F. Allen Smith
Allen Smith was born on August 11, 1925 and raised in Midland, a little steel town in Western Pennsylvania. Smith’s mother, father, aunts and uncles were all musicians, and his uncle Clarence Smith was a minor celebrity as the trumpet player in Fats Waller’s band. So it was natural that in 5 th grade Smith picked up a trumpet lying around the house. He soon was playing with school bands and orchestras. His family relocated to Stockton, California in 1943, and soon after Smith was inducted into the Navy, playing with many famous jazz musicians in the Navy Band. Once out of the service, he moved to San Francisco. Smith toured with many well-known musicians, among them Johnny Otis and Benny Goodman. He was also a popular educator, who worked in the San Francisco school system for many decades. Smith died in 2011.
LISTEN TO INTERVIEW
Harlem of the West SF Project
Interview: Eddie Alley, Dorothy Alley
Interviewer: Elizabeth Pepin Silva
Copyright 2017, Elizabeth Pepin Silva/ Harlem of the West SF Project
Please contact the Harlem of the West SF Project if you would like to use any part of the interview. Use is free, but the Harlem of the West SF Project must be credited. The entire interview may not be reproduced.
INTERVIEW BEGINS IN THE SMITH FAMILY HOME IN SAN FRANCISCO 11/12/04
ELIZABETH PEPIN SILVA: Can you state your name and what instrument you play?
ALLEN SMITH: My name is Allen Smith. Actually, my first name is Fredrick, but I never really cared for Fredrick too much. I think when I was in college at State, you have to fill out cards, your scheduling cards, and I made the mistake once of writing out the whole name to be precise, Frederick A. Smith – Allen Smith – and the guys started calling me Fred. I said, “Oh no!” (laughs) So I quickly changed my name to Allen, ‘cause that was the name that everybody always called me anyway. And then later on I added the put the F. in front of it. So now it’s become F. Allen Smith. And that’s the name I’ve used and have used for years and years now. But at least since college.
But, I play the trumpet, and I have played the trumpet. I started learning back in Midland, Pennsylvania, where I grew up.
EPS: Is that where you were born?
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah. You don’t have a bio on me, do you?
ALLEN SMITH: But, I grew up there in a little steel town in western Pennsylvania. I was born in 1925, August the 11th. So that makes me as of August 11, 79 and I hope to be around a few more years. But I started when I was 10 years old. My uncle just happened to have a trumpet that was lying around the house doing nothing and I came from a musical family. Uncles, aunts, mother and father that were all musicians. Dad was the choir director at the Baptist church, and mother was the pianist for a while and she also taught piano. I had an uncle who played trumpet with Fats Waller’s band. He was quite a celebrity. Occasionally he’d come through. (EPS: What was his name? ) His name was Clarence Smith. He lived in NY.
And so anyway, the uncle told me if I learned to play the trumpet, I could keep it, you know? So I did start learning around the 5th grade, the high school music teacher – band and orchestra – would come to the schools to give lessons to the kids who had an instrument, etc.
I started in 5th grade playing, and when I got down to jr. high, in to jr. high, which, of course, as I said, was located in the high school, I got a few more intense lessons and also joined the school band and orchestra. And just continued through.
I started playing in local bands also, and also school bands. There was a guy, Wayne Chaphen (sp?) That formed a little band, a five-piece band. He was the saxophone player and clarinet player, and I was the trumpet player and we played for school dances and little kinds of affairs in the community. And then there was another band composed of older guys that I would attend the rehearsals. My older cousin, about four years older, played with them. He was also a trumpet player. He was about four years older than I and he was sort of a vehicular model for me to follow, because he was a very excellent musician and later played with… (pauses) (EPS: Earl Hines?) … Earl Hines. And he became very well know. HE also played with Fletcher Henderson and a lot of different bands in NYC. Unfortunately, he’s passed a few years ago.
So that’s how I started. And then I graduated from high school in ’43, and my family, my mother’s parents, who originally at that time were living in Grinell, Iowa, moved out west to Phoenix, Arizona, and then bought some property in Stockton, California. And moved there. And about that time, they were quite up in age, in their 80s, so they asked my mom if she would like to move her family, assume the property, and guarantee them the life estate there end. Dad was tired of shoveling snow in Pennsylvania, so he said, great idea!
Anyway, so the family moved to Stockton, and it was from Stockton that I was inducted into the service. To make a long story short, I did get in the service, asked to be sent to the Navy, and also to be sent to Great Lakes, Illinois, and I was, where I connected with my cousin whom was already in one of the bands over there. And it just happened when I got in, the chief of bands was forming a band to take out himself. He had to do some sea duty time, and he had taken these guys, did not rate them, but they were all top musicians. The reason they didn’t rate them was because then if they did, he would loose them. Because with their rating, they would then be shipped out prior to him, and he wanted to save them for himself.
Well there was one particular trumpet player, who’s name you might be somewhat familiar with, pulled a few strings who was in that band, and got out of the band by a little pull that he had. And along comes this young trumpet player from Pennsylvania originally and from California now, or lately, who did qualify, passed the qualifications test and had a little pull in a sense that my cousin Vernon was the lead trumpet player in the band. And this guy, who’s name happened to be Clark Terry, pulled some springs to stay in Chicago. And little Allen comes along and it’s wide open. And Vernon’s pulling for me – my cousin.
So suddenly I’m on liberty to visit the few remaining parents.. rather relatives that I had in Pennsylvania and I get there and Vernon is there, and I said, what are you doing here? I went back to Pennsylvania because I was close to some relatives, rather than all the way to California for liberty. So what are you doing here? And he said, don’t you know? You’re going with us to Honolulu! Ohh?!
So for the next two years, I was in the Navy band, stationed in Honolulu, just right around the corner from Pearl Harbor. It was a musical education for me because these guys were older than I and they had all had experience in bands – big bands. In a sense, segregation proved to be good for me, in that sense, because the bands, the military period, being segregated, the best of the black musicians were sent to Great Lakes, Illinois, if you were in the Navy. Well, there were other places, but that happened to be the place from our Eastern area where I grew up – the guys were mostly sent there. Or at least a certain great percentage of them. And they had some great musicians, some great bands. Guys that had played with Ellington, that had played with Jimmy Lundsford… In fact, Gerald Wilson was up there in that band was one of the people in addition to Clark Terry. We had a member, Pee Wee Jackson, in our band, who used to play with Lundsford.
So these guys, I could learn from them. And it was a beautiful thing for two years. All we did, every day, we would get up, go to early chow, come back, have a 10am rehearsal, and then go to the theater and play for the servicemen at the theater – put a concert on for them. Then right after that hour noon concert we’d sit and enjoy a movie or film you know. This was in Hawaii! Then inevitably, we’d have a job that evening at one of the officer’s clubs someplace on the island. So we were playing our instruments every day and I was the recipient of the greatest education I could get from guys that were experienced, you know? So that is the end of that story.
EPS: When is the first time you ever saw the Fillmore? Was it before you left?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh no. I had never seen the Fillmore. When I got out of the service… well, I accidentally met some fellow servicemen since I was living in Stockton, now… we were all mustering out and I still had about 3 weeks more of service to do. Most of the guys being older than I, and having been in longer than I, that were from that band, were able to go home, having finished their tours of duty. I still had about 3 weeks. We came back to the place of deployment, which was down here at a place called Shoemaker in those days, it’s now Santa Rita Prison in Pleasanton, but it was Shoemaker, it was a port of embarkation and when we came from Chicago, we came right across the country to Shoemaker. From Shoemaker on ships from San Francisco to Hawaii.
So when we came back, we came back, in a sense, the same way. We came back to Shoemaker and then from there were sent.. since I had three weeks, one of the weeks I spent in Washington, they shipped me back to Washington DC to the school of music there since I was a musician. And then from there, I came back to Vallejo just as a regular serviceman in waiting, and then the last week was back at Shoemaker.
There, I met some musicians from San Francisco, who were mustering out – Vernon Alley, Earl Watkins, a guy named Curtis Lowe. And all these guys were from the area and so when I would take liberty, I would go off with them to San Francisco, you know, and sometimes I was living so close in Stockton, I would drive them into the City and drive back home to Stockton. So anyway, that way, I got to meet a lot of people, got to become somewhat… of course, I was kind of frightened to death of San Francisco because back East, you know, not knowing and hearing so much about the earthquakes, it was the biggest fear, coming to California, was running into one of those things.
ALLEN SMITH: But later, when it was my time to get out, one thing led to another, I was living in Stockton and playing a little music as well, and also becoming familiar with the Bay Area. Meeting a few people here and there and so forth. In fact, through the USO, I met a girl who lived in Stockton, and later, after the war, we started dating and she became my first wife.
So one thing led to another as far as playing was concerned. There was a bass player from Sacramento that I got to know and he turned me on to the Sacramento scene. Johnny Hibert (sp?) And he was a very good bass player. And that was a contact. And little by little I got into San Francisco. Juanita’s parents, by that time were living in Oakland and I was dating her and would come up and through contacts with her and her family I met more people in the Bay Area and along with the musicians I knew.
Vernon [Alley] was a big asset turning me on to people in San Francisco.
EPS: Did you play with him?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh yes. Oh yes. I played with Vernon.
EPS: Where did you play with him at?
ALLEN SMITH: Well, social club dances, affairs. But a lot of clubs. After I had become a little more established, I moved to San Francisco myself. I used to live on Geary Street, between Octavia and Laguna. OF course that area has changed a tremendous amount from what it was in those days.
But there used to be so many clubs in the Fillmore area. Two and three nightclubs within one block. Blacks had been imported you might say from the south because of the fact of the shipyards in Hunter’s Point needed workers. They were brought up for jobs in the Hunter Point area. Housing facilities were provided, and so… and Blacks, wanting to escape the south, anyway, this was an ideal kind of thing because there is housing, here’s good wages, etc. So that is how Hunter’s Point became what it is to this very day. It started out as a segregated community and practically, I wouldn’t say 100%, but it’s still…it’s still a segregated community. And because of that, all kinds of problems have befallen that area. Believe me, I know, because I spent twelve years of my life teaching school out in that community. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in turning that community around. Even Mayor Newsome realizes and is trying. Whether or not he’s going to be successful, who knows? The whole society. The whole society of USA needs to be turned around before communities like that are going to be changed.
EPS: What was it like for you, living in the Fillmore?
ALLEN SMITH: It was a great experience. It was a great experience.
EPS: Was it segregated as well?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh yes. Oh yes. That is why… in fact, black musicians were not invited to entertain downtown, quote unquotes, anywhere east of Van Ness Avenue was a no no.
EPS: Even in the Barbary Coast and International Settlement? Or was that an exception?
ALLEN SMITH: That came later. That came later. But back in the war days, Blacks were not permitted to work downtown. We had two separate unions, 669 and local 6, local 6 being the white, 669 being the black. And that continued up until maybe around ’60 I guess. Earl Watkins has more accurate statistics.
EPS: Do you think that is why the Fillmore clubs flourished so much then?
ALLEN SMITH: That was one of the reasons. Because whites had no place to go to get Black entertainment. And a lot of whites wanted that kind of entertainment. And they knew if they came out to the clubs in the Fillmore, they would be treated with great respect, would be taken care of royally in a sense, because Blacks wanted their business, you know? And they had no fear of any problems because management would certainly take care of any problems that might arise you know, by their just being there and being white. No, their business was sought. And there were clubs… it was.. it was just beauty to behold. I hate to say that it was due to segregated situations at that time, but in that case, the Blacks in the Fillmore profited, because whites wanted to come out and make friends, be friends with, etc. And some great relationships, you know, were made at that time.
So it was a happy happy time. And that was say, from ’40…I got out of service in ’46. I started at San Francisco State, at that time it was State College, the fall of ’46, right after I got out of service. I figured since the government was giving all Gis the right to go to school, college, you know, and paying for it, might was well take advantage of it. Which I did. Four years later, I ended up teaching, starting my teaching career which was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life as far as I am concerned, because it gave me, gave me security for the rest of my life.
Even to this day, because of 35 years in education, I have pensions that provide me with an income that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I have retirement.
EPS: So you would teach during the day?
ALLEN SMITH: and play on the weekends. And weeknights. It all depended upon the job. But, I, remember, was quite young at the time and had a lot more energy than I do now (laughs).
EPS: Did you ever go on tour?
ALLEN SMITH: Couple of summers. I went on tour one summer with Johnny Otis. One of the people that you mentioned. That was a lot of fun because the Jackson – not the Jackson 5 – oh God, Not the Jacksons. Maurice, the brother of… it will come to me – anyway, both of them were dancers – you know who I’m thinking of…(EPS: Maurice Williams?) No no no…one of the most famous Black dancers. He was just a kid about 12 years old.
EPS: I think I know who you mean. I can’t think of his name now.
ALLEN SMITH: He used to dance on Broadway. He used to dance…
EPS: He was in that movie “All that Jazz?”
ALLEN SMITH: Probably.
EPS: So you went out with the Johnny Otis Band one summer?
ALLEN SMITH: Yes. Also Ernestine Anderson, was a singer with that band. I forget if it was ’59. It might have been somewhere around there. Summer. I remember we got stranded in Chicago. (laughs). Fox. Lewis and White. A comedy team. And, also the Inkspots was also on that group. Bill Kennedy lost a brand new station wagon that he had purchased -- he won by playing dice or cards one night. One of the guys on the tour said, “I’m gonna get that car.” (laughs) And that very night he did. And the next morning he ended up behind the wheel! (laughs again)
EPS: Did you ever play at Jacks of Sutter at all?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh yeah. Jack’s on Sutter Street.
EPS: What was that club like?
ALLEN SMITH: It was not one of the up and coming, it was one of the standby clubs. Jack’s. It had been there for quite a while, and it was one of the better known clubs. Also, I played at the California Supper Club up on Post Street between Laguna and Buchanan. And here is Buchanan, excuse me, Laguna and down the street is Buchanan. California Supper Club was about 3/4 up the block. And just off the corner at Buchanan and a little bit up was Bop City. And around the corner, across the street, and off, still on Buchanan, just off Post Street, the main drag, was Jackson’s Nook, and everybody would meet there for breakfast or lunch. Guys would meet there from breakfast or whatever, and there would also be a little jamming going on. But the main place was Bop City, across the street, on Post. And there used to be a restaurant just down the street from Post, from Laguna, and just up a little bit from the California Supper Club, and I forget the name of it, but that would be the breakfast place.
EPS: Elsie’s Breakfast Nook?
ALLEN SMITH: Wasn’t Elsies. Elsie’s was down on Fillmore, and up over a theater that used to be there. Harold Blackshears used to be down underneath that theater.
EPS: Was it the Temple Theater?
ALLEN SMITH: There was only one theater there. But it might have been, because I do forget the name of the theater, but I had a little group myself there, opposite Billie Holliday. She came through and played there with a small group. Couldn’t have been more than a quartet rhythm section and herself. And I had a little five-piece group there at that time. I did not play with her.
EPS: That was at Elsie’s Breakfast Club?
ALLEN SMITH: That was at Harold Blackshear’s Club. Harold was a boxer that… a local boxer that had become quite famous and he had some backers and they decided with his name to go in and open up this club downstairs under that theater. And it did a little business for a little while, but there was notoriety and.. I think that Billie got busted down there and that is when she wrote that book with Jake Erelick, who was her attorney. “Never Plead Guilty.”
EPS: She got busted at Harold Blackshears?
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah.
EPS: For drugs?
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah. Now I don’t know that she got busted IN Harold Blackshears, but I believe that it was the time she was working. I’m not familiar with all the circumstances in terms of how it happened, etc, but I’m almost positive that it was during the time she was working at Harold Blackshears, downstairs under the theater.
EPS: Do you know what year that was?
ALLEN SMITH: God, no. (EPS: ‘40s? ‘50s?) Ummm. It would be the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. The reason I say that is because the Fillmore started shutting down around ’51. I was working at the New Orleans Swing Club which was on Post Street, near Fillmore, just across the street from the Club Alabam. The old Club Alabam. Which was next store to the Bank of America. Bank of America was on the corner of … on the northeast corner of Fillmore at Post.
EPS: I know it. It’s now a Goodwill.
ALLEN SMITH: It’s still in the shape of a recognizable bank. You look at it and know it had to be a bank. And that was the Bank of America in the Fillmore. And right across the street, just up a little bit on the south side was the New Orleans Swing Club, and right across the street was the Old Club Alabam. Right behind the Bank of America, going up the hill towards town. East rather. There was a little joint there called the Club Alabam. That was a very popular places, too. And that was really going long before I came to town. Vernon and I used to play there a lot. And Vernon played all over the place. He was the most popular black musician in San Francisco at that time, along with just a few others. Another bass player, Eddie. Eddie Hannon. He’s no longer with us either. But he also helped me get started. He’s no longer with us. Eddie used to do a lot of playing and also in the Fillmore. He had a band of his own. So that they both had bands.
EPS: What was the New Orleans Swing Club like? Who did you play with there?
ALLEN SMITH: Well, a lot of good bands and not only that, but some white bands started coming in. Big bands. Trumpet player I met went on to, a white fellow, went on to play with Woody Herman?
EPS: Not Chet Baker?
ALLEN SMITH: No, Chet was still in the service. I knew Chet very well back in those days He was stationed out here at the Presidio. I’m almost 80%, 90%... he was stationed over there. And he would come in to town and sit in with us and jam with us at Bop City whenever he could, you know. I don’t know what his military status was, but he was in the army. I don’t know how much time he had to do before he got out, but he was probably also close to mustering out and was stationed there and took advantage of it. I guess he played in the army band at the Presidio. But he was a very nice guy. We hit it off and had a lot of fun together. Of course, he wasn’t Chet Baker at that time! (laughs) He went on to become Chet Baker.
EPS: He was just another player.
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah, you know…(laughs)
Bop City was THE place. The after hours spot. Because everybody…the town closed up when.. back in those days. In the ‘40s. And where are you going to go, you know, and hear some good music? Out to the Fillmore. Out to the Black clubs. That was it. And the cops were really there to protect you because many of them, I’m sorry to say, were getting paid to be protectors, you know, by club owners or whatever. So club owners didn’t have any problems. All they had to do is get on the phone and call the cops and the problem was erased. For which I’m sure they paid off a bit here and there. To whom and names, nobody knows. But, you know, these things happened and everybody was glad about it because nobody got hurt, you know? (EPS: You’d just go and play…) Have fun and that’s it. Nobody wanted any bad actors, you know. Because that was a detriment to business.
EPS: What was Jimbo like?
ALLEN SMITH: I liked Jimbo. Jimbo was a sweetheart person. Everybody that I know liked Jimbo. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. Every once in a while there would be a big party for Jimbo. I remember the last one I attended was his birthday over at a club called Jimmy’s, over in Oakland. They went over one afternoon and partied with him. And of course that was long after the days of the Fillmore and Bop City. But just due to the memories of the Fillmore and Bop City.
EPS: Do you think he was really sad when Bop City closed?
ALLEN SMITH: I’m sure he was sad when the Fillmore days closed, quote unquote. The days of the Fillmore. Because it was just a gorgeous place. There was an expression of brotherhood that existed among all peoples. You didn’t have to worry about who was going to be a bad actor, as such. Because nobody wanted any problems. You came out there to enjoy yourself. Black, blue green, yellow, whatever you were, you came out to enjoy yourself and you saw somebody coming on wrong in a racial sense – uhh uhh. (laughs) The next minute there would be people who would come up and say, “Hey, not here. You know, we don’t do that.” People coming up from the south, whatever. You know, racists from wherever, you don’t come out here, not here, and carry that attitude.
EPS: It must have been exciting for musicians.
ALLEN SMITH: You never knew who was going to be there. I have another episode to tell you. Everybody that was anybody came – I’m talking about musicians, of course – who came to San Francisco, would end up at Bop City after the clubs closed, you know, the regular hour clubs, and we’d party to whatever time in the morning. Five, six, etc.
And, the episode I was gonna tell you, one night, God was in the house. (laughs) That’s an expression that people used or that was used back then whenever Art Tatum came in wherever he happened to be. Anyway, they’d say, “God’s in the house.” He was the greatest pianist in the eyesight of anybody who knew anything about music at all and especially about piano playing.
Well, he came in one night and I happened to be with a group of guys that were playing. And we asked him if he would play, you know, care to join us? And he said, yeah, but I came in to play with you guys, you know? And we said but we want to hear you. (laughs) So he says, well, I tell you what. I’ll play a song for you, if you’ll let me play one with you guys. So we traded off. The rest of…
(SIDE A ENDS, BEGIN SIDE B)
When it came time for his tune for us, we would sit down like little children, you know, at the edge of the stage underneath the piano, you know, looking up at him, and watched him play every note, you know! And of course, every note was a pearl, as far as we were concerned. And then when he would finish, then, you know, he would suggest a tune, or we would suggest a tune that we could all play together and then we did. That was one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent in Bop City. I mean, there were other nights that were beautiful over there, but that was one that I will never ever forget. The night that God sat in with us. Oh, man.
There were other nights, but, you know, what can I say.
EPS: I want to show you some photos of Bop City to see if you recognize anyone.
ALLEN SMITH: And Bill. This is Bill, the singer.
EPS: He’s a singer?
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah. Bill. Bill Jones. (points to photo of Duke Ellington with several women and crowd behind him) I was getting worried. How could there be this many people and I not know any of them.
EPS: Do you know where that might have been taken?
ALLEN SMITH: Well it could have been in a house someplace. I’m looking at this table here.
EPS: It looks kinda like a hotel or a big… I was thinking the Manor Plaza…
ALLEN SMITH: Bill Jones lived in LA most of the time.
EPS: Did he sing at Bop City?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh, he sang around. He used to work at some joints. (misc talk about photos)
EPS: Did you ever see Duke Ellington in the Fillmore?
ALLEN SMITH: I may have, but it was no big deal. You know, when I say it was no big deal…you know, Dizzy Gillespie was in the Fillmore. Everybody was in the Fillmore. (laughs) Miles. You name him or her. They were there. I remember seeing Dexter Gordon walking across the street on night from the… I thought he was the most handsome man in the world. And dressed! And his clothes were just so tailored. So beautiful. He had a beautiful topcoat on as he was walking from the New Orleans Swing Club over towards the bank across the street one night to get into a car. Yeah, as I said, a very handsome man.
(EPS Shows Allen a photo of Johnny Mathis in Bop City)
ALLEN SMITH: Johnny was quite well known. In fact, my wife went to school with him at State College.
EPS: Was he a good singer back then?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh yeah. He was a great singer back then. In fact, the owner of the Blackhawk, Helen Noga, took him under his wing…her wing rather, and became his sponsor. His agent.
EPS shows Allen a photo of Chet Baker in Bop City
ALLEN SMITH: The guy right behind Chet Baker is Bobby. A drummer. I forget his last name. I am almost positive. Bobby Something. I played with him a lot of times.
ALLEN SMITH: A lot of servicemen had a lot of fun in the Fillmore.
EPS: Did it feel like a big party?
ALLEN SMITH: Every night! (laughs) Every night was a big party.
EPS: How did you guys manage to go to work the next day?
ALLEN SMITH: You didn’t. You slept. Now, we were young and anxious.
EPS: Musically, do you think it was the best time of your life?
ALLEN SMITH: Ohhhh…I would say it was one of the best times of my life. That whole era back in there from the late ‘40s until the middle ‘50s and on through there. Like my being…spending a year in New York in ’58 and ’59, those were some great days, too.
EPS: Oh, I didn’t know that. What made you decide to go out there? Just music?
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah. Guys that I had known throughout the service had been begging me to come to New York, you know. And Jerome Richardson, who was a very dear friend of mine, invited me to come and stay with him and his wife and their little daughter that summer. And he was very well known in New York. So I did decide to do it and he turned me on to New York. In a sense, I conquered the town, from my point of view, anyway. (laughs) That was when I played with Benny Goodman. I started off playing with one of my mentors, Benny Carter. And later on ended up going to Japan two years in a row, ’91 and ’92.
EPS: Wow. Did you ever play a place called the Champagne Supper Club?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh yeah. That was the place that was upstairs. Remember I mentioned that breakfast place that I used to eat in just down on Laguna at Post Street? And then further down, about ¾ of the block from Buchannan, was the Champagne Supper Club. That was, that was a little more gentel. In fact, there was no comparison to Bop City, to this club.
EPS: What do you mean? More highbrow?
ALLEN SMITH: More classy people would go there. There was usually a cover, and, you know, prices were a little higher. It catered to people that were a little more…who had a little more wherewithal. Dressed better, etc.
EPS: What kind of music was there?
ALLEN SMITH: Jazz. Better bands, better groups. Groups that were more organized.
EPS: Do you think there was a San Francisco sound that came out of the Fillmore?
ALLEN SMITH: I really don’t know. I would say there could have been, because it was pretty wild…pretty wide open and music was in the throes of change. Bebop was just establishing roots, and swing, as such, was on the way out. Jerome [Richardson] took to… Jerome originally was one of the most prominent swing players you could have. In fact, he played with Lionel Hampton’s band. But he went…when Bebop came up, he just went ape and played more Parker on his alto, than Charlie Parker played almost! I mean, that’s an exaggeration, of course, but he just amazed me, the things that he was doing. (EPS: Jerome?) Yeah, Jerome. Could do, rather.
EPS: Frank Jackson said Jerome was frustrated by the limitations of the San Francisco I mean Fillmore scene, so that’s why he went to New York.
ALLEN SMITH: That could be. Could be. He definitely… he had strong desires to go to New York, and was an immediate hit when he got there ‘cause he could do everything that a sideman was required to do in any of the bands there. He started working almost immediately at the Roxy Theater, which was comparable to Radio City Music Hall at that time. I think he went there in ’53. He was just number one in the theater. And then there were very few Blacks that were doing studio work downtown and he just walked in like, “nobody told me!”
EPS: Did you record at all?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh yeah, yeah.
EPS: Who did you record with?
ALLEN SMITH: Well, I recorded with Benny Goodman for one. I was with him for about a year. I joined him…We did a fall tour in fall of ’58 and the tour was through all the colleges in New England, south, through Chicago, St. Louis, Texas, and then back through Philly. We were out for about a month.
I did a lot of studio work where you are recording jingles. A lot of things also with the guy that wrote most of Miles’s charts. I can’t think of his name. Gil Evans. He was a hell of an arranger or writer. Beautiful stuff he used to write.
EPS: Was that here or in New York?
ALLEN SMITH. New York. I worked with him a lot in New York. ‘58/’59.
EPS: Do you think the Fillmore is ever going to come back like the way they want it?
ALLEN SMITH: No. I truthfully don’t. Been too many changes. The anxieties don’t exist that used to exist. I guess that there is probably a lot of reasons why I don’t think it will ever come back. I don’t know if there is a need for. In those days, there was a need for. A need for Blacks to have a place that they could relax and enjoy themselves. There was a need for people to escape – whites and blacks – There are many things that are not as they should be in our society. But it’s pretty hard to turn the clock back in any situation. In any historical situation. Along the way in the path of history, there were some good times, along with some of those horrible, bad, horrendous times. But to bring it back, I don’t think… I really…It’s like, can you repeat history? You know?
EPS: Do you think the Fillmore…Would the clubs gone away anyway, or did Redevelopment force it to happen?
ALLEN SMITH: Well, I think what little life there was left, that Redevelopment did that. But times change. In those days the only… the mass of Black people could only work in Hunter’s Point. But that soon changed as kids started getting better education.
EPS: You mean like not just in a club? Regular work?
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah, regular work. Society changed. The war was great in terms of providing work for the common man or the common worker. The common Black worker. The laboring class. There were very few professional people. I think at that time there were only about one Dan Collins, who’s son was also instrumental, and still is, in restoring the Fillmore. Dan was the only Black dentist in town. And the only dentist…just about everybody who went to see a dentist, and there weren’t too many of us Blacks that did, he was the one everyone went to see. Same way with doctors. Maybe one or two.
And, you know, things have changed. Societies have changed.
EPS: Now there are loads of professionals.
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. Who needs, you might say, a Bop City to go to? You know? It was exciting, with a tinge of intrigue and danger, maybe a little bit. You could co-mingle, you know, whites and blacks. And it was fun, you know?
EPS: You didn’t have to worry, or feel bad.
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah. You know, and even if you did… you certainly had to worry, I mean, you were always looking over your shoulder, but you could do it and it was exciting. You know. But now, say you walk down the street with a white girl, I mean, so what? (laughs) But in those days, it was a hell of a lot more than just that, you know. Yeah, I can remember, one of my very first experiences in San Francisco, I happened to be downtown at night, or after dark, I don’t know what time it was. I’m just, you know, walking around, etc. and some beefy white guy comes up to me and I don’t know what he said to me, but he was menacing and said something, you know. Real beefy guy. Looks like a wrestler. I decided I think it was probably best I move away from this guy. (laughs). I’m talking about downtown Market Street, somewhere around Jones and Market. So I started walking up the street and he started following me. I crossed the street and he started following me again. I decided to leave the area. I knew he couldn’t catch me if I were to run. (laughs) I just quickened the pace and got the hell out of there, you know? But, you know, why? The only thing I had done to him was maybe looked at him, and he noticed that I was Black. So what?
But that kind of stupidity would, could, and did happen in those days, you know.
EPS: Do you think that there was racism in San Francisco?
ALLEN SMITH: You got to be kidding. DO I think there was? Yes dear. Yes (gets very quiet). Blacks were not permitted to play east of Van Ness Avenue.
EPS: But besides the music scene – just in general.
ALLEN SMITH: I’m talking about the music scene. As far as working, laboring work, I’m sure Eddie Alley could answer that question, because he ended up working at Metropolitan Life down on Stockton Street.
EPS: He talked a lot about it.
ALLEN SMITH: Yeah, and that was one of the best jobs that Blacks could have at that time – as a custodian. And then I think he became an elevator operator.
EPS: Were there restaurants or stores you could not go into or anything like that?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh yeah. To this day I do not go into Bank of America to do any banking at all, because they did not want Black business when I first came to town. And to deal with them in terms of securing loans or whatever, forget it.
EPS: Was there any places in the Fillmore?
ALLEN SMITH: How do you mean?
EPS: Were there any places in the Fillmore that discriminated against people?
ALLEN SMITH: The Fillmore was Black. Period. Anybody that was doing business out there, any white person was doing business better cater to Blacks, or he wouldn’t last very much longer. Now there was a lot of discrimination. The Blackhawk was one of the few clubs that first that welcomed jazz and black musicians. Turk and Hyde.
EPS: Did you play there?
ALLEN SMITH: Oh yeah. I played there with Vernon [Alley] on Sunday afternoons. They had sessions – Vernon ran the sessions down there. Yeah, What was it, in ’51? There was a club owner who wanted to open up a club, and he wanted to call it “Blanco’s Cotton Club.” And pattern it after the Cotton Club in New York. He wanted Black bartenders, Black waitresses, and a Black band. And I was the bandleader he chose.
EPS: Where was the club?
ALLEN SMITH: The club was on O’Farrell. You know The Great American Music Hall. That was where the club was originally.
EPS: Was it like the Cotton Club in NY where it was an all white audience? No Blacks allowed in the audience?
ALLEN SMITH: No no. The audience wasn’t segregated. But he wanted to have all Black help. And the bartenders, cooks, waiters union said no.
EPS: Really? How come?
ALLEN SMITH: They didn’t want any Blacks. They didn’t have any Blacks in the union. That was when everything was separate. That’s one answer to your question is if San Francisco was segregated. (laughs)
So the first night, I mean, the guy decided to go ahead and do it anyway, he was going to hire Blacks and if the white unions, you know, didn’t come around, to hell with them. If they wanted to, then they’d come in. So we did open. In fact I asked the leader of our union, because we knew pickets were going to be up, they were gonna picket it, and we crossed the picket line and went on in. And in a couple of days, they took them off. Because of union problems, the club eventually closed. But there were a few other reasons, too, and I’m not privy to all of them. But, I think a lot of people just didn’t want to be involved, you know.
But Tatum, he was…Well, he brought in… the entertainment he brought in was big bands, like Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, but the nut was so high that he really couldn’t afford the entertainment, and bad business management to begin with, and eventually the club closed.
But yes, there was discrimination in San Francisco.
EPS: Is there anything else you think people should know about the Fillmore or the Fillmore music scene for the book?
ALLEN SMITH: I guess I have mixed feelings about how the Fillmore is going to be portrayed. There were some good things, and there were bad. You know, what does that say, nothing.
EPS: What would you say?
ALLEN SMITH: Well, I don’t know…I would say enigmatic would be a term that I probably would use. There were good and bad things. Some of it I would… I wish it were possible to return. And that’s the dream of building a nightclub there or creating an area, you know, where like the Blue Note or whoever, where Blacks could perform, and really be enjoyed by Blacks and others. But some of the seaminess, the fact that people are still going around shooting people and killing people for no reason… no apparent reason at all… there’s always a reason of course…but, I mean, you know, not too long ago, some guy sitting outside Safeway…Bam! gets wiped away. How many guys are killed in Hunter’s Point?
I would like to see the excitement be brought back, if there was some way to bring it back. Bringing some of it, anyway. I don’t know if you were in town when they had a celebration at the very spot where they are planning on building a club. Were you there? (EPS: Yeah) If that kind of thing could be re-created, it would be beautiful. Because you had everybody out there that Sunday afternoon, dancing, just, you know, all mixed up, and everybody was just happy. That kind of thing, if that could be replicated through means of nightclubs or a section or an area where good music could be heard, whether in or out, something of that would be a lot of fun. That would be a plus is what I’m saying.