How a historic jazz district is keeping music and culture alive
San Francisco’s Fillmore District was once home to a thriving jazz scene and vibrant black community.
KALW listener Art Persyko asked Hey Area, our collaborative reporting project between our reporters and our listeners, about the rich jazz history and heritage of the Fillmore. The area was known for having the largest jazz scene on the west coast up 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 2 to fill shipyard jobs in the Bay Area. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans in the Fillmore were forcibly removed and incarcerated, leaving property behind. As the Black community grew, Fillmore street became lined with jazz clubs and thriving Black-owned businesses. The area was a destination for jazz performers and the district gained a reputation as The Harlem of the West.
People moved from all over the country to get in on the action. Tulsa, Oklahoma native Darlene Roberts arrived in the Fillmore in 1965. She landed in a vibrant black community.
Roberts remembers, “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 about jazz, you just think about the music. Well, this was more than music. This was an environment. This was the jazz environment. The sidestreets had a little gambling, a little of all this other stuff, but there were legitimate businesses that were black owned. There were people that had the best barbecue, you could smell it when you walked down the street. Then the music was coming out of the pool halls and everybody knew everybody. Oh, it was heaven.”
The jazz clubs were a keystone of the culture, community and economy in the Fillmore. But Roberts only got to experience this thrill for a short time. During the 1950s and 60s, the federal government gave out billions of dollars for cities to knock down neighborhoods considered “blighted.” They called it urban renewal and promised “model cities” could emerge. But the language was racially coded. In the late 1960s, the Fillmore became a target of this urban renewal. Roberts says she remembers when the man from the redevelopment agency showed up.
“He came out to the Fillmore and brought bulldozers and bulldozed 22 blocks,” Roberts says.
She later learned this didn’t only happen in San Francisco. Urban renewal projects leveled communities in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and elsewhere– disproportionately affecting people of color.
“It happened across the country. Model cities did not include black people, it excluded black people. It was for the elite,” Roberts explains.
Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. When urban renewal came to the Fillmore, tens of thousands of Black residents and business owners were forcibly removed as demolition began. By the 1970’s, the Harlem of the West was no more.
Despite the community being ripped apart, the music lived on. Musicians dispersed all over the bay and kept the jazz traditions alive by holding jam sessions. During these sessions, students played along to jazz standards and got called up to improvise. Local jazz saxophonist Robert Stewart attended jam sessions in the 1980s, where many big name musicians nurtured him to find his unique sound on the horn.
“So there was a guy named Pony Poindexter, saxophonist,” Stewart remembers. “He used to play with Charlie Parker. And then there was a guy named Tricky Lofton, trombonist with Duke Ellington's band, and Pharoah Sanders, of course, saxophonist who played with John Coltrane. So many of the elders were there and they helped me to learn really fast. They would give me pointers and say, ‘Young man do this this way or go listen to so and so.’”
The community fostered in jam sessions kept jazz alive the 1980s and 90s. In the early 2000s, the city revitalized the historic Fillmore district – partnering with the East Bay venue Yoshi’s– to bring jazz back to the area. In this era, it was Ethiopian American entrepreneurs who helped carry the torch of the jazz tradition. Rassela’s Jazz Club and Sheba Piano Lounge opened, both doubling as Ethiopian restaurants. The scene thrived for a short time but it was hard for clubs to afford to stay open. Today, Sheba’s is the last standing jazz club in the Fillmore. Netsanet Alemayehu owns and runs the club with her sister Israel.
“We are here seven nights a week,” Alemayehu says. “Sometimes we don't even pay ourselves. We pay our employees, but the rent in San Francisco is not that easy, it’s expensive. But whatever we have, we pay the musicians, whether we have one customer or a full house.”
Over time, Alemayehu has built strong relationships with local musicians. She sees a natural connection between serving Ethiopian food alongside American Jazz because the music traces its roots back to Africa. Locals appreciate that she has kept the neighborhood jazz community alive in the Fillmore.
“A lot of neighborhood people, older people when they come here, they know this is the only place and they feel comfortable,” Alemayehu explains.
Part of the comfort is being in the neighborhood, another part is seeing local musicians at an affordable price. Sheba’s does not charge a cover to see live music. Fans and musicians alike are excited for an option they can afford in a city where they are increasingly priced out.
Saxophonist Robert Stewart describes, “When I was growing up, you could hear Max Roach, drummer, or Dizzie Gillespie, all these guys at the old Yoshi’s, say for like, eight dollars, you know, maybe ten. Now you have to pay $60-70 a head to get in. That's what really changed. People are just like, ‘Hey, I just can't go hear jazz anymore. It costs too much.’”
Stewart says venues like SF Jazz are prohibitively expensive for the locals who used to frequent neighborhood venues. As life in the Bay has become so expensive, the jazz community he remembers has disappeared.
“It was all about community,” Stewart explains. “That's what Jazz was about. I mean, everyone knew everyone at the jam sessions, and they knew your parents, you know, it was a whole community effort. That's gone now.”
Stewart wants the legacy of jazz to be recognized and for the music to be preserved as an artform.
“Basically, it’s the African American contribution to America because it is America's classical music,” says Stewart. “That's what pretty much all the older cats, you know, saw it as, because it was, you know, formed right here. It wasn't from Europe, or anywhere else, Asia, from right here and in the United States.”
Steady groups of people have been working to preserve the black community and jazz history in the Fillmore. They’ve been frustrated that the city-owned Fillmore Heritage Center – a huge building meant to be 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 liberty, our music, our history, our song,” says Roberts. “So if you think of it, it's a metaphor for us. It's all of our music. And it started with the drum. It's all the way to hip hop, the blues, rock and roll, all of that was ours.”
Jazz is a music that emerged out of America’s brutal system of chattel slavery and its legacy. African religious and cultural traditions influenced the songs that enslaved people passed down through generations. 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 went along all those areas, during that time, there was history being made. The history being made, is represented by the music that's being played. There's a lesson there, and people can learn those lessons as you go along.”
Jazz evolved in tandem with black history. The lessons embedded in the music’s history are part of a story that is not yet finished. 50 years ago, it was the city’s redevelopment agency that destroyed the Fillmore’s thriving jazz community, robbing black San Franciscans of their homes, property and businesses. The city’s destruction of the neighborhood has had major lasting economic impacts.
Now, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors hopes to repair some of the harm done to black residents. The African American Reparations Advisory Committee will guide the local government to address issues like housing and education inequity, discrimination and food insecurity. The committee’s most recent report found what happened in the Fillmore in the 1960’s and 70’s directly hurt black residents' opportunities to create generational wealth. A final plan – with proposed reparations for black San Franciscans – is set to come out next summer.