Reflections on Jazz, Noe Valley and Aging
Sunday was blissfully warm and sunny. In the early afternoon I went into the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco to have coffee with my friend Peter Grenell. Peter and I have been friends for a long time. He is not my oldest friend, he is only my age. I have many older friends, but I have known Peter for as long as I have known any one of them.
For those of you not familiar with the City of San Francisco, it is a city of many distinct neighborhoods. Noe Valley is one of the few that has gentrified gracefully. In the forty or so years that I have observed the area’s evolution, escalating home prices forced only a few people who I know of to move out. Most that did, happily sold into the rising real estate market and moved to Danville or some place like that. Chain stores, although some exist along its main commercial street, have not overwhelmed the area.
The area’s settlement began at the end of the Nineteenth Century as a working family community of attached wood sided single family Victorian homes and duplexes. In the mid-sixties, the working class families, as was fashionable at the time, moved to the suburbs in a mistaken belief they would find life and schools for their children better there. Artists seeking lower cost accommodations moved in, followed almost immediately by the hippies. The neighborhood transformed into a hip, funky, artsy scene.
They were, in turn, followed in the early seventies by young marrieds, often civil service employees, looking for a hip locale and attracted by the relatively inexpensive housing prices at the time.
After a brief flirtation with the City’s lesbian community that was searching for a Castro District they could call their own, the dot-com inundation broke upon the neighborhood as the new young millionaires saw the area as fitting their ideal lifestyle, hip and expensive. Fortunately for the neighborhood, that tide rapidly crested and the area retained its now somewhat upscale but still mixed appearance and atmosphere.
Some working class families still live there alongside rapidly aging artists and hippies, a few pioneer lesbian couples and the remnants of the now significantly less wealthy dot comers. The young bureaucrats, most of whom have made it into the upper reaches of the bureaucracy also remain, usually in same houses they purchased 30 years ago.
For about a decade I lived there too, in a 100-year-old Italianate Victorian two unit building. Before I purchased it, the building had served as a well-known crash pad for artists and hippies who had left the East coast in search of California dreaming .
Some of the old shops persist, like Haystack Pizza and Tuggy’s Hardware and Shu Fat’s grocery but others like Herbs Cafe are gone.
I met Peter at a coffee shop that had occupied the same spot for many years but was now called Bernie’s’ Cafe. It was owned by a woman named Bernie who had worked there during its previous incarnation and eventually purchased it.
Peter and I sat in the sun on benches in front of the shop, drank our coffee, stared at the parade of neighborhood people strolling by (a number of whom I recognized). We reflected about how lucky it was, being as old as we were, to sit in the sun like we were and not be anxious that there was something we needed to do.
After a few hours or reminiscing and enjoying the sun, we decided to walk about a block up 24th St. ( the main commercial street) to a bar called Bliss something or other to hear some live jazz.
Most Sundays, Larry Voukovitch, a mainstay of the SF jazz scene for as long as I can remember, performs there. At one time, a colleague of mine, Kerry Shapiro, was Larry’s manager when Kerry wasn’t otherwise lawyering.
Larry was appearing that day with his geriatric Croatian quartet. I really do not know it they were Croatian (although they clearly were geriatric and a quartet). The base player, however, from whom Peter is receiving lessons in the instrument, was originally from that part of the world. On sax was Peter Yellin another fairly well-known and aging jazz musician.
There were also about 12 to 15 other people about our age there to listen to them. Additionally, two young japanese women from Tokyo in their early 20′s sat there attentively. One was a teacher (music I assume) and the other an aspiring jazz singer here to learn at the feet of the masters. (Peter and I deduced the aged and balding base player and the willowy japanese jazz singer were an item. We guessed this after observing them walking hand in hand along 24th St. Aren’t we the little gossips now.)
Thank God or the vagaries of chance, that there exists in this world a nation like Japan full of obsessive compulsive personalities willing to travel the world to fanatically immerse themselves in the dying western musical performing arts. Should the dark ages descend as some predict, I believe the Japanese will assume a role like the medieval monks and keep alive the remnants of western musical culture.
As I listened to them play, I was reminded of New York in the late fifties and sixties when the cool sophisticated New York jazz sounds of musicians like Oscar Peterson could be heard in dives in Greenwich Village and elegant nightclubs like the Embers just off Times Square.(Of course then we, the audience, were usually drunk and stoned. I, however, now listened to Larry and the Gang on nothing stronger than lemonade.)
During that era the centers of music and jazz in the US were New York, Chicago, New Orléans, St Louis and San Francisco, until they were driven out by the sounds of rock and rhythm and blues coming primarily out of Memphis and Detroit.
During the bands second set the Japanese singer (named Miyomi) got up and sang a pretty good version of Gershwin’s Summertime.
Later, as the sun set behind Twin Peaks and the temperature cooled, I walked the mile or two back to where I was staying. In San Francisco the sun does not simply set. After it passes behind the peak, the City
east of the mountain lies in shadow while the sky remains brightly late afternoon for an hour or so.
Even when one is experiencing great sadness life can be wonderful. Don’t miss it.
- Snap Happy: Noe Valley Cafe (bloggingeverafter.wordpress.com)
- Noe Valley Town Square: A parking lot at 24th and… (sf.curbed.com)
- Has The Toilet Torcher Returned To Terrorize Noe Valley? (sfist.com)
- Hot Spot for the Tech Generation (online.wsj.com)
- Oops: Google Shuttle Stuck At Bottom Of Noe Valley Hill (sfist.com)
- On the Market: Get Your Big Contemporary Abode On in Noe Valley (sf.curbed.com)
- Turf Wars: The Wall Street Journal Discovers Noe Valley, Looks Sideways at The Mission and Finds it “Gritty” (sf.curbed.com)