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'Harlem of the West': Memories of S.F. Jazz

The Fillmore is the legendary concert venue that put its namesake, the Fillmore District in San Francisco, on the rock 'n' roll map. The club's walls are lined with vintage concert posters and photos taken during performances by 1960s icons such as the Allman Brothers, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane.

But before that era, the Fillmore was known as the "Harlem of the West" -- a mostly black neighborhood, known for its jazz clubs. Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, a new book by documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Pepin and photographer Lewis Watts, charts the emergence of the neighborhood's jazz scene and its demise during the "urban renewal" wave of the 1960s.

For the Fillmore, the "renewal" meant bulldozers and wrecking balls. Lots were leveled to make way for high-rise apartment buildings. Businesses and venues such as Jimbo's Bop City -- a legendary jazz club where Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Lionel Hampton and Dexter Gordon once played -- disappeared almost overnight.

Lewis Watts compares the Fillmore at its cultural height in the days after World War II to the Harlem Renaissance in Manhattan. The photographic record of those moments was almost lost, preserved by a lone barber in the neighborhood.

"In his back room were... framed photographs, some of them just in supermarket bags -- amazing photographs, some of them torn, some of them water-stained, but just amazing photographs," he says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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