San Francisco's Fillmore District, Willie Brown once said, "had to be the closest thing to Harlem outside of New York." The Fillmore was in its golden era when the future mayor, then a teenager, arrived in 1951 from segregated Mineola, Texas. The 20 blocks that constitute the heart of the Fillmore then bustled with commerce and culture. It was a vibrant African American community, renowned for its nightlife.
People from throughout the Bay Area and around the world came to clubs such as Bop City (1690 Post), Jack's Tavern (1931 Sutter), Elsie's Breakfast Nook (1739 Fillmore), the Blue Mirror (935 Fillmore), and the Booker T. Washington Hotel's cocktail lounge (1540 Fillmore) to see local attractions like Saunders King and Vernon Alley, as well as such national stars as Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Slim Gaillard, Art Tatum, T-Bone Walker, Roy Milton, and Ruth Brown. It was not uncommon for audience members to bump shoulders with Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Robert Mitchum, Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Dandridge, and other visiting celebrities. Saxophonist John Handy remembers jamming with John Coltrane at Bop City, then going around the corner to Jackson's Nook (1638 Buchanan) to share tea and conversation with the then-little-known musician, who was in town with Johnny Hodges's band.
"Coltrane was quiet," onetime Bop City house pianist Frank Jackson recalls over a plate of short ribs at 1300 on Fillmore, a new upscale soul food restaurant two doors down from the new Yoshi's San Francisco club. Willie Brown is dining a few tables away.
By the time Brown became mayor of San Francisco in 1996, the Fillmore was pretty much a ghost town and had been for some two and a half decades, the victim of a botched redevelopment plan. Small groups of aging African American men gathered on corners and in vacant lots that stretched for blocks, bringing folding chairs and tables to play dominos or poker.
In a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle about 20 years ago, an African American minister from the Fillmore who was opposing plans to revitalize the area's nightlife claimed there had never been much of a jazz scene in the area. But those old men, as well as many musicians from the Fillmore's heyday, knew better. Visual proof can be found in page after page of historic photographs collected by Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts in Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era (Chronicle, 2006). Many also fill several walls in 1300 on Fillmore's lounge. Some can be viewed in rotation on a screen above the bar and outside, on the Eddy Street side of the building, which also houses Yoshi's, the Jazz Heritage Center, and 80 condominiums.
THE HOOD HEATS UP
"The Fillmore was hot," says trumpeter Allen Smith, who moved there from Stockton in the late '40s. "You could hit two or three clubs in one block, each with a band. Racial prejudice was practically nonexistent. You gotta remember that blacks weren't even welcome on the east side of Van Ness Avenue but all the races could mix in the Fillmore. You could be out all hours of the night, partying with whomever you cared to, and you didn't have to worry about anybody mugging you or bothering you. It was just very cool." The 82-year-old musician who has played in the Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, and Gil Evans orchestras will perform as a member of the Frank Jackson Quintet on Dec. 3 at the new Yoshi's.
"There were a lot of after-hours clubs," says Jackson, also 82, a Texan who settled in the Fillmore with his family in 1942. "Bop City was about the most popular thing in this area. I was one of the house pianists. I would play different nights. We would all fill in for each other. If you got a better gig, you'd go and take it.