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Miles, Monk & Brubeck: Tenderloin Museum honors neighborhood’s jazz legacy with ‘Blackhawk Block Party’

The Blackhawk nightclub on the corner of Turk Street and Hyde streets in San Francisco on April 22, 1961 featuring jazz musician Miles Davis on the club’s marquee. | Courtesy Leigh Wiener

North Beach and the Fillmore get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to celebrating the history of jazz in San Francisco. But taking stock of the city’s role as an essential incubator for various currents in modern jazz means talking about the Tenderloin. 

Once considered the West Coast’s most consequential jazz club, the Blackhawk occupied a building at the intersection of Hyde and Turk streets from 1949 to 1963. Today the venue is best remembered as the location where seminal artists such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck recorded classic live albums, though many people mistakenly assume the jazz joint was located where the Beats congregated on Broadway.

The Tenderloin Museum’s day-long mini festival “Blackhawk Block Party” aims to change the conversation this Saturday.

Part of the museum’s “Sounds of the Tenderloin” series, the block party was originally conceived as a site-specific event at the club’s 200 Hyde Street address, a long-time empty lot that was reclaimed from squalor in recent months by Urban Alchemy and transformed into a parklet. But the concert will actually be held in another reclaimed urban oasis: Dodge Alley, a stone’s throw from the original Blackhawk site. 

“It’s a very similar space—outdoors in the Tenderloin and very community oriented,” said Katie Conry, the Tenderloin Museum’s executive director. “We’ve already produced one music program there … and plan to produce two others.”

In recent years Black Cat, a swanky nightspot just up the street from the old Blackhawk location, has brought jazz back to the Tenderloin, though the club suffered a major setback last month when an early morning break in led to hours of looting. The Tenderloin Museum wants to ensure music has a future in the neighborhood by highlighting and manifesting jazz’s deep roots there.

The Blackhawk, 216 Hyde entrance, January 27, 1961, 3:00 PM. Young adult entrance at 216 Hyde for The Black Hawk, the day after the raid for violation of liquor law. Courtesy San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library

Carrying the subtitle, “exploring the legacy of jazz in the Tenderloin,” the block party will feature performances by Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, San Francisco Recovery Theater’s community-based music production Night at the Blackhawk and the world premiere of the song cycle, Tenderloin Voices.

Created by Oakland jazz composer, trumpeter and singer Sarah Wilson—who helped get the Tenderloin Museum off the ground—Tenderloin Voices is produced by the Tenderloin Museum in collaboration with Larkin Street Youth Services, ABD Productions’ interdisciplinary Skywatchers program and Tenderloin writer Lyzette Wanzer.

Wilson’s band includes Bay Area jazz heavyweights like guitarist John Schott and keyboardist Glen Pearson, who’s been holding down the piano chair in the Count Basie Orchestra in recent years, and vocalists Tiffany Austin and Jerry Kennedy. Working with Larkin Street Youth Services, Wilson set lyrics by young clients of the organization to pop-inflected melodies “trying to create a narrative arc with stories about growing up and relationships to parents,” she said.

When she’s not writing and performing music, Wilson often works as a museum exhibition developer. As part of her foundational work with the Tenderloin Museum she gathered information on the Blackhawk, interviewing more than a dozen people associated with the club, including drummer Jimmy Cobb, producer Orrin Keepnews and Ahmad Jamal—“anyone that was still alive who played there,” she said. “I became super attached to that content, and it’s amazing that it’s coming back around.”

Blackhawk Block Party

Saturday, Aug. 13, Noon | Free
Dodge Place,Turk Street Between Larkin & Hyde