Oh, it was heaven.
Jazz clubs were the backbone of the Fillmore’s culture, community, and economy. But Roberts was only able to feel that thrill for a short time. During the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government gave billions of dollars to cities to tear down neighborhoods considered “run down.” They called it urban renewal and promised that “model cities” could emerge. But the language was racially coded. At the end of the 1960s, the Fillmore became the target of this urban renewal. Roberts says she remembers when the man from the redevelopment agency showed up.
“He came to the Fillmore and brought bulldozers and bulldozed 22 blocks,” Roberts says.
She later learned that it didn’t just happen in San Francisco. Urban renewal projects have leveled communities in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and elsewhere, disproportionately affecting people of color.
“It happened all over the country. The model cities didn’t include black people, they excluded black people. It was for the elite,” Roberts explains.
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. When urban renewal came to the Fillmore, tens of thousands of black residents and business owners were forcibly evicted as the demolition began. By the 1970s, West Harlem was no more.
Although the community was torn apart, the music survived. The musicians scattered throughout the bay and carried on the traditions of jazz by organizing jam sessions. During these sessions, the students played on jazz standards and were called upon to improvise. Local jazz saxophonist Robert Stuart attended jam sessions in the 1980s, where many big-name musicians encouraged him to find his unique horn sound.
“So there was a guy named Pony Poindexter, saxophonist,” recalls Stewart. “He was playing with Charlie Parker. And then there was a guy named Tricky Lofton, trombonist in Duke Ellington’s band, and Pharoah Sanders, of course, saxophonist who played with John Coltrane. So many elders were there and they helped me learn really fast. They would give me directions and say, ‘Young man, do this or go listen to this or that.’ »
The community fostered by jam sessions kept jazz alive in the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 2000s, the city revitalized the historic Fillmore neighborhood – in partnership with East Bay’s Yoshi’s venue – to bring back the jazz in the area. At that time, it was Ethiopian American entrepreneurs who helped carry the torch of jazz tradition. Rassela’s Jazz Club and Sheba Piano Lounge opened, both serving as Ethiopian restaurants. The scene flourished for a short time, but it was hard for clubs to afford to stay open. Today, Sheba’s is the last surviving jazz club in the Fillmore. Netsanet Alemayehu owns and runs the club with his sister Israel.
“We are here seven nights out of seven,” says Alemayehu. “Sometimes we don’t even pay ourselves. We pay our employees, but rent in San Francisco isn’t that easy, it’s expensive. But whatever we have, we pay the musicians, whether we have a client or a full house.
Over time, Alemayehu has built strong relationships with local musicians. She sees a natural connection between serving Ethiopian cuisine alongside American jazz because the music finds its roots in Africa. Locals appreciate that she has kept the neighborhood jazz community alive in the Fillmore.
“A lot of people from the neighborhood, old people when they come here, they know it’s the only place and they feel comfortable,” says Alemayehu.
Part of the convenience is being in the neighborhood, another part is seeing local musicians at an affordable price. Sheba’s does not charge for coverage to view live music. Fans and musicians alike are thrilled with an option they can afford in a city where they are increasingly expensive.
Saxophonist Robert Stewart describes, “When I was growing up, you could hear Max Roach, the drummer, or Dizzie Gillespie, all those old Yoshi guys, say for eight bucks, you know, maybe ten. Now you have to pay $60-70 per person to get in. That’s what really changed. People are like, ‘Hey, I can’t listen to jazz anymore. It’s expensive.'”
Stewart says venues like SF Jazz are prohibitively expensive for locals who frequented neighborhood venues. As life in the Bay became so expensive, the jazz community he remembers disappeared.
“It was all about community,” says Stewart. “That’s what Jazz was. I mean, everybody knew everybody at the jam sessions, and they knew your parents, you know, it was a whole community effort. It’s gone now.
Stewart wants the legacy of jazz to be recognized and the music to be preserved as an art form.
“Basically, it’s the African-American contribution to America because it’s American classical music,” Stewart says. “That’s how almost all the older cats, you know, saw him, because he was, you know, trained right here. It wasn’t from Europe, or anywhere, from Asia, from here and from the United States.
Regular groups of people have worked to preserve the black community and jazz history in the Fillmore. They were frustrated that the city owned Fillmore Heritage Center – a huge building intended as an event venue – has been vacant for years. Darlene Roberts is committed to keeping the Fillmore the vibrant black community it once was. She founded the Fillmore Jazz Ambassadors – a group that organizes free events to bring the black community together around music.
“Jazz means freedom, our music, our history, our song,” says Roberts. “So if you think about it, it’s a metaphor for us. It’s all our music. And it started with the drum. It’s down to hip hop, blues, rock and roll, it was all ours.
Jazz is music that emerged from America’s brutal system of chattel slavery and its legacy. African religious and cultural traditions influenced the songs that slaves passed down from generation to generation. Roberts thinks we have a lot to learn from the history and creation of jazz.
She says, “If you look at the development of jazz and how it happened in all these areas, at that time history was written. History in the making is represented by the music that is played. There is a lesson there, and people can learn those lessons as they go.
Jazz has evolved in tandem with black history. The lessons embedded in music history are part of a story that is not yet complete. 50 years ago, it was the city’s redevelopment agency that destroyed Fillmore’s thriving jazz community, stripping black San Franciscans of their homes, properties and businesses. The city’s destruction of the neighborhood had major and lasting economic impacts.
Now the San Francisco Board of Supervisors hopes to undo some of the harm done to black residents. The African American Reparations Advisory Committee guide local government to address issues such as housing and education inequality, discrimination and food insecurity. The plus of the committee recent report found that what happened in the Fillmore in the 1960s and 1970s directly harmed opportunities for black residents to build generational wealth. A final plan — with proposed reparations for black San Franciscans — is expected to come out next summer.