Jazz giants in the jazz district

Ella Fitzgerald singing to Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Richard Rodgers in 1950.

April is jazz appreciation month, all month long, and there’s something special to appreciate at the Fillmore Heritage Center at 1330 Fillmore. “Jazz Giants: the Photography of Herman Leonard” is a collection of some of the finest jazz photographs ever taken by one of America’s greatest living photographers. In addition, there’s a full program of other special events this month.

Photograph © Herman Leonard Photography LLC

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A Fillmore rap

The song “What You Finna Do?,” released earlier this month by Fillmore District rapper DaVinci, opens with a vocal sample from the 2001 PBS documentary The Fillmore. It condenses the gentrification process the area underwent from the 1960s into one slogan, lamenting, “Basically, after the urban renewal, it was basically Negro removal.”

As the gloomy beat kicks in, DaVinci starts to rap, eventually coining his update on the situation: “Down the corner of the street used to be the spot/Till they replaced all the liquor stores with coffee shops.”

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Two new film fests nearby

In a city with a film festival for every subculture, two new ones have arrived in the neighborhood: the Mostly British Film Festival at the revived Vogue Theater on Sacramento Street and the Jazz Heritage Film Festival in the Fillmore Jazz District.

From February 4 to 11, the Mostly British Film Festival brings films from the U.K., Ireland, Australia and South Africa to the Vogue. “We jokingly call it a Foreign Film Festival For People Who Don’t Like Subtitles,” says programmer and longtime Chronicle movie writer and editor Ruthe Stein.

As part of its new jazz and film initiative, the Fillmore Jazz Heritage Center will present a three-day Jazz Heritage Film Festival February 5 to 7 led by jazz film historian Hal Miller. Miller — who is also percussionist in Carlos Santana’s band — will present rare footage from his extensive collection of many of the most revered and significant musicians in the history of jazz.

During February, the center will also host twice-weekly film screenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. And an exhibition of vintage jazz film posters will be presented in the lobby of Yoshi’s, the jazz club that heralded the rebirth of the area.

It’s St. John Coltrane’s Church

Photograph of St. John Coltrane Church by Susie Biehler

By James DeKoven

Without hestitation, the Rev. Wanika King-Stephens can name her favorite John Coltrane song: “What’s New?” Then, true to form for any music obsessive, she provides additional knowledge: The song was originally on the album Ballads, released by the Impulse! label.

Jazz records and churches are not usually an easy fit. But this church, at 1286 Fillmore Street, is no ordinary house of worship. It’s the Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, or as it’s known to people around the world, the Church of John Coltrane.

Every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m., Rev. King-Stephens sits in with other members of the house band — the “Ministers of Sound” — and they perform the music of John Coltrane as a vehicle to praise God. They call it “sound praise.”
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For vocalist Kim Nalley, it all started on Fillmore

Photograph of Kim Nalley by Walter Wagner

By Thomas Reynolds

Sultry, soulful, swinging singer Kim Nalley remembers when she got her first big break in San Francisco. It was the early ’90s, and the manager of Harry’s on Fillmore called to see if she might fill a slot for a band that had cancelled.

But Nalley was otherwise engaged. She had a house to clean — a job that was helping to pay her way through UC Berkeley. She called her client and explained she wouldn’t be able to come. “How much are they paying you to sing?” the woman wanted to know. “Well, you make more here cleaning — and this is an ongoing thing.”

She called back Harry’s and told the manager she wouldn’t be able to make the gig, but that she hoped to sing another night. “This is your chance,” he told her.

So she gave up domestic work. And she started her rise to a place of prominence and respect in the jazz world, toured and lived in Europe, then came home triumphantly to take over Pearl’s, the North Beach jazz club.
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Santana’s back on Fillmore

Photograph of Santana by Mark Brady

Fillmore has always had a claim on guitarist Carlos Santana, and not only because of his many appearances at the Fillmore Auditorium. For a number of years his studio was on Fillmore Street next door to the Clay Theater.

Now he’s back as part of the first special exhibition at the Fillmore Heritage Center. “A Tribute to Miles Davis and Carlos Santana” opened May 23 and continues through July 31, 2008, and includes items from Santana’s personal collection.

The man himself stopped by after his appearance May 20 up the street at the Fillmore Auditorium, reports the center’s executive director, Peter Fitzsimmons.

“Carlos came by and fell in love with many Miles images,” Fitzsimmons says, “and seemed delighted to visit with the many memories inherent in the memorabilia and photographs. Stopping in front of Mark Brady’s photograph of a Santana concert at San Quentin, Carlos recounted the concert and how he was able to reach across racial barriers to involve the hardest of the hard-core inmates in musical rapture. He mentioned, in what must have been a surreal moment, that he saw the machine-gun-toting guard up in the tower swaying to rocking rhythms. He was with us for a good 45 minutes, taking photos with his guest and the staff, and he seemed intrigued and open to learning more about the Jazz Heritage Center.”

Photograph of Santana at San Quentin by Mark Brady

The evolution of a songsmith

Jazzman Jesse Foster

By James DeKoven

The slow screech of a braking bus. Two voices in conversation. Police sirens and fire alarms and honking car horns. It’s noise to many, but singer-songwriter Jesse Foster finds these sounds of urban life inspiring.

“I discover ideas for harmony and melody in the sounds of everyday life,” he says.

Part of his everyday life is spent here in the neighborhood. You’ll often find him hanging out with the locals at Peet’s on Fillmore, tapping out a rhythm and shooting the breeze: politics, sociology — and music, of course. Pull up a chair and you might learn about his evolution as a musician, a 30-year journey of refining his craft and keeping the faith that has paid off with the release his first album and regular live performances in local clubs.
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