Elizabeth Pepin & Lewis Watts,
Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era
(Chronicle, 2005)

Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era is a historical book that mixes photographs and text from a heady time in music.

The Fillmore of San Francisco is mostly remembered for the Fillmore Auditorium, made famous by Bill Graham for its presentation of 1960s rock. But this book shows that the auditorium grew out of an African-American jazz and blues scene that was vibrant enough to be called the Harlem of the West. This San Francisco area off the bay was known then simply as the Fillmore.

Elizabeth Pepin was assigned by Graham to be the historian of the Fillmore Auditorium. She talked with many former and present residents of the area, and their reminiscences make up a majority of the text. The pictures show of a number of famous musicians including Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and many shots of Billie Holliday and Lionel Hampton.

As the photos clearly indicate, the exteriors of some of the nightclubs did not look like much, but inside people were dressed in their finest clothes. As more than one person remembered, you did not go to the Fillmore on Saturday night wearing jeans and sneakers.

Prejudice was around in the 1940s and '50s, of course. In fact, the area was largely Japanese until many of the residents were sent to internment camps during World War II. But most of the people in the book remember the music and the good times. The quality of entertainment was high, with many jam sessions and lots of good food.

Most of the places in the book have disappeared, largely due to urban development that began in the '60s. It is impossible to turn back the clock as many of the interviewees would like, but at least we have this book for a snapshot of a great time for American music.

book review by
Dave Howell

9 October 2010

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