January 18, 2010

Success in a Sewer

Here's a 1959 Time magazine story called "Success in a Sewer" about the Blackhawk,* the legendary San Francisco nightclub that closed in the early Sixties. Shelly Manne, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and many other jazz greats performed and recorded there. Located in the still ungentrified Tenderloin area of San Francisco, about a mile from where I live, the site is now a parking lot.
     On the corner of Turk and Hyde Streets at the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin and just a wiggle away from the city’s sleaziest strip joints, slumps a scabrous nightclub called the Black Hawk. Its dim doorway belches noise and stale cigarette smoke. Against one wall lies a long, dank bar minus bar stools; a bandstand, just big enough for an underfed quintet, is crammed on the other side; stained, plastic-topped tables and rachitic chairs crowd the floor. The capacity, when everyone is inhaling, comes close to 200, and strangely, the crowd is always close to capacity. This week the Black Hawk is edging into its tenth year as one of the nation’s top resorts for modern jazz, the club that launched such cool cats as Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan. Says Co-owner Guido Caccienti: “I’ve struggled for years to keep this place a sewer.”
     No Bells. Entrepreneur Caccienti is rarely aware of the kind of music being played in his sewer: he is a bit hard of hearing and besides, he knows little about jazz. This has its advantages. Explains the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jazz Columnist Ralph Gleason: “It’s the club musicians like best. First, the owners don’t tell them what to do. They can’t—they can’t communicate. Second, the audience is best. Why else except to listen would anyone endure these conditions?”
     The awful conditions have steadily deteriorated since the fall of 1949, when Guido and a boyhood pal named Johnny Noga scraped up $10,000 to go to a sheriff’s sale and buy a bankrupt nightclub. Guido deployed his wife Eleanor at the cash register, Johnny married Helen, the head waitress, and they began to book some musical acts. Along with Brubeck and Mulligan, jazz stars as well as pop singers drifted into the Hawk—Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Dorothy Dandridge, Johnny Mathis. Regulars remember how Eleanor Caccienti refused to ring the cash register when Dizzy Gillespie was talking for fear she would miss a joke. (Now the cash registers have no bells.) They recall the night a trombonist lost his pants in the middle of a solo, and the time Drummer Art Blakey belted a cymbal so hard that it bounced onto a ringside table where (according to Gleason) “two worshipers were sitting with eyes closed. They went six feet in the air, straight up.”
     No Books. Season after season, the joint was jammed. The Hawk’s mascots —pigeons living in a coop right above the men’s room—grew fat and happy. The fees that the club was able to pay for its jazz acts rose from less than $300 to more than $3,000 a week. Even after the Nogas sold their interest in the club last year to Max Weiss, secretary-treasurer of San Francisco’s avant-garde Fantasy Records, nothing really changed. They did try to straighten out the chaotic books, but it was a foredoomed effort. Accurate accounting is apparently not a necessity for survival in the jazz world, where only a few clubs—Nick’s in Manhattan and the Blue Note in Chicago—have lasted as long as the Hawk.
     This week Guido’s noiseless cash registers are ringing up drinks and entrance fees to a brisk rhythm, the music of Vibraphonist Cal Tjader and his jazz quartet (quickly convertible to a bongo-congo Latin quintet with the addition of a crack drummer named “Mongo”). Says Owner Guido: “We give the customers good jazz. The musicians we don’t bother. We never walked around with big cigars and said, ‘I’m Mister Black Hawk and won’t you sit at my table, musician?’ They can look right across the room when they play and see me at the bar and know the boss is working too.”

Time magazine, August 3, 1959
"Nightclubs: Success in a Sewer"

* There is some controversy about whether the name of the club was the Blackhawk (one word) or the Black Hawk (two words). Albums recorded at the Blackhawk have tended to use the one word spelling in their titles. However, this article uses two words and the photo of the marquee seems to show two words. Fred Hall addressed the issue in his biography of Dave Brubeck, It's About Time. Dave recalls the name as one word, and Hall spoke to the original partners, Guido and the Nogas, in the early 1990s. They all came down in the one word camp. Guido claimed that the guy who made the sign "goofed." One other note - Guido's last name in the Time magazine story is spelled "Caccienti" but elsewhere, including Hall's book, is spelled "Cacianti." Perhaps the corner of Turk and Hyde is some sort of grammatical black hole?

No comments:

Post a Comment