Jazzed up

San Francisco's Fillmore district swings again

Amy McConnell

Fillmore finds

When Paula West and Kim Nalley work the crowds into a frenzy for this year's Fillmore Jazz Festival, they'll be honoring a tradition that dates back decades. "All the great jazz musicians used to play at clubs along Fillmore," says Carl Williams, an attorney and longtime Fillmore resident. "It was the center of African American nightlife."

The glory days of the Fillmore jazz scene faded for a while. But now, as you can see ― and hear ― this month, the neighborhood is back in the groove.

"I can feel the energy"

Centered where its namesake street intersects Post Street, the Fillmore district is buzzing again. On a Saturday Jazz Night, walk into Perry's Joint ― an ice cream shop and art speakeasy ― to get a sense of the community's spirit. Locals stop in to chat with owner Perry Bennett and comment on the art exhibits, and to get an earful of the week's jazz show.

Bennett loves that his store is such a gathering place. "It's like the neighborhood safe spot," he says. "If a kid gets locked out, they come here and get ice cream. If someone's out of work and can't pay for lunch, they come here and eat. It's just automatic. What I'm doing is not unique ― I'm just trying to hold on to what was, to what I think is important."

What's important is the Fillmore's renewed role as a center of African American culture in the Bay Area. During World War II, African American workers were drawn to jobs with good wages in Bay Area shipyards. And the Fillmore had a concentration of affordable housing. The result was one of the nation's most vibrant black neighborhoods. Dozens of clubs hosted the era's major musical talents, including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holliday.

But by the 1950s, the neighborhood had faded. In the '60s huge swaths of it were destroyed by ill-conceived urban renewal. "What the Fillmore was could never exist again," Bennett says, regretfully. Still, he adds, the neighborhood is turning around. "I can feel the energy starting to change for the better."

That's thanks in large part to the community push to create the Jazz Preservation District in the lower Fillmore neighborhood, which runs south from Post to about McCallister Street and roughly to Steiner Street on the west and Webster Street on the east. With help from the city government-funded Jazz Promotions Office, new businesses are migrating to the area.

Rasselas jazz club is one hub of musical energy in the neighborhood. Run by Ethiopian-born Agonafer Shiferaw, Rasselas is regularly packed with a diverse crowd. "This is one of the few places where you can see all kinds of people ― black, Asian, gay, straight," Shiferaw says. "That is infinitely rewarding."

A season of jazz

Summer is prime time for a Fillmore visit. The jazz festival is a weekend-long street party that covers 12 blocks of Fillmore Street. The Fillmore Farmers' Market will be in full swing, running every Saturday through mid-November; it offers live jazz too. From August through September, Fillmore Fridays will bring free concerts to Gene Suttle Plaza, at Fillmore and O'Farrell Streets. A jazz piano bar called Sheba Lounge is scheduled to open in August as well.

Jazz has even invaded the Fillmore streetscape. The "Blue Bridge" across Geary Boulevard is lined with blue glass panels inscribed with a free-form poem by Quincy Troupe. Sidewalk pavers on the blocks south of Geary are engraved with the names of jazz greats and historic clubs like Jimbo's Bop City. "As I walk up and down Fillmore Street, as I often do," says Carl Williams, "I often stop to read those tributes to our great jazz forefathers. They're wonderful reminders."

Fillmore finds
The 20th Annual Fillmore Jazz Festival (800/731-0003) takes place July 3-4; admission is free. For information about the farmers' market (9-1 Sat through Nov 20), Fillmore Fridays (5 p.m.-8 p.m. Fri, Aug 6-Sep 27; free), and the Big Band & BBQ (11 a.m.-6 p.m., Oct 10; free), contact the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District (415/441-6396).

Blue Bridge. Bridge across Geary features 20 blue glass panels inscribed with poetry. Fillmore St. and Geary Blvd.

Boom Boom Room. Intimate blues club founded by the late John Lee Hooker. From $8. 1601 Fillmore; 415/673-8000.

Harput's. Family-run store selling retro-style shoes and apparel. Run-D.M.C. and Michael Jordan have shopped here. 1527 Fillmore; 866/823-4327.

Perry's Joint. Cozy ice cream parlor with art exhibits, Saturday-night jazz concerts, and Monday- and Thursday-night poetry readings. 1661 Fillmore; 415/931-5260.

Powell's Place. Venerable soul food restaurant is set to reopen here by August with live jazz, gospel, and blues. $$. 1521 Eddy St., in Fillmore Center; 415/863-1404.

Rasselas. Jazz, blues, and Latin music, plus an adjoining restaurant with excellent Ethiopian food ($$). $7 Fri-Sat, free Sun-Thu. 1534 Fillmore;