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Keyboard Legend Larry Vuckovich Defends San Francisco Jazz History

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Larry Vuckovich
Glad to read someone of Larry Vuckovich's stature speak up about the San Francisco jazz-club scene back in the day.

In a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle, the great jazz legend recalls a time when many of the most respected musicians in the world came through town.

Although I'd heard about the old clubs, many had closed before my time-- but places like the Jazz Workshop, Basin Street West, and the Keystone Corner were still around until the 80's. Seeing and hearing artists like Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Chick Corea and Return to Forever--we’re talking about life-changing experiences.

Vuckovich said it best:

David Rubien did a disservice to San Francisco's magnificent jazz scene when he chose to overemphasize the tawdry side of its historic old jazz clubs ("Old clubs drew lots of jazz talent, sleaze," last Friday). Sure, they were flawed, but I would have preferred to read more about how they gave jazz audiences, including teenagers, a rare opportunity to hear artists, whose greatness is sorely missed today. I was one of those teenagers in the roped-off area of the Black Hawk club, who was transported to a blissful state, unassisted by anything stronger than soft drinks, the only beverages allowed in this section. As a young jazz pianist, I sat in with Shelley Manne and later returned when I was of age to play there with Pony Poindexter. We loved these clubs; they lifted our spirits. Clubs that welcomed teenagers represented an early effort to build future jazz audiences.

They showcased such artists as Miles, Trane, Bill Evans, MJQ, Dizzy, Monk, Cannonball and many other visiting musicians who called these places some of their favorite clubs in the world to play. Bop City, El Matador, Hangover and Black Hawk and the Jazz Workshop, where I hung out and played many times, were beacons of jazz culture. They gave a start to many Bay Area musicians, including Vince Guaraldi, John Handy and Cal Tjader, who featured Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo regularly at the Black Hawk. They put San Francisco on the jazz map, rivaling New York.

Yes, these clubs were unattractive, especially during the day, with their frayed carpets and drapes, but they gave musicians a chance to play this great music back in the day before jazz was finally elevated to the elegant, surroundings of Lincoln Center and symphony halls around the world. (Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert was an early exception.) That some of the clubs became sleazy topless joints sadly reflects a society that no longer cared about its own unique contribution to a great classic art form. Audiences were succumbing to rock and pop that eventually eclipsed jazz and has co-opted many of today's so-called jazz festivals. We need more articles that remind today's young audiences - who have no memory of this golden jazz era - about this rich music heritage, instead of emphasizing its minor shortcomings. As drummer Art Blakey put it, “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life."

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