By Hal Smith
New East Bay Home for the YBJB
When tax-accounting problems forced Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band to leave the Dawn Club in January 1947, the band immediately began to look for a new base of operations. The old Hollywood Club in El Cerrito, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, was available for a reasonable price. The club, formerly owned by fan dancer Sally Rand, was huge by nightclub standards. It featured a dance floor, bar, kitchen, and a lounge with a second bar. The musicians who had carpentry skills, particularly Turk Murphy, went to work refurbishing the club.
The deal was everybody was to share labor and share costs. And they had started a partnership in the old days back at the Dawn Club. Everybody had different jobs and tasks, and what they got was the ability to live at Hambone Kelly's, which was a huge place.
Lu Watters envisioned the new operation as a co-op, with band members living on the premises and each musician assigned a task: Watters would be the chef, Bob Helm would supervise the waitresses, and Dick Lammi would screen silent movies for the patrons before the band started to play. Rifts began to develop quickly, however, when some musicians opted not to live at the club and others wanted a salary, rather than sharing in the profits.
Despite the ominous signs, the club opened as Hambone Kelly’s on June 20, 1947. As Watters recalled later, it was so successful that 27 waitresses were needed to handle the patrons’ food and drink orders. Fans from the Dawn Club days made the long trek from San Francisco to the relatively wild and woolly Old West atmosphere of El Cerrito. Jazz author-critic Rudi Blesh hosted a live broadcast of his This Is Jazz radio program from Hambone’s on August 16, carrying the San Francisco style across the country on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Lu paid all the bills. He led the band. He made the program up, and he cooked the food…. He did, however, like having the door right behind the bandstand because he didn't like to talk to people. So, play the last note, put the horn down, go through that door, and cook. That was an escape for him.
Great, Swinging Jazz
The Watters band was really exciting. No other musician I've ever seen dominated every aspect of a band the way Lu did. That band was really Lu's band. It had this incessant driving rhythm...the guys were on fire with it. It was just great, swinging jazz.
They played 40 minutes and took 20 minutes off every hour, which is a very short set, but the band was loud, and the band played hard every night, so it was essential that they do short sets.
The Club's Decline
However, all was not well behind the scenes. Wally Rose left, then Bob Scobey, then Bill Dart, and finally Turk Murphy. Some of the departures were hastened due to constant delays in performance fees. Others left because of serious musical disagreements. Although some of the principals returned, the full Yerba Buena Jazz Band was just a memory by the middle of 1948. After hernia surgery, Watters was forced to lay off playing trumpet for several months. With Dart out of the picture, Lu played washboard. Recordings from this period include some outstanding performances, but it was not the powerful two-trumpet sound that fans of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band craved.
Watters tried to bring in more patrons by hosting Sunday afternoon jam sessions, and special concerts, which included appearances by James P. Johnson, Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Pete Daily, and the Firehouse Five Plus Two. Still, it was not enough to make up for the reduced patronage.
By 1950, the band was reduced to a quintet and the number of performances cut back. Even with these drastic measures, the club could not continue to operate at a loss. The Yerba Buena Jazz Band’s final performance was on December 31, 1950. The next day, Lu Watters shook hands with the quintet and retired from the music business. The musicians went their separate ways to the new bands led by Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey, as well as to other traditional jazz groups in the Bay Area.
In 1951, Bob Scobey leased the old Hambone Kelly’s and opened it as Alexander’s. He brought one of his greatest bands to perform—with Jack Buck, George Probert, Wally Rose, Clancy Hayes, Squire Girsback, and Fred Higuera. Scobey had been unable to secure a liquor license, and the club limped along with only soft drinks, coffee, and tea available to customers, before permanently closing three months later. Eventually, the building itself was demolished. Today, a Wells Fargo Bank stands at the approximate location of Hambone Kelly’s. If atmospheric conditions are right, and one listens closely while using the ATM, it may be possible to hear the ghostly sound of a trumpet, stomping down hard on “Coney Island Washboard.”
Live Recordings from Hambone Kelly's 1948-1950
More Photos and Ephemera
Clute, Cedric; Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: Meet Me at McGoon’s. Victoria, B.C., Canada 2004. Trafford Publishing.
Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: The Great Jazz Revival. San Rafael, CA., 1994. Donna Ewald Publishing.
Elwood, Philip: Liner notes for Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings. Berkeley, CA 1993. Good Time Jazz 4GTJCD 4409 – 2.
Goggin, Jim: Turk Murphy: Just For The Record. San Leandro, CA., 1982. San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.
Helm, Bob and Rose, Wally: Interviews with author John Buchanan, San Francisco (undated).
Koenig, Lester: Notes to Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band: The San Francisco Style Vol. 2. Los Angeles, 1954. Good Time Jazz L-12002.
Watters, Lu: interviews with Dr. Ed Lawless and Dottie Lawless, Cotati, CA 11/28/84 and 12/6/87.