Sunday, January 25, 2015

A century of San Francisco

By name, Arcadia Publishing may not ring a bell, but you've likely seen their books; you may even own a few. They're best known for the uniformly sized (6.5-by-9 inches) softcover "Images of America" series that showcases towns and cities throughout the United States. Each book is designed as a historical document recorded mostly via pictures: in essence, a lengthy photo essay. Chapters open with brief text introductions, mostly to set the stage for a fascinating collection of vintage photographs, all accompanied by lengthy captions.

I've done well by Arcadia, in my personal life; there's a volume devoted to the Southern California region where I grew up (Palos Verdes Estates), and two that cover the Northern California university city where I've lived since obtaining my college degree (Davis, California: 1910s-1940s and Davis: Radical Changes, Deep Constants).

But the series isn't devoted solely to municipalities per se; many titles focus on sports, lifestyle and other topics that are equally fascinating to observe, through the lens of vintage photographers ... everything from architecture to amusement parks, natural disasters (floods and earthquakes) to natural wonders (rivers and mountain ranges).

And music. Including, for our purposes, jazz.

Arcadia's backlist features a respectable assortment of jazz-themed titles, from Detroit: Ragtime and the Jazz Age to New York City Jazz. I'm here to praise the newest arrival in that sub-category: San Francisco Jazz, which just hit bookstores on January 5.

You absolutely must add this to your library.

Author Medea Isphording Bern has gifted us with a loving tribute to the Northern California jazz scene, starting with the upstart prologue around the turn of the 20th century — ragtime and the bawdy Barbary Coast — that essentially vanished in the wake of Prohibition. The bulk of the book is devoted to jazz's post-WWII resurgence, and the scores of clubs — and musicians — that turned San Francisco into a Mecca in the 1950s and early '60s.

The photos are captivating and illuminating, at times amusing and even poignant. They're all wonderful shots, each one telling a story, conveying a mood, or capturing a performer at a particularly electrifying moment. At times, I could almost hear music echoing from the pages.

Bern divides her study into eight roughly chronological chapters that chart regions, artists and venues: from "In the Beginning" and "The Fillmore Years" to "The Turk Murphy Era" and "Dave Brubeck and the Birth of West Coast Cool." Another chapter focuses exclusively on "Jazz Women of San Francisco," which gives the long under-appreciated ladies a well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

The 185 photos come from a variety of sources: the Library of Congress, the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation, Stanford University's Archive of Recorded Sound, various private collections and professional photographers such as Harley Bruce, Brian McMillen and Jerry Stoll.

Photo courtesy of Marianne Kent
Additional ephemera is sprinkled among the photographs: newspaper display ads, concert and club tickets, LP labels.

It's hard to select favorites, because every photograph rewards close scrutiny. I laughed out loud at the matching zebra-striped shirts worn by the Pole Cats septet, in a 1950 shot; I'm enchanted by the image of Eubie Blake at the piano in Earthquake McGoon's, with Turk Murphy visible in the audience; you've gotta love the expression on the venerable Arthur Fiedler's face, as jazz chanteuse Marianne Kent teaches him to dance the twist at Bimbo's 365; and one can't help sighing over Harley Bruce's forlorn photo of the bland Tenderloin District parking lot that occupies the corner once home to the Blackhawk.

I know you're wondering, so yes, Guaraldi is mentioned a few times within these 128 pages ... but, alas, not pictured. That shouldn't be viewed as a sign of disrespect; Guaraldi is in phenomenal company, in terms of the many, many jazz icons who aren't shown. It would have been impossible to include them all, and also beside the point; Bern has deftly depicted the evolution of a music genre in a rapidly expanding city, and a "laundry list" approach to the photographs would have been distracting, even counter-productive.

That said, it does seem unfair that the Brubeck/West Coast Cool chapter is the book's shortest, at a mere six pages, and with a scant four photographs. But, then, I'm obviously biased...

Seriously, though, the book does have one significant failing, which absolutely isn't Bern's fault. Arcadia apparently doesn't believe in the index; their books never have one. That's quite irritating. Want to quickly find every photo of, say, George Murphy "Pops" Foster? Can't be done. You have to look through the entire book, page by page. I can't fathom why Arcadia behaves thusly; it wouldn't be that difficult to include an index, which probably would fill no more than two or three additional pages.


Photo courtesy ot Brian McMillen
Bern has resided in the San Francisco Bay Area for a quarter-century, during which time she has lived and breathed jazz, blues, funk, gospel and alternative music in venues as varied as The Independent and Davies Symphony Hall. Her work has appeared in print and online, and current projects include a collection of essays about growing up in her home town of Venice, Florida.

She also served on the board for several years at the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, the wonderfully eclectic performance venue in nearby Miramar, where she had the ear of owner Pete Douglas as a sort of unofficial advisor. No surprise, then, that her book's final chapter is devoted to the Bach, and enriched by Brian McMillen's marvelous performance photos of icons such as Art Blakey, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson and several more of the many, many jazz cats who graced the venue's intimate, laid-back setting. Douglas died only a few months ago — as I discussed, in a previous post — and the Bach's fate still remains uncertain.

What is certain, however, is the enjoyment you'll get from each and every page in this book. It's clearly a labor of love, and a thoroughly engaging romp through a century of "jass" at Baghdad-by-the-Bay.


Doug said...

Many thanks for this helpful review of an enticing book that would otherwise have escaped my notice! The intro and several pages available for viewing using Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature have further sold me on a prompt purchase! Are there any/many photos (either interior or exterior) of some of the mid-Century venues that Vince performed at?

Derrick Bang said...

Certainly, although some of the interior performance photos don't reveal much beyond the dark, smoke-filled shoebox look that characterized many of them. That said, the penultimate chapter is titled "San Francisco's Jazz Clubs," and it has quite a few nifty shots of the Tin Angel, Keystone Korner and even the Blackhawk.