First Generation Jazzmen

New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson in San Francisco (Circa 1945) by Peter Martin, the Hal Smith Collection.

Legendary Jazzmen Migrate to SF's Jazz Revival

At the end of the 1930s, a group of young historians and record collectors made the effort to locate some legendary musicians who were active during the formative years of jazz. William Russell, David Stuart and Eugene Williams were among the most active members of this select group.

The first jazzman they contacted was trumpeter Willie 'Bunk' Johnson, who was living in his hometown of New Iberia, LA.

Johnson had not touched a horn for nearly a decade. He claimed to have played with the legendary Buddy Bolden, and also told his new acquaintances that he had taught Louis Armstrong to play trumpet! While the young researchers were figuring out a way to record Bunk Johnson, a parallel movement was taking shape in San Francisco.

A young cornetist named Lu Watters, also a record collector, had gathered a group of sympathetic musicians who longed to play the kind of hot jazz that was heard on the prized recordings from the 1920s. All the musicians in Watters’ cadre had wide experience with Swing Era bands, but they had grown weary of the sameness in the big bands’ sounds and the solo-oriented arrangements. Trombonist Turk Murphy, cornetist Bob Scobey, clarinetist Bob Helm and others were intrigued by Watters’ vision of an eight-piece hot jazz band with two cornets, performing a repertoire that included music by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong as well as long-forgotten stomps, blues, cakewalks and classic rags.

Yerba Buena Jazz Band at Dawn Club with KYA mic
Yerba Buena Jazz Band at Dawn Club with KYA mic

While Bunk Johnson was attempting to buzz into a new trumpet mouthpiece donated by his supporters, Watters and company were performing regularly at the Dawn Club, located in the basement of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. After a rocky start, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band was drawing crowds to the Dawn Club, broadcasting regularly on radio station KYA and recording for the Jazz Man label.

By 1942, Bunk was playing magnificently and he also recorded for Jazz Man. The two branches of what would be known as “The Great Revival,” alternatively “The New Orleans Revival,” were drawing closer. In 1943, jazz impresario Rudi Blesh convinced Bunk to travel to San Francisco, to play a concert at the Museum of Modern Art. Thanks to the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, the town was already jazz crazy. The cognoscenti were aware of Bunk’s reputation, thanks to news articles and word-of-mouth among the record-collecting fraternity. The Museum of Modern Art was packed for Bunk’s concert and the audience was spellbound by Johnson’s description of the early days of jazz. And when he played trumpet, no one in the crowd viewed the performance as that of an old man with ill-fitting false teeth. Bunk’s music galvanized the listeners, and set the stage for a return to San Francisco.

Bunk Johnson with the Yerba Buena Jazz Band at the C.I.O. Hall. (Courtesy Burt Bales)

Bunk’s next appearance in San Francisco was at the Geary Theater, backed by a group of musicians led by another jazz legend, the newly-rediscovered trombonist Kid Ory. The concert was a hit and there was a demand to hear more of Bunk in the Bay City.

A planned appearance at the Dawn Club, with members of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, was derailed when the segregated Musicians Union said no to the idea. However, Bunk was able to play with the band at the remote Big Bear Tavern. A series of concerts at C.I.O. Hall also featured Bunk with younger musicians, as well as a range of guest artists. Bunk also recorded again for Jazz Man, this time with a group of San Franciscans who were in the vanguard of the Great Revival: Turk Murphy, Ellis Horne, Burt Bales, Pat Patton, Squire Girsback, and Clancy Hayes. Once again, the recordings were well-received and brought well-deserved attention to the legendary Bunk as well as the younger revivalists.

Following WWII, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band made a triumphant, but temporary, return to the Dawn Club. Tax problems forced the band to find a new base of operations, and the YBJB wound up across the Bay in El Cerrito at their own club, Hambone Kelly’s.The success of the Yerba Buena musicians made it possible for a number of Revivalist groups to organize and flourish in the Bay Area. In the ‘40s and early ‘50s, nightclubs which featured traditional jazz included the Melody Club, Victor & Roxie’s, the 1018 Club, and Louchen Gardens.

Later, jazz fans could hear great music at the Pioneer Village, the Tin Angel, Sail’N, Easy Street, Pier 23, Burp Hollow, On The Levee, and Earthquake McGoon’s. However, the nightclub which attracted an ongoing A-List of first generation jazzmen as performers was Club Hangover. Bands led by Earl Hines and by Kid Ory played long residencies at the club. The amount of work available at the Hangover and other establishments convinced a number of veteran musicians to settle in the Bay Area. Hines, Ory, Muggsy Spanier, Joe Sulllivan, Pops Foster, Darnell Howard, Don Ewell, Jimmy Archey, Albert Nicholas, Ralph Sutton, Marty Marsala, and Tiny Crump all lived in San Francisco for varying amounts of time.