The Blackhawk Gets Its Due

In my notes for the final volume of Shelly Manne & His Men At The Blackhawk, I wrote:

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.

That was 11 years ago. Now, thanks to the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District, justice has been done. The corner is again a parking lot, but a bronze plaque embedded in the sidewalk commemorates one of the most important clubs in the history of jazz. In addition to Manne’s five Blackhawk albums, the club was the site of recordings by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others named on the plaque.

The Tenderloin, an area of about 50 square blocks was famous, and infamous, long before Dashiell Hamett made it the locale of his 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon. Uptown Tenderloin project manager Sarah Wilson reports that the Blackhawk plaque is one of nine marking historical sites in the district. The ninth will be dedicated tomorrow at 11 a.m. PDT in front of Hyde Street Studios, founded by Wally Heider in 1969. Heider, legendary for the quality of his recordings, captured dozens of live performances, including Cal Tjader’s Saturday Night/ Sunday Night At The Blackhawk, San Francisco (Verve). Maybe Uptown Tenderloin, Inc. can convince United Music, the custodian of that gem in Tjader’s discography, to finally reissue it on CD. Here is Tjader outside the Blackhawk getting ready for a gig with his Afro-Cuban quintet. Inside the van is drummer Johnny Rae. (Photo courtesy of David Murray).

And here is Tjader on vibes recorded at the Blackhawk in 1957 with his quartet—Vince Guaraldi, piano; Eugene Wright, bass; Al Torre, drums.

If you live in San Francisco (lucky you) or plan to visit, you may want to tour the sites commemorated with those bronze plaques.

Wally Heider Recording, 245 Hyde St.
Blackhawk Jazz Club, corner of Turk & Hyde Sts.
California Labor School, 240 Golden Gate Ave.,
Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, 101 Taylor St.
Original Joe’s, 144 Taylor St.
B’nai Brith, 149 Eddy St.
Screening Room, 220 Jones St.
Arcadia/Downtown Bowl, current Boedekker Park, Jones & Eddy Sts.
Blanco’s Café, current Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St.

Just seeing the name Original Joe’s makes me hungry. The plaques are only a beginning. Uptown Tenderloin, Inc., is planning a museum dedicated to preserving the history of one of the most interesting, quirky and vital parts of an interesting, quirky and vital city. For details, go here.

To spend a few memorable minutes in the Blackhawk, watch the video in this Rifftides archive piece.

The proper spelling of the name—Blackhawk or Black Hawk—has never been satisfactorily resolved. Take your choice.

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  1. Jon Foley says

    At last – some (semi-)official recognition for the Black Hawk (I’m going to use the spelling on the sign). I hardly ever get into The City anymore, but if I do, I’ll have to go by and check out that plaque and try to recall the many happy hours I spent in that club. The first group I ever heard there was a rare edition of the Miles Davis Quintet, with Sonny Stitt as the other horn. But my favorite was Cal Tjader’s quintet, the one with Mongo and Willie Bobo.

    I guess they haven’t perfected time travel yet, huh? Too bad.

  2. says

    That’s a fine gesture of a city which changes so fast. Upcoming generations will wonder, and the most curious among them will be looking for the music, and will buy CD’s, or other future digital sound carriers.

    This means: The past will never be completely forgotten; at least not in our, or our children’s lifetimes.

    By the way: I would suggest a similar plaque for the demolished grand old “Metropolitan Bopera House”, “The Royal Roost”.

    When I was there in NY, in January 1999, I couldn’t find anything but a new hotel complex, where they once served fried chicken & ‘live’ bebop.

  3. says

    I was never there, but always felt I had been. Ralph Gleason’s liners to the Miles set – my #1 Davis recordings, and Brubeck-Desmond’s…heck, I felt like a regular. Happy birthday Dave, and thank you Doug for taking me back.

  4. dick vartanian says

    Having lived most of my life in SF, I remember all this very well. I went there once to hear Erroll Garner and invited him to come to SF State for a rally. He showed up and sat in with our group. One of the septets I had included Paul Desmond on sax and Cal Tjader playing drums. The next time I went to the Blackhawk was to hear Miles Davis. Big mistake. Waited over an hour and he finally got on stage, took out his horn, played a couple of choruses with his back to the audience and left.- and so did I. That same night Monk was at the Jazz Workshop, so I went there to here him. When I got there, he was sitting on the curb talking to Miles and the band was blowing away. I never again bothered with anything Miles did. I also got rid of all his recordings I owned.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Mr. Vartanian and Desmond were in high school and at San Francisco State College together. In their early years as professional musicians in the Bay Area and environs, they often worked the same gigs. In those days, Dick was a trumpet player but soon became a pianist and has remained one. He contributed a number of stories to Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, a book.

  5. says

    Jazz is a way of life, and always evolving, expanding—ever full of putting the jumpstart into life.

    As I say on my radio show, remember jazz has its privileges! I’ll be sharing this article and Cal Tjader’s quartet video with my people—t amorejazz!