A Visit To The Black Hawk

 From 1949 to 1963, the Black Hawk was San Francisco’s premier jazz club. It presented a
Manne.jpgcross section of the world’s best musicians. Like legions of other fans, I spent some of the most rewarding listening hours of my life being inspired in the Black Hawk’s uninspiring surroundings and have written about it frequently. Here are the opening paragraphs of the notes for volume 5 of Shelly Manne and His Men At The Blackhawk.

During my years of labor at KGO-TV in San Francisco, I never passed the parking lot a block away at Turk and Hyde without regretting the injustice of a world that puts more value on the storage of automobiles than on preserving historical landmarks. To be accurate the Landmark Preservation Commission never actually got around to trying to save the Black Hawk or even mounting a brass plaque at space number five, the approximate location of the door where Elynore Caccienti and Susan Weiss collected one-dollar entry fees and dispensed wisdom. All right: the matter never came to a vote, never even came up for discussion.

Nonetheless, officially recognized or not, history was made in the dust and dimness of that temple of gloom. “I’ve worked and slaved to keep this place a sewer,” Guido Caccienti used to say of the joint he ran with his partner, George Weiss. In the 1950s when the club was in its florescence, Count Basie set a new world record for compacting musicians by cramming sixteen men onto the Black Hawk’s little stand, adding Joe Williams, and still finding room to swing. Cal Tjader’s and Dave Brubeck’s groups were more or less headquartered at the Black Hawk and did some of their best live recording there. The first ten-inch LP by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet was made in September, 1952, while Mulligan, Chet Baker, Carson Smith and Chico Hamilton were at the Black Hawk refining their alchemy. The Miles Davis Quintet with Hank Mobley recorded two albums there, commemorating that regrettably short partnership. Although he recorded it in a hall a few blocks away, it was during a Black Hawk engagement that Thelonious Monk made a solo piano album notable for the beauty and serenity of his playing.

I bring this up because video has materialized that reveals the interior of the Black Hawk in all its–er–glory. The film was made for the pilot of a TV series that never materialized. It features the Brubeck Quartet in three numbers, with an introduction by Mort Sahl, the comic who was a fan of the band and a close friend of Paul Desmond until Mrs. Sahl and Desmond became even closer. That, of course, is another story, discreetly told in Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond. But, in a cheesy effort to sell a book, I digress. At any rate, the video is slightly misleading about the nature of the club because the producers somehow persuaded Guido that it was necessary to present an orderly aspect. The random distribution of miniscule tables gave way to chairs arranged in rows, as in a concert hall. The chairs are occupied not by casually dressed and relaxed Black Hawk regulars but by properly attired civilians, possibly extras hired for the occasion. Nothing was done, thank goodness, to replace the dust-laden heavy velvet curtain behind the band stand.

The band is the classic Brubeck Quartet with Desmond, Gene Wright and Joe Morello. YouTube doesn’t give us a date, but the repertoire and the appearances of the players suggest 1957 or ’58. The band opens with “The Duke” as background for Sahl’s intro and follows with a splendid “St. Louis Blues” and a perfunctory “I’m In A Dancing Mood.” During the blues we have the opportunity to see as well as hear the camaraderie between Wright and Morello. To see the video, click here.

 Four years ago, another club went up at the corner of Turk and Hyde. Here’s a description from its web site:

222 Club was established in April 2004. It sits on a corner next to a parking lot and lots of action. We are a lounge with a beautiful basement, refreshing cocktails, delicious food, rotating dj’s, live bands and rotating art. Happy Hour Tuesday thru Saturday from 6-9pm $3.00 Well $2.00 PBR Positive Vibes Only~ We are happy people…..xoxoxoxox

The hugs and kisses are a nice touch, but I’ll bet the 222 Club isn’t hiring the Basie band.

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  1. John Birchard says

    Thanks for the piece on the Blackhawk in SF. I never had the good fortune to spend time there, but the illustration you used of Shelly Manne and His Men recording live at the club sparked a pleasant memory: before that series of recordings I had never heard Victor Feldman play the piano, always vibes. Hearing him stretch out with the rhythm section of Manne and Monty Budwig was a revelation. I’ve been a fan ever since. And Boston Joe Gordon and Richie Kamuca weren’t exactly chopped liver, either.

  2. Jon Foley says

    Mr. Birchard: I agree wholeheartedly about Victor Feldman; I feel he’s one of the most unjustly neglected pianists in modern jazz history. Everyone should hear him on those Black Hawk recordings. For my tastes, no one – not even Red Garland or Bill Evans – could play those block chord solos as well as him. And he got a beautiful sound out of the piano, something many pianists still can’t do. He sounds just as good, maybe even better, on the Miles Davis “Seven Steps To Heaven” session.
    As to the Black Hawk, I spent many happy hours there in 1960, listening to Miles, Cal Tjader, and others. I still have the smoke and dust in my lungs to prove it! But it was definitely worth it.

  3. lorraine jones says

    We used to go to the Blackhawk as young teenagers. Surely everyone remembers the cage!! We thought we’d died and gone to heaven in that dark, smoke-filled room.There will never be another place like it. I feel so lucky that I got to go there! Thanks for the reminder, doug. Oh, yes, and I saw many wondeful musicians. Brubeck, Tjader, Thelonious, Gerry Mulligan,etc

  4. Bill Crow says

    Victor was one of my favorite pianists. I didn’t get to play with him as often as I would have liked,with the width of the US usually between us, but we were together on the Benny Goodman tour of the Soviet Union, preceded by a warm-up week at the Seattle World’s Fair. Vic was the band’s vibraphonist, but he was also our main jam session pianist with the Russian musicians we played with. He knew all the latest tunes, and made everybody sound wonderful. The rhythm section of Vic, Mel Lewis and me is a sweet memory I’ll always have.

  5. Desne Villepigue says

    First, thanks for that fascinating peek into the Black Hawk. I’m always intrigued by the history of jazz in San Francisco, my adopted city.
    Second, in regard to the YouTube video, the details state “produced by Jay Ward!” (with exclam). Would that have been the same Jay Ward of Rocky & Bullwinkle fame? You’ll find the odd jazz-related reference here and there in R&B, such as an episode titled Song of Indio. Then there’s this longer bit, which I transcribed during a block of time when I should have been focusing on my day job (such as right now)…
    “The Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam,” in which R&B have been kidnapped aboard an oceanliner, the SS Plankton, and are being held captive, chained to chairs in the back row of the ship’s orchestra, Guy Vizier and His Tremulous
    R: Bullwinkle, we’ve got to make a run for it.
    B: What, and miss my solo?
    R: Bullwinkle, we’ve got to jump overboard before we’re too far out to sea.
    B: Not yet, Rock, I’ve got an arrangement coming up in the next set.
    R: Look, if you’re worried about the chains on your legs, don’t.
    B: Well I must admit, they did cross my mind.
    [Narrator: Ah, but Rocky had a plan. Sure enough, during his bass solo on “Four Brothers,” the resourceful squirrel attached a hacksaw to his bow and by bar thirty-two had sawed through their fetters.]
    Guy Vizier: Quick, they’re escaping!
    [Narrator: …blablabla about the ensuing wild chase…]
    Captain: Hey, what’s going on here?
    GV: Somebody requested “Running Wild” and two of my boys took it literally.
    So… was the Black Hawk pilot produced by THAT Jay Ward(!)?
    (That’s a good bet. Ward was a known perpetrator of jazz adventures, some less serious than the pilot film. For an example, see: http://www.bambinomusical.com/Moosylvania/ –DR)

  6. George Weiss says

    Ah me, It seems like it was just yesterday when I was co-owner of the Blackhawk Club! Doug Ramsey, you brought back fond memories of wonderful times and music from nearly fifty years ago.

    • Teresa S says

      I am doing a documentary of Audrey and Enrique Jorda (conductor of the San Francisco symphony between 1953 and 1963). Audrey (95 and living in Brussels) still remembers that they would go very often to the Blackhawk, even after concerts at the SFS, and loved every second of it. Apparently they made great friends there, including Louis Armstrong.

  7. says

    it never got better—it got different—after 1960. Enter Ornette and all the emperors with their new clothes. See my liner notes on my new album. All the shit that the class of ’65 pretended to like. Yeah, there’s still some cats takin’ care of business. Dig Roy McCurdy, Chris Conner, Bill Cunlife and me on Mort Weiss Meets Bill Cunliffe: With Special Guest The Undisputed Father Of The Jazz Flute, Sam Most. Hey, the cat that said, “You cant go home again” was right—and why even try? The same people dont live there any more. Peace, my brothers. I remain MORT WEISS, the worlds greatest out-of-work Jewish be bop clarinet player!!