Tales of San Francisco: the Fillmore District's historic jazz scene, as told by musician Sam Peoples Jr

Musician Sam Peoples Jr is part of the Fillmore Jazz Ambassadors, a group dedicated to bringing jazz back to the city’s once-swinging musical epicentre. He reflects on the highs and lows of Fillmore’s dynamic jazz culture.

Photographs By Andria Lo
Published 5 Nov 2020, 08:24 GMT
Jazz musician and native San Franciscan Sam Peoples Jr outside the Boom Boom Room in the Fillmore ...

Jazz musician and native San Franciscan Sam Peoples Jr outside the Boom Boom Room in the Fillmore District.

Photograph by Andria Lo

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Fillmore District was known as the ‘Harlem of the West’ for its jazz clubs. Historically, you see, this is a Black neighbourhood: in 1939, there was a huge influx of African Americans from the South, who came to work in the shipyards and, since the city was segregated, one of the only places we could stay was Fillmore. 

A lot of Black entrepreneurs opened clubs — places like the Alabama, Club Morocco and the Both/And, where Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey all played. After hours, the spot was Bop City — all the entertainers would come here, including Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, plus the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. The street stayed open all night, and there was a real vitality to it. 

My family was always part of the scene. My grandfather came from Illinois at the turn of the century. My grandmother, who played the organ, had three kids, all entertainers: my aunt was a dancer, singer and actress; my uncle a clarinettist and pianist; and my father was the well-known sax player, Sammy Peoples. I remember seeing him on black-and-white TV — he was a star.  

I was born in 1949 and by the 1950s, the scene had changed from jazz to rock ’n’ roll. By the time I started playing, in the late 1960s, my father’s peers took me under their wing and told me how Fillmore had been. We used to jam a lot, but we didn’t have the same community or numbers. We had to go elsewhere to work: I got my start in North Beach and the Lower Haight. Around that time, the developers came and gutted the neighbourhood. We lost a lot of businesses, and people had to move. It had been so diverse: Black, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos, Jewish and Italians, all integrated, until the heart was torn out of it. We were decimated. The Black entrepreneurs were gone, and we lost our community. 

Today, there are still some clubs sprinkled around Fillmore —the Half Note (now The Independent), The Fillmore, Sheba Piano Lounge, Madrone Art Bar and the Boom Boom Room — but we can’t recreate the 1940s. I remember walking up and down Fillmore, all this nightlife, cars going up and down. We’re trying to bring it back.

Sam Peoples Jr is a Fillmore Jazz Ambassador. His band plays on Sundays at Moe Greens. Check out his music at reverbnation.com/sampeoples

Discover more Tales of San Francisco

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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