Press "Enter" to skip to content

San Francisco’s Greatest Jazz Club: The Blackhawk

For 14 dingy, glorious years, one of America’s greatest jazz clubs stood in San Francisco, at the northeast corner of Turk and Hyde. At the time, that Tenderloin intersection was not as downtrodden as it is today, but the club was, not to put too fine a point on it, a dump. It was leaky, unheated, dimly lit, badly furnished, and reeked of the petrified smoke of a million cigarettes. When singer and pianist Martha Davis showed up to rehearse one afternoon, one of the pigeons that roosted in a hole in the wall flew right across the piano. “In daylight,” Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote, “it is absolutely repulsive.” As owner Guido Caccienti put it, “I’ve worked and slaved for years to keep this place a sewer.”

Yet between 1949 and 1963, when the shabby club closed, some of the most extraordinary jazz ever made 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, and on and on. The careers of such notable players as Gerry Mulligan and Cal Tjader were launched there. Even the legendary Art Tatum played there. It was no coincidence that the club’s life overlapped with the “Baghdad-by-the-Bay” years celebrated by Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, when San Francisco’s nightlife was at its most sophisticated and glamorous.

The club was called the Blackhawk, and its like will never be seen again.

The Blackhawk was opened by Caccienti and Johnny Noga in 1949, replacing an old bar called the Stork. Noga’s brother Teddy played clarinet in a novelty lounge-act trio called the Eastmen, who provided the music at the club. After the Eastmen departed, Caccienti and Noga, neither of whom knew anything about music, booked in several jazz acts, which bombed. The partners would have avoided jazz thereafter, 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, Caccienti was about to fire Brubeck, but Lyons promoted him tirelessly, and by the end of the two-week engagement, business was so good that they kept the trio on, and the Blackhawk stayed a jazz club for good. Brubeck’s drummer, Cal Tjader, soon switched to vibes; his group, which played its first gig at the Hawk, was a pioneer in what became known as Latin jazz.

Johnny Noga and his wife, Helen, left after Helen became Johnny Mathis’ manager. Caccienti and his wife, Elynore, continued to run the joint, with Elynore working the cash register and Caccienti amusing customers and musicians alike with his hilariously broken 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 chicken-wire section was beloved, but in early 1961 Mayor George Christopher ordered the police to close it, declaring that it was dangerous for young people’s morals to hang out in a jazz club. The club’s owners, now including Fantasy Records owner Max Weiss and his brother, George, fought back, and the public took the club’s side, deriding Christopher as a “square.” The press splashed the brouhaha all over the front pages, and Ralph Gleason invited The Chronicle’s readers to enter a poetry contest about the affair. The winning entry mockingly warned Christopher “Of the risk to your fine fuzz, imbibing/As they sit there and dig Cal Tjader’s vibing./ Oh, I warn you, dear Mayor, and this is the truth/ Vile jazz corrupts coppers as well as our youth.”

Christopher doubled down, infamously saying, “Some girl will get raped in the parking lot next door, and who’ll be blamed? Me and the chief of police.” But the mayor’s morality crusade fizzled out, and the chicken-wire section was reopened.

Over the years, the Blackhawk gained a reputation as one of the finest jazz clubs anywhere and attracted visitors from all over the world. As Gleason wrote, “Its hard chairs and tiny tables have accommodated Russian sailors, British poets, Japanese jazz musicians, Cuban patriots, champion prize fighters, baseball stars, All-League pro football halfbacks, social leaders, politicians and just about every hard-core jazz fan able to make the trek to San Francisco. A most incredible cross section of American society has been inside this dimly lit, oblong corner-saloon-with-music.”

Gleason attributed the Blackhawk’s success to its democratic ethos — “The Blackhawk treats every patron, and all musicians alike. The white tie-and-tails crowd from the Opera House ... stands in line with the taxi driver and the kids from San Francisco State” — its superb acoustics (so good that 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 Miles Davis recorded at the club in April 1961, “Friday night: Miles Davis in Person at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, Vol. 1.” “Certainly no sane person goes there for any other reason.”

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

It was fitting that Dave Brubeck, who put the Blackhawk on the map, was one of the most outspoken opponents of segregation in jazz. After he hired Black bassist Eugene Wright in 1958, many venues, most but not all in the South, told Brubeck he could not perform if Wright appeared. Brubeck refused to play such venues. In a wrenching interview in Ken Burns’ “Jazz,” the great pianist wept 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.

Members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Brubeck’s wife, Iola Brubeck, SF’s Blackhawk jazz club in a painting by Chris Osborne.

The Blackhawk was the oldest continually operating jazz club on the West Coast, and one of the oldest in the country. But changing musical tastes, the movement of the club scene to North Beach, and disagreements among the owners led to its demise. On Sunday, July 21, 1963, the Blackhawk held its last 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 of the last 10 years in the club said, “I can’t believe it’s really happening.” Tjader, who had earlier made an emotional speech announcing the final tune, Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” said, “Neither can I. I just can’t believe that we won’t be back on Tuesday night.”

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

(Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “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 the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read earlier Portals of the Past, go to www.sfchronicle.com/portals. Courtesy, the SF Chronicle)

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

-