Though it closed its doors in 1963, a half-dozen classic recordings made at San Francisco’s Blackhawk nightclub have ensured a secure, lasting renown for the club in jazz lore. Along with other, long-gone clubs such as New York’s Royal Roost, Chicago’s Blue Note, and Philly’s Showboat and Peps’, the Blackhawk enjoys a mythic status as a club where all of the great post-war small groups played; Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Cal Tjader, Ahmad Jamal, Billie Holiday… if they played San Francisco, they played at the Blackhawk. Last month a bronze plaque was set into the sidewalk on the corner of Turk and Hyde in the Tenderloin to mark the spot where the Blackhawk once stood. Previously, the intersection’s northeast corner offered no hint of the jazz significance of the site serving only as a parking lot and hang out spot for the homeless and wanderers. Now, thanks to the dedicated work of the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District, the corner has been marked as a pilgrimage site for jazz fans. On my recent visit, it was difficult to image the club or the night Miles and Hank Mobley burned through “Oleo” there fifty years ago–I was too busy deflecting appeals for pocket change and offers of “buds”–but it was nice to associate a physical location in the city with what I have read and heard about the club. While the Tenderloin has experienced gentrification in recent years, it seems unlikely that tourists will serendipitously discover the corner’s new plaque on their own; the site of the old Blackhawk rewards the more deliberate and devoted visitor.
The use of plaques to denote important jazz sites is not new in major U.S. cities. Philadelphia, for one, has markers for the house Billie Holiday lived in and the site of the Showboat club. New York is probably least sentimental about recognizing such landmarks (perhaps the weight of all of those plaques would drag Manhattan below sea level), but, then again, its most historic club still packs ‘em in seven nights a week in the same basement where they have been doing it since the 1930s. It is great news that San Francisco has decided to mark one of its most celebrated jazz sites in an enduring way. The city’s earliest jazz sites were clustered along the Barbary Coast and famous clubs also proliferated in North Beach (The Matador Club, The Jazz Workshop) and Western Addition (The Both/And), but the Blackhawk outranks them all for the roster of artists who worked there and the recordings made within its walls. Like the Village Vanguard, records made at the Blackhawk always mentioned the club’s name prominently: provenance suggests quality. Here are a few of the classics:
Miles Davis: In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk (Columbia)
Ahmad Jamal: Live at the Blackhawk (Argo)
Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus 2: At the Blackhawk (Riverside)
Shelly Manne: At the Blackhawk (4 volumes, Contemporary)
Cal Tjader: A Night at the Blackhawk (Fantasy)
Mongo Santamaria: Live at the Blackhawk (Fantasy)
Stop by Turk and Hyde and pay homage to the club where all of this great music was made many moons ago. After genuflecting, don’t forget to go out and catch some of today’s great musicians at Dogpatch Saloon, Revolution Cafe, or your favorite place to hear live music.