Nate Sloan

Banners proclaiming the Fillmore district “The Heart and Soul of San Francisco” hang from streetlights along Fillmore street. The banners feature an artistically blurred image of a trumpet, angled aloft by a shadowed pair of hands. The image and its sentiment tap into a notion of the Fillmore as a cultural epicenter of the city, fueled by the neighborhood’s history of jazz, blues, and a vibrant black community known as the “Harlem of the West.” That neighborhood was destroyed by urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s. The formation of the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District (FJPD) in 1995, a business coalition that used funds from San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency, sought at once to ameliorate these past injustices and to capitalize on the area’s cultural cache. Condos went up—standard in somewhat-shady redevelopment deals—but so did jazz clubs, most notably a San Francisco outpost of Oakland’s venerable Yoshi’s nightclub. The new Fillmore would be a destination for both city-dwellers and tourists, one whose appeal centered on jazz past and present.

Seventeen years on, the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District hasn’t seemed to fulfill its goals. The business coalition is being audited, an online petition was circulated last year to ensure musicians were adequately compensated, many establishments are closing their doors or being propped up by government loans, and Yoshi’s itself, the cornerstone of the new Fillmore jazz scene, only fills half of its April 2012 calendar with acts that can be considered “jazz.” Walking down the streets of this neighborhood, it doesn’t feel like the heart and soul of anything—just another generic gentrification project whose architectural model seems to have been an office park in the Topeka suburbs. This ethnographic study will explore the genesis of the conception that jazz can revitalize a neighborhood, its on-the-ground results in terms of a Fillmore “scene,” and the future of this unique urban experiment.

Synopsis of Findings

The musical effects of the Fillmore re-branding project are not easy to measure. Jazz is an art form that is decentralized and still largely “off-the-books,” though its institutionalization in the Bay Area through the SFJazz concert series (with a concert hall-cum-educational center under construction), the Berkeley Jazzschool, and, to a lesser extent, the Fillmore Jazz Heritage Center, might solidify the jazz community.

The Fillmore’s role in such a process seems minimal. As musicians relate, the district’s interest in promoting jazz seems more economic than cultural. Government grants and business-district funds go to beautification and advertising, but there are no financial incentives in place to actually attract and support local musicians. Subsidies for the people who actually make jazz, rather than for the idea of the music, seems to be the key if there is any hope for a sustainable jazz scene in the area.

Excerpt from an interview with Fred Berry, trumpeter and Stanford professor

“The music business has become so fragmented. You don’t really see…used to be I was playing in the theaters a lot. And also you know the type of work that does support musicians like for instance the theater work, the symphony, the ballet, the opera…once SF had three Broadway theaters, the Curran, the Golden Gate and the Orpheum. And I was fortunate to play in the theaters off and on for twenty years. Because now you’ve got musicians playing together for months at a time, six days a week, they’ve got places where they would hang out. You’d see jam sessions…for instance we used to play at a place called Harrington’s around the corner from the Golden Gate theatre and two blocks away from the musicians’ union. So we would go there after we got through…that’s where we would go to hang out. And, you know, periodically we’d just play for kicks. So those opportunities came as a result of the work, even though it wasn’t jazz work you were doing, that’s not so possible anymore. Now after people are done with a gig they’re going home, you know.”

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