San Francisco’s largest jazz club

For 14 dark and glorious years, one of America’s greatest jazz clubs stood in San Francisco, on the northeast corner of Turk and Hyde. Back then, this Tenderloin intersection wasn’t as downtrodden as it is today, but the club was, not to stress too much, a dumping ground. It was slippery, unheated, dimly lit, poorly furnished, and reeked of the petrified smoke of a million cigarettes. When singer and pianist Martha Davis showed up for rehearsal one afternoon, one of the pigeons roosting in a hole in the wall flew straight at the piano. “In broad daylight,” wrote Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason, “it’s absolutely disgusting.” As owner Guido Caccentii said, “I worked and worked for years to keep this place a sewer.”

Yet between 1949 and 1963, when the seedy club closed, some of the most extraordinary jazz ever created was played within its decrepit walls. Most of the great jazz musicians of that era, the golden age of modern jazz, appeared there: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, André Previn, George Shearing, etc. The careers of notable players such as Gerry Mulligan and Cal Tjader were launched there. Even the legendary Art Tatum played there. It’s no coincidence that club life coincided with the “Baghdad-by-the-Bay” years celebrated by columnist Herb Caen, when San Francisco nightlife was at its most sophisticated and glamorous.

The club was called the Blackhawk, and we will never see it again.

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The Blackhawk was opened by Caccenti and Johnny Noga in 1949, replacing an old bar called the Stork. Noga’s brother, Teddy, played clarinet in a novelty lounge trio called the Eastmen, who provided the music for the club. After the Eastmen left, Caccenti and Noga, who knew nothing about music, booked several jazz numbers, which bombed. The partners reportedly avoided jazz afterward, but a local DJ named Jimmy Lyons persuaded them to book an unknown young pianist from Concord named Dave Brubeck. After the Brubeck trio’s first night, Caccentiti was about to fire Brubeck, but Lyons promoted him relentlessly, and when the two-week engagement ended, business was so good that they kept the trio, and the Blackhawk remained a jazz club for good. Brubeck drummer Cal Tjader quickly transitioned to vibes; his group, which played its first gig at the Hawk, pioneered what has come to be known as Latin jazz.

Johnny Noga and his wife, Helen, left after Helen became Johnny Mathis’ manager. Caccenti and his wife, Elynore, continued to run the joint, Elynore working the cash register and Caccenti entertaining customers and musicians with his hilarious English. Admission was $1 and no reservations were taken.

The Blackhawk was famous for its unique teenage section, a part of the bar separated from the rest by chicken wire where only soft drinks were sold, allowing high school and college kids to see jazz. The screened-in section was popular, but in early 1961 Mayor George Christopher ordered the police to shut it down, saying it was dangerous for young people’s morals to hang out in a jazz club. The club’s owners, including Fantasy Records owner Max Weiss and his brother George, fought back and the public sided with the club, mocking Christopher as a “square”. The press splashed brouhaha all over the front pages, and Ralph Gleason invited The Chronicle readers to enter a poetry contest about the case. The winning entry mockingly warned Christopher “Risk your fine fuzz, drinking / As they sit there and dig the Cal Tjader vibe. / Oh, I’m warning you, dear mayor, and that’s is the truth / Vile jazz corrupts the brass and our youth.

Christopher doubled down, saying sadly, “A girl is going to get raped in the parking lot next door, and who will be blamed? Me and the chief of police. But the mayor’s moral crusade fizzled and the gated section was reopened.

Over the years, the Blackhawk has earned a reputation as one of the best jazz clubs in the world and has attracted visitors from all over the world. As Gleason wrote, “Its hard chairs and tiny tables have hosted Russian sailors, British poets, Japanese jazz musicians, Cuban patriots, boxing champions, baseball stars, professional All-League football, social leaders, politicians and just about any hard-core jazz fan capable of making the trip to San Francisco.A cross section of the most incredible of American society found themselves at inside this oblong, dimly lit seating area with music.

Gleason attributed the Blackhawk’s success to its democratic ethos: “The Blackhawk treats all patrons and all musicians equally. The Opera House’s tie-and-tails white crowd… queuing with the taxi driver and the San Francisco State kids” – its superb acoustics (so good the Modern Jazz Quartet played the club without microphones ) and the fact that the owners left the bands alone.”If ever a club was dedicated to music alone, it’s the Blackhawk,” Gleason wrote in his liner notes for one of the two classic live albums that Miles Davis recorded at the club in April 1961, “Friday night: Miles Davis in Person at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, vol. 1.” “Surely, no sane person goes there for any other reason.”

The Blackhawk was also part of the first wave of jazz clubs featuring black musicians that opened downtown rather than the Fillmore, where a vibrant jazz scene had flourished since the early 1940s. the late 1940s, most African-American musicians were not allowed to play east of Van Ness, and the musicians’ union was separated until 1960. In 1948, pioneer clubs downtown featuring black musicians, including Ciro’s on Geary, Blanco’s on O’Farrell and the Say When on Bush opened, followed the following year by the Blackhawk.

It was fitting that Dave Brubeck, who put the Blackhawk on the map, was one of the most vocal opponents of segregation in jazz. After hiring black bassist Eugene Wright in 1958, many venues, most but not all in the South, told Brubeck he could not play if Wright appeared. Brubeck refused to play in such halls. In a heartbreaking interview in Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’, the great pianist cried when he recalled his father taking him as a child to meet an old black cowboy who, as a slave, had been branded on his chest.

The Blackhawk was the oldest continuously operating jazz club on the West Coast and one of the oldest in the country. But changing musical tastes, the club scene moving to North Beach, and disagreements among owners led to its demise. On Sunday, July 21, 1963, the Blackhawk held its final show, featuring Tjader’s band, John Handy and others. After the band played the last song, an older jazz fan who claimed to have spent half the last 10 years at the club said, “I can’t believe this is really happening.” Tjader, who previously gave a moving speech announcing the latest track, Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” said, “Me neither. I just can’t believe we won’t be back Tuesday night.”

Caccenti, with tears in his eyes, came out from behind the bar and said, “Well, it’s been a long time, I’ll say it. And there’ll never be nuttin’ like that again. Had to take the special nuts that made this place.

Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” His most recent book is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City”. All Portals of the Past material is original to The San Francisco Chronicle. To read previous portals from the past, go to www.sfchronicle.com/portals.

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