Fillmore in the Seventies
by Faith Fjeld
Bebop, Ballads, AND Blues at Club Sanchez
"We need live Music for our souls. We need to listen together to feel connected to each other. And to play to live audiences helps us grow as musicians." Denise Perrier, San Francisco, May 1997
This is the story of life and death - and hopefully - rebirth.
On Sunday August 1, 1982 a memorial concert was held on Fillmore Street that drew musicians and jazz lovers from all over the Bay Area. Club Sanchez between Pine and Bush [where Cedanna now is] was the setting for that afternoon's "Tribute to Art Washington," a bassplayer, who at 49 had suffered a heart attack while he was playing the Music he loved. "All Blues" was his last song on this planet.
Art was a beloved figure on the Fillmore Street jazz scene and Sanchez was packed with people that Sunday who came to pay their respects. Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana of African-American and Choctaw heritage, his first taste of music was Gospel. He grew up in the Fillmore with jazz all around him. Fifteen clubs were within walking distance of the Victorian his large closely-knit family moved into when they came out West. As a teen he had raced home from Washington High School each night to listen to the latest Charlie Parker and Lester Young LPs with the other young black kids who would then copy on their own instruments what they heard. "At school we were told that European classical music was the only way to play," he'd tell me, "but 'Scrapple from the Apple' was what was really happenin. For me and my bass, Paul Chambers and 'Slam' Stewart was where it was at!" Art cut his musical teeth at Bop City, the famous Fillmore after-hours club. Then he lived to play his bass, gigging at all the clubs in and around the Fillmore. Places like Wesley Johnson's Texas Playhouse, Jackson's Nook, The Blue Mirror, and Jack's provided musicians like Art the chance to play bebop for the people.
But by the time of his death, all those clubs - even the few that survived between Sutter and Clay in the 70's - had vanished. He had played in the last house band at Jack's [between Bush and Pine] with drummer Richie Goldberg and saxophonist Pony Poindexter. He had played up the street at The Hideaway [between Sacramento and Clay] with pianist Jimmy Parker just before they cancelled their jazz policy. And he was often called on to back up vocalist Denise Perrier at the very place where has memorial was held. Club Sanchez was the lone survivor of the jazz clubs that once graced Fillmore Street. But it had stood silent and empty for almost month when he died, reopening one last time for Art's Tribute. When Vocalist Denise Perrier and club owner Julie Sanchez teamed up for one last time to organize the event, musicians from all over the Bay Area gathered to play in honor of their brother who had passed away. So the passing of a musician brought together a community that was truly threatened with extinction.
When I moved into the neighborhood in the early 1970's drawn by the presence of live jazz, Sanchez was the neighborhood Mexican deli and bar [where Osaka now is]. The Sanchez family owned the building. They made their own tortillas and killer guacamole, my two sons' favorite take-out food next to sandwiches from Kim's Market on the corner. "Let's go get some 'Sanchez'," they'd say.
The restaurant that the Sanchez family opened up next door, had a South-of-the-Border atmosphere that attracted a lively lunchtime crowd of Pacific Bell and United Way employees from Steiner Street; and later in the afternoon the cozy little bar up front would fill with boisterous regulars. A glance down the bar would reveal the stage crew and singers from the San Francisco Opera Company. "The people who came to my bar were from all over," Julie remembers. "Opera singers Gene Lawrence, and Robert Kirby from Poland, were regulars, and so was Colin Harvey."
I would often run into the seventy-something Colin on his twilight stroll to Sanchez wearing tweeds, muffler wrapped around his neck, greeting me in his British accent. "How're the boys?" he'd ask me. He had sung bass for more than fifty years. I also remember hearing about the foreign auto mechanics from around the corner on Pine Street who would come into Sanchez just to hear Domingo Diaz from the Dominican Republic (a professor at San Francisco State) recite impromptu poetry. Julie says Domingo would render Shakespeare's "To be or not to be" in many different languages: in German ("forceful"), in French ("beautiful"), and in Spanish it was ̉Ser o no ser eso es la pregunta'." "We had many Spanish-speaking visitors from Central and South America too. And Leonora Robinson would bring in her East Bay grade school classes to Sanchez on field trips and they'd stay for lunch. There were so many real characters in the crowd back then."
In the late 1970's, during the period when the neighborhood was changing drastically, Sanchez underwent a transformation too. Julie Sanchez (a San Francisco native with Guadelajara roots), and Denise Perrier (a transplanted New Yorker by way of Asia with New Orleans roots) joined forces. The two women put flowers and candles on the little tables, hung a mural on the wall behind the bar, hired a band, and the neighborhood's favorite Mexican take-out deli and hang-out bar became a night club. Ballads and blues sung by the classy golden-voiced Denise drifted nightly out of Sanchez to the accompaniment of laughter and applause. Denise remembers it as a place where she formed lifelong friendships. "A fan club was started and after twenty years they still come to hear me sing."
From the very start, the atmosphere attracted an international "salt and pepper" crowd. "Nice people came to listen to the Music They didn't get rowdy or fight," Julie remembers, "There was a regular with Swedish heritage who told me she'd get bored on her trips back home to Wisconsin because, as she put it, 'it was all blue-eyed blonds.' She told me she could hardly wait to get back to Sanchez! People started dressing up because it felt good. Limousines would drive up. Before, most of our customers had been from the neighborhood, but the Music brought people from all over, even socialites from New York. We were even broadcasted live on Doug Edwards' Audible Art Gallery on KPOO."
There were wonderful birthday and Hallowe'en parties. Saxophonist Sonny Lewis' wife Linda won first prize the first year, dressed as a peacock. The place was totally spontaneous: when someone would accidentally knock one of the Mexician tiles off the walls, "we would simply paint one in to replace it," Denise recalls. "One New Year's we had a party and decided to paint the floor. It hadn't quite dried yet, but we danced on it anyway."
It was a perfect setting for Denise to use her flare as an entertainer and her penchant for wearing great clothes. "We wanted to make this place feminine, with flowers, candles, tuxedos" she says. "Our maitre d' Frank Danis wore a white one and the musicians started wearing tuxes too." Her band included Jimmy Parker on piano, Eddie Adams on bass, and Jack Dorsey on drums, all survivors of the Fillmore jazz scene that was slipping away. The Hideaway (where Jimmy had played for almost 30 years) had cancelled their jazz policy, and Minnie's Can-Do (where Eddie and Jack had backed up David Alexander) was history. Club Sanchez gave them one last place to play on Fillmore Street.
When Sanchez closed ts doors there were no more places for jazz. The "Tribute to Art Washington" reminded us all that at one time musical events like Art's concert took place every single day and night. Like a family that has been separated we were all so happy to come together again that Sunday. The Spirit of Music united us one more time. But the next morning Sanchez again stood silent, filled with dirty napkins, empty glasses and memories.
Years later, Denise Perrier was to look back to the time when ballads, bebop and blues spiced up the neighborhood, "The gentrification of Fillmore Street wiped away the flavor. The new people didn't listen. They were into doing business and making money. They socialized while the performers were performing. We became background!"
Art Washington once told me, "If you don't keep the thing going, that means it's stopped." For the last eight years of his life he drove to his gigs in a big plum-colored 1966 Cadillac convertible, his bass in the backseat. He had a bumper sticker I'll never forget. "SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL JAZZ MUSICIANS" it said in blazing orange letters. Support your local jazz musicians! If we don't nobody will.
Thanks to Julie Sanchez and to Denise Perrier for trying to keep the Music alive on Fillmore Street. Denise performs at Mecca, 2029 Market St., San Francisco Tuesday evenings. Thanks to Doug Edwards whose program "Ear Thyme" is aired on KPFA Saturday nights from 11 to 1. Sonny Lewis will be playing Friday July 4th at Fillmore and O'Farrell from 6 to 8 pm. Thanks also to Frank Denis, Henry Kersh, Robbie Robinson, and Al ("the Shrink") Talkof for sharing their Club Sanchez memories.
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