Harlem of the West

The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era

Herman Sebastian Bosset


Herman Bosset was born in California just before the start of World War II, and grew up with his grandmother in Berkeley. His uncle, musician Saunders King, took Bosset under his wing and was like a father gure. Even as a child, Bosset would accompany his famous uncle to The Fillmore jazz clubs, and he grew up surrounded by music. Bosset works at the California Jazz Conservancy and resides in the Bay Area.

Harlem of the West SF Project
Interview: Herman Sebastian Basset
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.


Elizabeth Pepin Silva: So how are you related to Saunders King?

HERMAN SEBASTIAN BOSSET: Oh, Saunders King, my mother is Saunders' sister. And when she was in the movies down in, you know, in LA, did all old Mantan Morland things, Son of Engagy, Spencer Williams. All the old Charlie Chan movies, she did all that. And he was up here. Well, her and my dad couldn’t make it. So she sent me up to my grandmother here on Boise Street. And then Saunders was like a father to me. Not only was he my uncle, but he, you know, I got a lot of guidance from him. And we lived on Boise Street in Berkeley. Then he married Jodie and then Kitan (?) and Debbie came. I used to babysit ‘em, in a sense. And when he was on the city, we’d say right across the street there on Sacramento and Divisidero. And that was the huge Victorian. And the Copper Kettle was right across the street.

Well, in those days, they called it the International Settlement. Everything you could imagine was there. And I grew up in, I grew up there back and forth, back and forth. But I always was with him (Saunders King), even as a little guy, going in to Jimbo’s Bop City, going into even sometimes they call it the Backstage. I just can’t quite, and what’s his name? Barney Mc? I got it written down. He started the jam sessions at the Backstage or whatever it was. Then the Blackhawk.

And my grandmother, she was, you know, church lady, and she didn’t go out to things like that. But I followed him, and you know, he showed me the ropes of things of growing up. And it started right there in the Fillmore. But he was different type of guy, I could see then. He wasn’t even my teenage, younger teenage years, he was different.

EPS: What do you mean by that?

HERMAN BOSSET: He was very dapper. Very, he always was neat and clean. But he had a thing about him, that I will never forget. One day on Boise Street my uncle, his brother, Uncle Jay’s car’s parked in the front. About three guys came and I came outside to do something, they were gonna jump me. So I, you know, noticed two but they were a little larger than me. Saunders said back up, back up, spread your legs. He says, now this one, give him a left hook. So I did, he said now follow through with a right and I knocked him out. But what I didn’t know about this guy, he was one heck of a boxer. For years, SK was a boxer. My grandmother, she fought it, because he played some piano, he was such a… good piano, I mean he could go. My grandmother said no. That’s it. So, all right, he went back to the love of music. But then I began, he really understood the street. He understood that, Elizabeth, and let me tell you why. One time, at Jack’s Tavern, Billie Holliday walked in. I saw all these people. She loved him. (EPS: Billie Holiday loved him?) Yeah, she loved him, and she had that funny-looking dog.

EPS: She came into Jack’s?

HERMAN BOSSET: Oh, yeah, she come in there, because SK was playing there. But one day my mother was there, and I asked my mamma, Is he praying? No, no. And he would stand there… and just look. He’d look. What’s he doing? She said, shh. I said, ok, and I’ll be quiet. What he was doing was he was reading the crowd.

In those days, African Americans had jobs. When they went out on Friday night and Saturday night, they were sharp. Now, a lot of the big hotels downtown, African Americans couldn’t play in them in San Francisco. But that’s when Jimbo’s Bop City opened up on you know, Fillmore. Jimbo Edwards was different. He said, everybody come in here, I don’t care if it’s a gorilla or whatever, as long as you be cool and have a couple of dollars in your hand, you come in here. (EPS: Right)

So I noticed all the crowds, but especially two places, Club Alabam, where he played, this Backstage or whatever they call it, I thought it was Backstage Lounge, but it was something about a back. Maybe I just don’t quite remember. Then he would play Club Alabam, and then he’d play all the other little places around there. But every time, and really, when he would come on this side of the Bay, it would be Sweet’s Ballroom. And I’m watching him, and I say, “What up?” I thought he was praying. I really thought he was, but he wasn’t.

For example, then as I got older, playing around in music myself, and looking at the leadership that he gave me as far as understanding, reading people, not jumping to conclusions, ok? Then I understood what he was doing. Now, listen, when the people came, especially at Jack’s, when the people came in, “Hey, SK, how you doing? That’s cool.” People would come in, and he was ready. Ready to go. I knew right then. He had his jumps, his blues. And his shuffles. I knew, 'cos I, you know, we used, he used to showed me a lot of things, and I was playing, too. But he knew where to start. Now, for an example, let’s take one of the jumps. SK Jump One, Jump Two, whatever I can remember what it was, he would come in and read the people, they were sharp, but he could tell their demeanor, how they was going on. Then he’d start. He would, he’d tell the band, Eddie Taylor would sit up here, and he’d say something with Eddie. And then Eddie would do this, let’s go. When they started playing, the dead rose. Oh. The people. Look, I mean they were on it. They were sharp, dressed up, they’d come out of those ties. I mean, the coats came off, they threw them on the floor. He had ‘em going.

EPS: People would just jump up and just start dancing?

HERMAN BOSSET: Oh, man. I just say, you know, I looked at that, I looked at that. Then over the years, I began to figure out why he was successful is how he treated his guests, how he treated people. But one thing that really, I thought, to me, even today, as a genius thing, he knew how to read people. Yes, he did.

EPS: So he’d come into the club and he’d watch and get a feel for what he thought the audience wanted and delivered that?

HERMAN BOSSET: Yes. The dead would rise. I don’t care if you were sick or couldn’t dance, or whatever you could do, they could come up. Only Jumps -- kind of like the Lindy Hop. It wasn’t the Lindy Hop. They didn’t get into it like they did in New York. But on the jumps and on the shuffles, they were smoking.

EPS: So those clubs from the pictures, they don’t look all that big?

HERMAN BOSSET: They, they didn’t care. You’d just get out the way. (LAUGHS) And that’s the way Jack was, the bar at Jack’s, was in the middle. (EPS: oh, it was?) Umm hmm. You come in the front, (EPS: right) right in the middle, but in the back part area was tables and you moved them out of the way.

EPS: Where did the band set up?

HERMAN BOSSET: On the side, right next to, in the back, right on the side.

EPS: Oh my gosh. There must have been a line out of the door then?

HERMAN BOSSET: A line in and out the door, I don’t know how they, the bartenders, I mean, they were pouring that stuff left and right. And SK was, and one thing about them – I really truly remember every one of them, they were sharp. Suit. Tie. Business. And he told one of the, I can’t forget which one it was, but he told them, said, “Listen, I don’t care what you do, but you are of my employ. It’s your job. Now, when you get off that bandstand, here, uh-huh.” I said whoa. I noticed that as a teenager. Because you wasn’t gonna swing on him. That wasn’t gonna happen. And a lot of people…

EPS: As an almost boxer…

HERMAN BOSSET: And he was good. But you wasn’t gonna swing on him. And it wasn’t about that, but he would talk to them in a respectful way in a tone that hey, this is a business. That’s all. It’s a business, and that’s it. Ok, SK, you got it. And that was it.

EPS: It’s probably why he was such a success and why his band was so good because he ran it like a business.

HERMAN BOSSET: It was a business. It was no, it was you come in late, he may dock you. Yeah. Time to kick it, time to kick it. But I can remember all of those things about him in that time, during that time, (12:14) he and my mom was pretty tight.

EPS: Who was older?

HERMAN BOSSET: Saunders was the baby, I think. Yeah. Saunders was the baby one time, Elizabeth, he began to sway. And I said, well, maybe he’s gonna sing, but he kept this… he began to sway, I started to talk and he say shut up, boy. Quiet! And he tell Eddie Taylor and Vernon, Vernon Alley. I remember Vernon. They’d go like that – they had little signal or something. Then as he began to get up, he’d smile at the crowd, turn around, (Herman begins to sing a Saunders King song). “He’d say come here, pretty baby. And put your fine mellow body on my knee.” And the people went crazy. SK Blues. (LAUGHS) They went crazy! Even my mother, she’d jump up. And then as he got to the middle of the tune, it got funny but it was just funky. He got up there and he’d say, “give me back that hair, give me back that wig I bought you and let your head go bald.” And that just did the whole, that was him. The people were high. Drinking. Saturday night, Friday night. But they was into him. They were into him nobody shooting or you know, like today. You go out and bam, they crack a cap on you. Not then. He had a real way of not only delivering, but he could do many, many things. I remember him, fact, let’s get it all together. He was very diverse in what he could do. But the tone of his guitar I do remember that. He held the neck a different way. And he pressed the strings, his cords, I’d never seen that before.

EPS: Where did Saunders grow up and learn to play?

HERMAN BOSSET: SK was born in Louisiana.Then because they wanted a better life, they came to Oroville. California. Now my grandfather, Bishop Judge King, and my grandmother, Sarah King, they worked in the saw mills. Which was up in that area at that time. Once he worked up there, my grandfather was a big strapping, oh, my god. He was an ox. He used to call me, “come here Sugarman.” He called me Sugarman. And I loved him. I tried to wrestle him, you know, I’d do all of this with him and do all that with him. One time, I grabbed his leg, he’d say, “oooh,” and I flew about ten feet from him, you know? Get up, come on. It was a lot of love in there. But it got rough up there for African Americans, too, so they said the heck with this. We’re gonna move our church and it came to 1735 7th Street in West Oakland.

Now, right across the street, it’s bare now, is a big post office. Right across the street was John Singer. Right down the street on the corner was … Slim Jenkins. Across the street was Manly (?) and then you had John Singer’s up the street. Then you had Perry’s barbeque, and the Lincoln Club. Right on 7th Street there. Had a big train. My father used to bartend there, he got fired or something. But anyway, Saunders would come over there. Asa Phillip Randolph’s place. Upstairs right dead across the street from the church, next door to John Singer’s.

So many people came out from the south, they’d been you know cotton, that’s all they knew, they came in, they got jobs. They got on the Daylight Limited as cooks, porters. They knew people that were good at carpentry – they sent ‘em over to the Fillmore. You go see Freddie over there at…, things like this. Get ‘em a job.

Saunders understood that. So when he played at Slim Jenkins’ nothing more I could say. It was all. He knew how to treat a crowd. He knew how to treat people, but his music was so smooth. And then when it came time, when he would sing I Climb the Highest Mountain or Danny Boy, those tunes like that, the people just glued together. And I watched all of that, you know?

EPS: He came up in West Oakland and learned to play there?

HERMAN BOSSET: He went to Prescott Junior High. Prescott is still there. He played the violin, but people laughed at him, you know? He played the ukulele. Played the guitar, he played the banjo, but he did it all in church. But my grandmother, which was his mother, Mother King, she never threw that thing of “you’re playing the devil’s music,” you know what I’m saying? I never heard her say that. So he respect that, but I also notice she respected his talent.

EPS: Which was clear…

HERMAN BOSSET: Yeah, the money was coming in. He said, “I’m not gonna blow that.”

EPS: Saunders played in Oakland first and then moved to San Francisco?

HERMAN BOSSET: He did, he mainly, in San Francisco first. But also at Sweets Ballroom and Slim Jenkins. When Saunders King came to Slim Jenkin’s, I don’t know where all them people came from. People came from – it looked like a parade out there. Because what a velvet tenor voice that he had, he knew it kind of just glued that together. He knew how to put it together. And when he was on the radio or did this, oh, that’s SK. He didn’t have to – that’s SK in one or two notes, you knew who it was. And I remember all those things about him. And because I didn’t meet my dad until I was about 16 or 17.

EPS: He really was your father?

HERMAN BOSSET: He used to come watch – my mother would bring him to the football games I played. I was pretty good football player in high school. And I’d see him sitting up there. Boy he, he’d do like that, he’d wave at me. You know, and I’d show out and clown and do the whole bit. But he was there. My father was, I loved him, but he wasn’t as close as Saunders and his brother, Jay, Uncle Jay. Because they knew I was pretty rambunctious kid, you know. It wasn’t that my mother and grandmother couldn’t handle me, I needed a male image. He did that. But he did it in a way that I learned from it and it stuck with me today and it filled up, SK filled up many empty holes in me. Because I always, well, where’s my dad?

My dad finally came to my high school grad, and I graduated from Tech 1957. Fifty-something oh, Lord, long time ago. And he came and I got angry, we had an argument. And my mother come in crying but 'cos he understood, said no, let him vent. You know. Then we got a little closer and then I began to understand his problem, the booze.

But at least SK showed me how to feel. You know, when you’re walking around blind and you don’t have a way, he showed me, say you got a problem? Look inside yourself. He always taught me that. See. You can point me, point him. What about you?

SK mentioned one time, we was talking about the Beatles. He said nah, the rest of them cats, they’re all right. John Lennon, something different about him. Whoa. Saunders said yeah, they’re Ok. But that John Lennon, watch him. I thought whoa, what, what was it about John Lennon that he could see? Of all the things that knowing the streets, knew how to finagle and manipulate the streets, to stay safe or whatever, or feel the reality coming from you, he could do it. He said, when these guys, that guys, one of these days that guy’s gonna do something. And when he wrote the song, Imagine, Saunders said, “there it is.” He knew. Really miss him.

EPS: Why do you think Saunders stayed at in the Fillmore?

HERMAN BOSSET: He loved San Francisco. I think that’s it.

EPS: Saunders was like that with San Francisco?

HERMAN BOSSET: Saunders was kind of like that with San Francisco. He would go places, be back right there. Because he was the Fillmore. He was the guy that people came to, but like I said, one night Fredrico Cervantes was playing at the Havana Club. And it was Fredrico Cervantes, Armando Peraza, and somebody else. SK walked in. He started strumming. Ooh. EPS: He got up on stage? HERMAN BOSSET: He just did, turned it out. HERMAN BOSSET: At Jimbo’s… Now, in those days, Leo would be playing and someone would say, “hey, wait a minute, Leo, hang on. Play me that D flat scale.” “No, no, no.” They play it on the piano. Yeah. They taught you right there. They did not embarrass you. They taught you. Now let’s try it again. Now when you hear this progression again, what you want to do is make sure if you have something to say that’s coming from you, make sure you’re on the right path and you know your scales. Dizzy took him and he became Leo Wright became his first chair alto player, but he died here about 5, 10 years ago.

EPS: What was the Club Alabam like?

HERMAN BOSSET: Yeah, a little small, dinky place. One thing, it was too small. It was really small, but they, it would rock.

EPS: What bands would play there?

HERMAN BOSSET: All of them. All, the. Frank Jackson played there.

HERMAN BOSSET: Well, he was there, Frank Jackson. Jerome Richardson. He’s dead now. But SK played with all those guys. And they wanted to play with him, 'cos he was so mellow when he played. When he held a guitar, it wasn’t like (demonstrates). I can’t hardly explain it – like a regular guitar. He never held his guitar like they did. Never. Never. He would bring his hand over it, and look so awkward, it just looked awkward. But ooh, he had a sound that came out of that thing. Picked it up from Charlie Christian. Charlie Christian. (LAUGHS) He was a god to Saunders. Charlie would come up from LA, well, he lived all over the place. But when he come up first place he’d get together with him, Jimmy Witherspoon. Lowell Fulsome, all these guys would get together, but when Saunders sang the blues, it was so smooth. See, they thought he couldn’t sing the greasy, nasty blues. Oh, yes, he could. Oh. He could sing ‘em. Ooh. This guy, you can’t mess with this guy. And they would play at Minnie Lou’s in Richmond one time. Minnie Lou’s had the best food.

SK noticed balance. I heard him say that once, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Balance. Balance. I thought he was talking about the teeter-totter or something. Balance. He, you have to have balance.

Saunders used to say, “got any food in your house?” “Yeah.” “You want something?” “No.” “Do you have a roof over your head?” “Yeah.” “Oh. You don’t have the blues. Huh? You don’t have no blues.” He say, when you don’t have the necessary things, you sing the blues. But if you keep yourself in balance, and you understand the root that you come from, you can still sing the blues. Wow.

My grandfather, his father, Bishop came and had Christ Holy Sanctified Church, 1735 7th Street. When them cats played the blues, oh, ho. And the church was there because it, the gospel music. That’s what made Jean Harris. The gospel music that comes out the church. Just before he died, he sang there. He had these strokes, got sick, and we took care of him, but he came right back to the root he came from, and played in the church, right along with his brother US, before he died. And then his son, Steven, now has got the church. And all of those old masters are gone.

EPS: Do you remember Melrose Records?

HERMAN BOSSET: Sure, Melrose Music. Yeah.

EPS: What was Dave Rosenbaum like?

HERMAN BOSSET: He loved Saunders. I could tell he loved Saunders, and he, he’d have Saunders really going. He had all these record labels and what was that one, Rhythm and Blues-

EPS: He owned Rhythm Records.

HERMAN BOSSET: Rhythm. Saunders is on that. Yeah, he signed him.

EPS: Tell me about Jimbo.

HERMAN BOSSET: Jimbo would say, “I’m not gonna have that.” They said no-no. That’s not gonna go here.

EPS: What do you mean?

HERMAN BOSSET: For example, Chinese, Japanese. You name it. They had their weddings in the back of Jimbo’s Bop City. Yes, they did. That’s right. He said, everybody come here. The first Japanese family I met was the Uma (?) family. My grandmother was crazy about them because they had a fish market. She loved sand-dabs. So, and she fixed a little this, country potato pie, something, cake. Lemon, whatever. So they’d do the same, you know? And the daughter I went to school with named Darlene. And one day I can’t quite remember how it went down. They were gone. Like disappeared. And my grandmother cried, somebody kidnapped them.

Then later they found out about the redevelopment of the Fillmore on how this guy what’s his name? Justin Herman. So then it was black folks out of the Western Addition. They had homes. They had jobs. Some rented, most of them bought. The police at the time, this one guy says they must be selling a lot of dope. What? Say what? Man, these people got jobs, they’re shipyards, cotton, plumbers, painters, garbage man. They made a salary, they got paid every week. Digging holes and doing this construction. They had it good, that time period. But they said, yeah, but we’re gonna redo this and redo this. So they put, took the blacks out of the Fillmore and put them out here in Bayview Hunters Point. And that’s where it all went down.

And the Japanese went to the concentration camps. And that’s why my grandmother, she was in the bed, I think, several days. When she found out where that family went, lost their life, lost their business, they took their business, took that fish market, and I haven’t seen Darlene and I’m 74 years old. I haven’t seen her since. And that community, the Japanese were there, the Chinese were there. Muslims were there. Mexicans were there, Puerto Ricans were there, Cubanos were there. Everybody lived in the Fillmore. You can look at some of them places, you look at some of those places, the Japanese had their weddings, Chinese had their weddings, in that back room. At Jimbo’s Bop City. And it was a time. Duke Ellington used to come. When he came in, Duke’s crowd was there at the wedding.

EPS: During that time, everywhere else in the country, no one mixed.


EPS: Why was the Fillmore so different?

HERMAN BOSSET: I think it had to do, really, with Jimbo Edwards. And I’ll tell you why. Jimbo was the first black used car salesman. Ellis Chevrolet. He had a voice. You gonna buy something (LAUGHS). Might be a bag of popcorn, but when you left there, he sold you something. He had a way, say hey. No, no. No. That don’t go that way. This way it goes, here. So when people felt that warmth from Jimbo, they came to, when they wouldn’t go downtown, they came there (The Fillmore). That’s where they came. And it was like that.

HERMAN BOSSET: Those days… they had a value system in the Fillmore because they had a job. And if you didn’t have a job, man, I said, wait a minute. We’re gonna go pound on Freddie. We’re gonna go see Joe Sullivan. I know him, such, he know where you can get a job. Oh, well, I can paint. Got a job. It had its own little nationalism, I guess you could say.

EPS: A support system?

HERMAN BOSSET: To support, to support. And it worked. Well, after that, they got Japan Town came in, and people stayed out in the Bayview, they never got back.

EPS: Café Society?

HERMAN BOSSET: Café Society. Saunders played there.

EPS: What was that club like?

HERMAN BOSSET: They had the best roast beef in San Francisco.

EPS: It was also a restaurant?

HERMAN BOSSET: Yeah. People come out with money in their pocket. Evening, Ma’am, good evening, sir. Saunders would be out there singing and playing. Place was jammed packed.

EPS: Tablecloths?

HERMAN BOSSET: Everything.

EPS: It was a fancier club not like a bar?

HERMAN BOSSET: Yeah. All those places, and I got, I just can’t remember. I had a little soldiers suit on. I think it, did I see that picture with my mother? Once side, and Saunders in the middle and another lady on the right. Well, I was in there, too. But they took my picture, but I can’t find it, and I think one of my bone-head kids got it. (LAUGHS)

EPS: Back to David Rosenbaum – did people play in the store?

HERMAN BOSSET: More and less a hangout. I would say, if I can remember. But they did business. Rosenbaum, they did the business. But it was, that’s what it was more like that I can vaguely remember.

EPS: Maya Angelou worked there?

HERMAN BOSSET: She sure did. Maya Angelou, and who else used to come around there which came to Jimbo’s was Eartha Kitt. Yeah. Everybody came there, because Bop City in New York had closed. So Jimbo said, hm. Maybe I can do that here on the west coast, and he did.

HERMAN BOSSET: Yeah, I think if you go visit it (The Fillmore) and look down where these clubs used to be, on the sidewalk, because what they’ve heard now, no. Because that was a time when people, all people, had to have a bean on their plate. And they knew how to do it. And it didn’t come because of you being white or me being Chinese or me being this or that. It came because that’s what you needed, I had it, here’s a piece of it, simple. And that kind of environment, when I grew up and I came upon this side, I grew up with a lot, a lot of Latino people. Mexican, Puerto Ricans, Cubanos, all of them. So I learned to speak Spanish. So it helped me to understand. If you understand the physical language, but if you understand the spiritual language that a person speaks, that can adjust your feelings to becoming one. Just becoming one. And I learned that. I learned that very well. And I learned it from SK, because not that he, he didn’t speak any that I know of, any foreign language. But when he sang, he covered the whole waterfront. Yes, he did. And everyone could relate, everyone could relate to that.

EPS: It brought people together.

HERMAN BOSSET: It brought ‘em together.

EPS: He summarizes what the Fillmore was all about, bringing diverse backgrounds together.

HERMAN BOSSET: They did. They did. Because I don’t care who you were, when he said come here, pretty baby, and set your fine mellow body on my knee, that did it. Oooh. That SK Blues 1, that did it. And the hops, and the jumps. The people were just into it. And some of them couldn’t dance. That wasn’t the point. The point was to test them in here.