Homegrown jazz heritage preserved at library, online
By Carolyn Said
Jim Cullum is a traditional guy — a suit, bow tie, a little mustache, glasses. He looks like an old-time banker.
Cullum is a jazz man. He plays traditional jazz, hot and loud in the style of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong. His band, seven musicians and the man himself on cornet, plays in San Antonio mostly, but he was in San Francisco for a bit, at Pier 23, to talk about the San Francisco sound, which was born here, lost for a while, then reborn, and now reborn once again on the internet.
He talked about it over lunch at Sam’s Grill — about the jazz pioneers from the Barbary Coast a century ago, about Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band in the ’40s, Turk Murphy’s band up to the ’80s.
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“It was a very special sound,” he said. Not like modern jazz, which is swingier and softer, but a bit like Dixieland. “Big, brassy and loud,” Cullum said.
You could almost hear the music as he talked about it, and you can hear the sounds — Sid Le Protti on piano, Lu Watters, Turk Murphy and the rest — at a new traditional jazz website offered by the Stanford University library.
There’s Turk Murphy with his growly voice, old programs, pictures, matchbook covers, interviews — and music. You don’t have to pay a cover charge, buy a drink or tip the doorman. It’s all free and can be found at http://exhibits.stanford.edu/sftjf.
Cullum was in town to get the word out about the website.
The website was a long time coming and a lot of work. It’s dedicated to Charles Huggins, who played a little and listened a lot. His widow, Donna, had a big hand in it.
Jazz has deep roots in San Francisco’s gaudy past. The accepted view is that jazz has African American roots in New Orleans and spread across the country, to Chicago and Kansas City. But there are roots in San Francisco, too, on the old Barbary Coast in the dives and dance halls along Pacific Street — or “Terrific Street” as they called it in the days when Frisco was wide open.
One joint on the Coast was Purcell’s So Different, where black musicians and dance hall girls catered to black and white patrons. It was called a “black and tan” establishment, and was illegal as hell. Unless you paid off the cops.
The leader of the So Different house band was Sid Le Protti, an African American from Oakland, who also played the piano. This was just over a hundred years ago, when jazz was just getting going. Le Protti was influenced by ragtime, and Dixieland, but his band developed its own style.
One film clip on the website shows Le Protti’s So Different Jazz Band playing for dancers on the sidewalk in 1910. The So Different band was the first to use the word “jazz” for his group.
A lot of new dances came out of the Barbary Coast, too. It was a time when old conventions were fading away. They said a new world was being born, and new music. On the coast it had a San Francisco twist.
But not long after reformers pressed the cops to close down the Barbary Coast, the traditional jazz style faded away. Le Protti and his band couldn’t get steady work, and he opened a bootblack stand in Berkeley, and then in Walnut Creek, playing piano now and then.
In the late 1930s, the heyday of the swing dance bands, a musician named Lu Watters and his friends revived the traditional jazz music. They played at a basement dive called the Dawn Club in an alley near the Palace Hotel. It was a sensation — lost music rediscovered, uniquely San Francisco.
“A native-born style,” Cullum said of the music. “A unique sound like nowhere else in the world. It didn’t come here. It came from here.”
Melvin “Turk” Murphy, a Stanford dropout, musical arranger and trombone player, joined the Lu Watters band. When it broke up, about 1950, Murphy started his own band, the Bay City Stompers. They played all over, even in New York for a bit.
But San Francisco was home. Murphy lived in the Marina and played at the Italian Village, the Tin Angel, and Earthquake McGoon’s. He played Easter Sundays at Grace Cathedral, and for the last two years of his life at the New Orleans Room in the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill.
Murphy’s band played what Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called “gut bucket, rock bottom, come-home-to-mama style” music. “He’s a white boy but he plays real good,” said renowned clarinetist Jimmy Noone, who was black.
In January 1987, Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band played Carnegie Hall in New York. Cullum’s band was on the bill as well. It was Murphy’s last big show. He died of bone cancer five months later.
At his funeral at Grace Cathedral, C. Julian Bartlett, the dean of the cathedral, said Murphy was a “unique child of God. His gift to us will last, and last, and last, and last, and last.”
The collection at the Stanford library, and the internet, is making sure that Bartlett was right.
Carl Nolte’s column appears Sundays. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @carlnoltesf