Sid Le Protti’s Barbary Coast
Turk Murphy Records Sid Le Protti – Jazz on the Barbary Coast
In 1953, Turk Murphy visited former Barbary Coast jazzman Sid Le Protti in his Oakland home with Columbia Records' producer George Avakian, to record Sid’s memories of leading his band at Purcell’s So Different Cafe on Pacific Street every night for 20 years. Le Protti’s stories and piano work recorded that day provide a glimpse into the emergence of jazz in the Bay Area in the very early 1900s.
In the late 1930s, when Turk and his bandmates sparked the Great Revival of New Orleans-style jazz in San Francisco, they were all record collectors and students of early jazz. Recording Sid LeProtti in 1953 brought Turk full circle to an all but forgotten era of jazz at home.
Our San Francisco, the cradle of jazz, the town in which any saxman could get a job, they say, as long as he had a horn and it had all the buttons, because of the scarcity of players on the Barbary Coast.
Men pushing good robust strains up and down Pacific Street—Purcell’s and its seven-piece colored combo, with believe-it-or-not, a hot cello!
Around 1908 and ‘09 Purcell’s bunch was improvising tunes of their own between sawing out the popular ballads of the day. The Panama Pacific Expo of 1915 brought entertainers and musicians from other parts and these these absorbed the styles common in our nightlife.
Early Jazz in San Francisco
New York, Chicago, and New Orleans are better known as jazz cities than San Francisco—but history reveals the City by the Bay has held it own from the earliest days of jazz in America.
A century ago San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was a waterfront hub of loose living, dance-crazy club-goers and a hot new kind of music—more often identified by dance steps, like the Turkey Trot or the Shim-me-sha-wobble than the word ‘jazz’—but that’s what it was.
Cornetist Bunk Johnson, who helped spark the New Orleans Revival in California from the early 1940s, arrived on the West Coast as early as 1905.
In a town settled by gold-seekers and adventurers, where men outnumbered women, the strip of dance halls along Pacific Street better known as ‘Terrific Street’ was the destination for a night on the town.
Musicians from all over migrated to San Francisco, made a good living on the Barbary Coast, and contributed their own inflections to the music of the district.
How the Word "Jazz" Came About
In 1913, Purcell’s Cafe at 520 Pacific Street offered something new, something different. Here, bandleader and homegrown jazzman Sid LeProtti made his mark in the annals of jazz.
My boys, what we had, my boys were like a family, we got along, we had our rehearsals together... ‘you take a chorus, I’ll take a chorus’...Dixieland-style...that’s the way we went on.
– Sid Le Protti
Fronting his So Different Jazz Band at Purcell’s, LeProtti was the first bandleader anywhere to use the word ‘jazz’ in the name of his group
It is an historical irony that the city that put “jazz” in jazz doesn’t rate a mention in most history books.
Le Protti's So Different Jazz Band may also have inspired the first time the word 'jazz' appeared in print.
According to researcher Peter Tamony, on March 6, 1913, sportswriter E.T. 'Scoop' Gleason, covering the San Francisco Seals spring training for the Bulletin, reported:
Everybody has come back to the old town full of the old 'jazz'...what is 'jazz?' Why...the players are just brimming over with that old 'Texas Tommy' stuff and there is a bit of 'jazz' in everything they do.
Newspaper readers everywhere knew the Texas Tommy dance craze had been 'invented' on the Barbary Coast at Purcell's So Different Cafe —and went on to become an international hit.
Along Came Jelly Roll
The Barbary Coast had a carnival-like atmosphere presenting everything from big ticket prizefights to Little Egypt doing the shimmy. In the early 1900s, the city's 'bright light' district added ‘hot jazz’ to its list of attractions.
This highly rhythmic aspect [of jazz], sometimes called syncopation, involves an approach to music in which the band swings the dancers, who in turn influence the musicians.
Purcell's So Different Jazz Band was not the first New Orleans-style hot jazz band San Franciscans heard. Will Johnson's Creole Jazz Band holds that honor. They rolled into town in 1907. A couple years later, Will Johnson's brother 'Dink' brought his band to the city.
Le Protti explains the music’s development from two-beat to four-beat, the New Orleans-style introduced by Will Johnson and others. The pianist [LeProtti] was amazed to see Johnson pick the bass rather bow it. “That’s where I got the idea of four beats,” LeProtti recalled, and as early as 1912, he also “switched to the New Orleans type instrumentation.”
In 1914, New Orleans trumpet king Freddy Keppard appeared in the Bay Area. The self-proclaimed 'inventor of jazz,' Jelly Roll Morton, made his Barbary Coast debut before World War I.
King Oliver at Purcell's
Trombonist Kid Ory and trumpeter Mutt Carey, iconic New Orleans jazzmen and fixtures of the Great Revival in the 1940s, performed regularly in San Francisco before 1920.
The great Joe 'King' Oliver brought his Creole Jazz Band to town from Chicago in 1921 for a gig set up for him at the Pergola Ballroom on Market Street by Kid Ory.
In the LeProtti recordings, Sid relates how Oliver's band came calling at Purcell's and sat in with his group, earning the nickname, "that tobacco-chewin', wall-spittin' band", due to the antics of Oliver's string bass player.
Le Protti's So Different Jazz Band was a clean-living bunch. They didn't drink, gamble or smoke tobacco and were offended when Oliver's bass player spit his 'snoose' on the wall.
After a ‘morality’ campaign by the San Francisco city fathers shut down the Barbary Coast in 1921, Sid Le Protti continued to make a good living performing with various ensembles he led, playing swing hits of the day and the early jazz and rags he loved. He kept performing until his late sixties.
By the mid-1930s, Sid and his family had moved to the suburb Walnut Creek just south of Concord. He and his wife Mamie had managed their money well and he bought a pretty house on an acre of land.
In 1942, though he continued to perform he also kept a cigar store and shoeshine parlor at 1325 Main Street in Walnut Creek, where writer and radio personality Rudi Blesh interviewed Le Protti for Blesh's 1946 jazz history Shining Trumpets.
Sid Le Protti’s contribution to west coast jazz is significant even though the only record we have of his work are the recordings made by Turk Murphy and George Avakian.
TOM STODDARD b. 2/1/1933 d. 4/27/2001
Tom Stoddard began interviewing jazz pioneers and collecting jazz photos in the 1950’s and wrote numerous articles on the history of jazz, including his book Jazz on the Barbary Coast. His book, Pops Foster—The Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman, was published by the University of California Press in 1971 and won the 1972 ASCAP award. A former government official and vice president of Wells Fargo Bank, Tom Stoddard was also the author of many articles on still and mechanical coin banks.