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 Each book is designed as a historical document recorded mostly via pictures: in essence, a lengthy photo essay.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.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Santana connection

Carlos Santana is known to have jammed with Guaraldi during at least one public concert: on October 7, 1972, during a benefit at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. Santana acknowledges this on his own website, without giving any other specifics about the gig. And while the entire event apparently was broadcast by a local radio station, only a few short fragments have survived, as I discussed in a previous post.

I've been reminded of this Santana/Guaraldi connection by the recent arrival of the former's autobiography: The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light, published on November 4, 2014. Curiosity prompted a perusal of this volume, to see whether Santana chose to discuss Guaraldi to any degree. The answer is yes, and while the citations are brief, they're certainly respectful.

The first occurs as Santana looks back on the summer of 1963, when he's "almost 16":

Carlos Santana, circa the mid-1960s
San Francisco was like that jukebox [at the Tic Tock Drive In, at Third and King, where Santana "began his career as a dishwasher"]. Actually, San Francisco was a jukebox. The Mission was full of nightclubs, and I had friends there who had stereos. And San Francisco in general had lots of clubs and radio stations playing a variety of styles. KSOL — "Kay-Soul" — was one of the city's black stations. That's where Sly Stone started as a DJ. "Hey, you groovy cats..." He had his own thing that early. I heard a wild jazz organ on KSOL late at night — someone named Chris Colombo doing "Summertime" and just killing it. KSOL introduced me to Wes Montgomery, Bola Sete, Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Smith. They played Vince Guaraldi a lot. ... Basically, the city was a cornucopia of music — more than I had ever expected. I started hearing about clubs I would later try to sneak into — like the Jazz Workshop, all the way down Van Ness and over on Broadway, near the North Beach area. Just a few doors down was El Matador, where I would hear Cal Tjader and Vince Guaraldi for the first time, and later Gábor Szabó. El Matador was where I heard the amazing Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete for the first and only time.

The next mention comes a bit later, in late 1965:

That fall, I met Michael Carabello for the first time. He was a friend of Yvonne's [Christian] and would have been at Mission High except that his baseball skills got him into San Francisco Polytechnic. He remained close with his friends in the Mission, where he lived. Carabello had gotten hooked on music when he played congas in these informal jam sessions at Aquatic Park, very close to North Beach, and had even sat in once with Vince Guaraldi.

And, finally, a few more years along, in May 1969:

We weren't the only band getting it together [at San Mateo's Pacific Recording Studio] at that time — Vince Guaraldi was rehearsing there, too. At one point, he came over to our room and said, "I got to tell you, man, I was listening to your music, and I can tell the direction you guys are going — you guys are going to be big, man. Big." That was an amazing confirmation of what we felt. I used to see Guaraldi a lot, because we played in a lot of the same benefits. I also saw him play at an outdoor show at Stern Grove with his trio, and Bola Sete and John Handy were on the bill, too. It was my first love-in, and everyone was smoking weed, but the music was amazing. It felt like Guaraldi stepping in and giving his approval helped turn things around.

That Stern Grove show likely would have been one of Guaraldi's many appearances at the annual summer "Jazz in Stern Grove Musical Festival," probably in 1966 or '68 (since both those shows also featured John Handy's combo).

Guaraldi clearly was one of the smaller ships passing in the wake of Santana's blossoming career, and yet the latter's acknowledgment obviously is sincere, even grateful. Guaraldi rarely gets any sort of mention in jazz biographies or overviews, so it's double nice to see this shout-out by an icon from an entirely different portion of the music world.