Monday, October 25, 2010

Dixieland Jazz in San Francisco


The first popular music concert I recall going to in California was a 1962 performance by Turk Murphy and his Dixieland jazz band at Murphy’s club, Earthquake McGoon’s on Clay Street in San Francisco.  Although Dixieland originated in New Orleans, and is inextricably tied to that city, it had a long tradition in San Francisco as well. Sometimes derided by those who were boosters of the modern jazz that became a vital part of the bay area music community by the 1950s, Murphy’s band and its evolutionary ancestor, Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena jazz band, were well established, very popular groups that included some ferocious players.

Cornet player Lucius “Lu” Watters was born in Santa Cruz in 1911 and spent time working in some conventional big bands before deciding to form a Dixieland ensemble, the 12 piece Yerba Buena Jazz Band, in 1939. The Watters band was unusual in that the musicians were all Caucasian, and none of them had worked in Dixieland bands in New Orleans. For the next eleven years, Watters and company held forth as the house band in two successive venues, first the Dawn Club,  at 20 Annie Street just south of Market, and later the legendary Hambone Kelly’s across the bay at 204 San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito. During World War II, Watters was drafted and led an army big band in the Navy. His band carried on without him in San Francisco, but Watters’ leadership was missed, and the Dawn Club was closed when he returned from the war and discovered that no one had been paying taxes for the club or the band.

Watters then opened Hambone Kelly’s in the basement of a place that had formerly been called the Hollywood Club, run by legendary fan dancer Sally Rand. Watters and band inherited a big club with a 100 foot bar, a large dance floor, and an extremely exotic d├ęcor.  The band members lived in apartments upstairs from the club, and it again became a very popular venue where the band could hold forth until dawn if they so desired. At the beginning of 1951, Kelly’s closed and Watters broke up the Yerba Buena band. He retired from music entirely in 1957, moved up to Marin County, and got a degree in Geology.

With the demise of the Yerba Buena band, bay area Dixieland continued a long run under the tutelage of Turk Murphy, who had been the trombonist in Watter’s ensemble.  Murphy was born in 1915 in rural Palermo, California, and was exposed early to traditional jazz by his father, who played both trumpet and drums. As a young musician, Murphy did yeoman’s duty as a trombone player in touring big bands, but ultimately ended up in the bay area, where he, along with clarinet player Bob Helm and trumpeter Byron Berry, started a traditional jazz band in 1937. Ultimately, all of these players were drafted into the Watters band, where they remained during the period described above.  Like Watters, Murphy served in the armed forces during World War II, when he worked as an aviation mechanic.

Earthquake McGoon's
on Broadway
When the Watters band broke up, Murphy freelanced for awhile, but ultimately assembled his own group and spent the rest of his career doing regular residencies at a variety of San Francisco venues, starting with the Italian Village at Columbus and Lombard. Murphy’s band was smaller than Watters, but included a number of colleagues from the earlier band, including Helm,  trumpet player Bob Scobey, pianist Burt Bales. Murphy’s band was typically a more manageable 6 piece, but its stock in trade remained the traditional New Orleans music that the Yerba Buena band had embraced. In 1960, the Murphy Band opened the first of several nightclubs named Earthquake McGoon’s after a character in Al Capp’s “Lil Abner” comic strip. The initial club was at 99 Broadway, in the middle of the nightclub district.

In 1962, the club relocated to the Financial District, at 630 Clay Street, in what had formerly been the William Tell Hotel. The new club had a kitchen and apparently, in order to maintain their liquor license, the place also had to serve food. It was here, a few weeks after the second McGoon’s opened, that my entire family ventured out to hear some live Dixieland jazz. I don’t recall whether my parents had heard Murphy’s band live previously, but the fact that the new venue did serve food meant that we, as minors, could attend. I remember a Friday evening drive into what then was an unfamiliar part of the city, and entering the ornate, Barbary Coast style place. We arrived early for dinner and, at the time, were about the only patrons in the place. Our order was taken by Murphy himself, and he also did the cooking. According to one online source, he did the cooking for several years, and would make a great show of getting off the bandstand and stomping into the kitchen if some hapless patron would order some food once the band had started playing.  From what I can remember, he was cordial enough to us, but the steaks he brought us were horrible.  A few years later, a fan Murphy met in Japan apparently took over kitchen duties, presumably to the bandleader’s relief.

As time went on, the room filled up, and Murphy and company delivered a rousing evening of traditional New Orleans jazz. I don’t remember a lot of details (after all, I was nine years old at the time), but the entire event made quite an impression on me.

Regrettably, that evening in 1962 was the only time I saw Murphy perform. He kept the Clay Street version of McGoon’s going for some 16 years, and then relocated two more times, first to a club off the Embarcadero, and then to tourist destination Pier 39, finally closing up for good in 1984. Murphy then played regularly at the Fairmont Hotel’s aptly named New Orleans room before passing away in 1987.

Murphy’s delving into New Orleans traditional music was, ironically, derided by some modern jazz critics and aficionados as being too conservative and/or too commercial. However, the pursuit by Murphy, Watters, and their colleagues of a traditional music form that was relatively obscure at the time was commendable, and the arranging skills and chops of the musicians were commendable. Over time, Dixieland became an integral part of the San Francisco artistic scene, and Murphy became a sufficiently heralded city figure to have a tiny street running between Broadway and Vallejo, not far from the original McGoon’s location, named Turk Murphy Lane in his honor. The San Francisco Dixieland musicians also made a number of economic and artistic decisions that were embraced by the pioneers of the burgeoning rock community a few years later, such as communal living and owning their own venues so that they could play as long and as often as they wished – not to mention co-opting a traditional American music form into a more contemporary context.

Real New Orleans Dixieland music was also popular in the Bay Area, and I saw the touring version of the house band of that city’s Preservation Hall on a number of occasions in the 1960s, including a gig at the newly erected events center at my high school, Cubberley, during my time at the school. Preservation Hall, which opened in 1961 remains a vital center for traditional New Orleans music. 


Unknown said...

Thanks for the memories. My dad was an amateur dixieland trombonist. As a kid,when we visited SF, we saw Turk Murphy somewhere near North Beach....along with sticking our head in a coffee hangout where beatniks were reading poetry.
Its all a bit mysterious and hazy...but Dixie jazz was my entree into music, followed by first folk and then rock n roll.

cryptdev said...


Thanks for your comments (and sorry for my tardy reply). In the early '60s, Dixieland jazz, and Earthquake Mcgoon's, were nearly as important in the San Francisco music scene as the Dead, Airplane, and the Fillmore were a few years later. It's really great that the Bay Area has served as a home for so many different kinds of roots-based music over the years.

Anonymous said...

Michael - that time we heard Turk Murphey at the William Tell was my birthday! We had tried once to go in "as a family" at their Broadway location and were told about the new location, and that food would be served, and minors welcome. Great unforgettable evening.

BP (your brother)