“Miles Davis, San Francisco, 1961” by Leigh Wiener
On the evenings of April 21 and 22, 1961, Miles Davis and his quintet recorded at San Francisco’s The Black Hawk nightclub, a longtime Tenderloin neighborhood establishment described by Bay area music writer Ralph J. Gleason as “gloomy, dirty and unattractive” – a club kept proudly “repulsive” by its owner, Guido Caccienti, who claimed to have “worked and slaved for years to keep this place a sewer.”
Written by San Francisco Chronicle music critic (and eventual co-founding editor of Rolling Stone) Ralph J. Gleason in a typically witty and often derisible tone, the liner notes to Miles Davis In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at The Blackhhawk, San Francisco are compelling not only because they were authored by Gleason, but also because they are comprised of two distinct biographies – Miles Davis as “social symbol” of the early 1960’s, and The Blackhawk as an “oblong, corner-saloon-with music” that attracted a “most incredible cross section of American society.”
The recording itself was relatively popular (reaching #9 on the Billboard jazz chart) and was described by The New York Times as the set that was “the gold standard for straight-ahead, postwar jazz rhythm.” It was also important because it was the first album Miles intentionally recorded live with his group. The cover itself – a Leigh Wiener photo of Miles and eventual second wife Frances Taylor – sparked an observation from historian Robin D. G. Kelley that Davis was shown as a representation of a “pimp aesthetic…a masculine culture that aspired to be like a pimp, that embraced the cool performative styles of the players (pronounced ‘playas’), the ‘macks,’ the hustlers, who not only circulated in the jazz world but whose walk and talk also drew from the well of black music.”
Due to its musicology and sociology, this is one helluva recording to revisit. To get you in that spirit, Gleason’s liner notes follow…
Miles Davis In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, San Francisco
Miles Davis, trumpet; Hank Mobley, Tenor Sax; Wynton Kelly, Piano ; Paul Chambers, Bass; Jimmy Cobb, Drums.
(Photo: Barry Feinstein)
It has become as fashionable to write of Miles Dewey Davis as a social symbol and as one of the charismatic personalities in the religious symbolism of jazz as it is to write of Miles Davis as a jazz musician. And these things are true, even if now commonplace. Miles does occupy a position in the jazz culture far beyond that of a jazz soloist (even though based on that). His mode of dress sets styles (“Pin stripes are coming back,” a hipster remarked when Miles appeared opening night at The Blackhawk in a pinstripe suit, “I got to get me one”), his language and his attitudes are aped by thousands for whom he has the status of a social leader. Long before Eva Marie Saint brought a four-letter expletive to the attention of the country in her impromptu remarks after a laudatory introduction at a motion picture industry dinner, Miles Davis had made acceptance of liberal use of that same word a prerequisite for conversation in most jazz circles, though with characteristic individuality he had transformed it from one syllable to two.
The debate over his on-stage attitude has raged wherever he has appeared: is it pretense? Is it real? His refusal to make announcements, his habit of leaving the stage when others are soloing, his occasional turning of his back to the audience are either vigorously defended or attached depending on one’s point of view. Do we get announcements from the Budapest String Quartet? Or do jazz musicians owe their public more? But one thing Miles Davis is and that superbly: he is controversial. He is never dull. His basic attitude, from which all the rest springs, is realism and antipretense. That he is aware of what is said and argued about him, he occasionally implies sardonically in one aside or another. “They’re all worried about making records with me,” he said at The Blackhawk the nights this album, his first cut on location with his group, was being made. He paused and looked up, deadpan, with his eyes gleaming. “An’ I’m just standing here, minding my own business, being my own sweet self.” Miles’ own sweet way has been to do exactly as he pleased with his own music throughout his entire career. The fact that he is now, like Picasso and a very few other artists, a great commercial success in his own lifetime, is a tribute to his courage and his sanity and his basic good sense. It is also, whether or not he wills it, a rare symbol to all artists everywhere of the complete triumph of uncompromising art. At The Blackhawk, for instance, he almost never played the last set at night and never played the Sunday afternoon session. “I should complain,” Guido Caccienti, the owner, said, “as long as the people come.” And, of course, what makes Miles right is that they DO come.”
Despite his legendary intransigence, he mingles with the audience at The Blackhawk, signs autographs and answers questions, idiotic as they may be, with surprising patience if not exactly a loquacious manner. He will leave the stand when the other men solo and walk back by the entrance and stand with the cashier, Elynore Caccienti, Guido’s wife, the center of a small crowd of admirers too awed, usually, to speak to him. He is capable of devastating bluntness on occasion. Once he told me he had been past my house that afternoon en route to Dave Brubeck’s home. “Why didn’t you stop in?” I asked him, in a stereotyped social response. “What for?” he answered with shattering frankness. The nights this album was being made were tense ones, whether Miles wanted it that way or not. Everyone WAS worried about whether or not the idea would come off. Photographers, imported especially for the occasion, were ordered not to use flash and everyone walked on tip toes for the first part of the evening. Miles, imperturbably smoking and sipping champagne, exchanged anecdotes with singer Bill Rennault, a fellow veteran of the Howard McGhee band, and with trumpeter Benny Harris, then working in town. At one point, almost as if seeking to get his mind off recording, he gave a vivid lecture, with illustrations, on the theory and practice of the art of picking pockets. A tape recording of this would have been useful to any sociologist examining the mores of “whiz mobs.” Right in the middle, he turned to Wynton Kelly and asked him to go next door to the 211 Bar, where the recording equipment was set up, to check on the sound, and then continued his lecture to a fascinated group at the bar.
Miles likes to shock reporters with his statements. “I’m going to retire and go to Europe. I can’t stand this, it’s too much work,” he’s said every time he’s played The Blackhawk for the past three years. And if it looks like you are taking him seriously, he will go into it at length. When a case-hardened, cynical newspaper photographer asked him to pose for a picture at the club, Miles completely stopped him with the statement: “I wouldn’t go in where you’re working and take YOUR picture.” Neither Nikita Khrushchev nor any other visiting VIP had ever thwarted that particular photographer before. But none of these things for one moment means that Miles isn’t totally concerned with his music. Of course, this is obvious if you think about it. But many people refuse to go beneath the surface and think his attitude means he doesn’t care. How could he play the way he does if he wasn’t totally concerned?
For all the improvisation that is inherent in jazz, I have a deep conviction that Miles does nothing in his playing that isn’t deliberate. He may make surprising turns and twists, by accident or design, but it is all part of a deliberate plan of approach, a definite conception of music. And of course the history of his career proves this. What other artist in jazz, with the sole exception of Louis Armstrong, has been so consistently the leader of highly influential groups from which a whole host of players, themselves influences in turn, have come? Bunk Johnson once put it this way: “Playin’ jazz is from the heart. You don’t lie.” That applies with equal force to Miles Davis and is, really, the best summation of what he does that could be given.
The recording of this album, the first recordings of his group in performance in a club that Miles has ever made, was treated with exactly the same concentration and pains that mark everything he has ever done. “When they make records with all the mistakes in, as well as the rest,” he said, “then they’ll really make jazz records. If the mistakes aren’t there, too, it ain’t none of you.” After the albums were completed, I asked Miles if he had anything he wanted to say about them for the notes. “I’ve been trying to get Irving (Irving Townsend, the Columbia A & R man) for years to put out these albums with NO notes,” Miles said. “There’s nothing to say about the music. Don’t write about the music. The music speaks for itself.” And so it does, and what it says – here and in everything else he has ever recorded whether or not he now admires the records – is a celebration of the human truth of the creative artist telling his story of the world as he sees it. No artist – in jazz or elsewhere – does it with any more dedication and sincerity than Miles Davis, and few, very few, do it with as much.
The great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re a boy, or girl…or what you are…so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself…the result of all this is that, in the jazz world, you meet all kinds…on absolutely equal terms…
“Absolute Beginners” – Colin MacInnes
The Blackhawk in San Francisco is the oldest jazz club, in terms of continuous operation, on the West Coast and one of the oldest in the United States. It has been host to visitors from all over the world. Its hard chairs and tiny tables have accommodated Russian sailors, British poets, Japanese jazz musicians, Cuban patriots, champion prize fighters, baseball stars, All-League pro football halfbacks, social leaders, politicians and just about every hardcore jazz fan able to make the trek to San Francisco.
A most incredible cross section of American society has been inside this dimly lit, oblong corner-saloon-with-music. When TIME was planning a story on the club, its bureau chief called up for reservations. “We don’t make reservations,” he was told. And when, accompanied by a department head from TIME’s home office and a local newspaper columnist, he arrived at the door he was turned away. “Standing room only.” Eventually, by pleading, the three journalists were allowed to stand in the rear of the club alongside the refrigerator.
In early 1961, when San Francisco’s Mayor George Christopher discovered the club was operating a special teenage section where soft drinks were sold, he ordered the club to close the section. The ensuing battle was classic. All three San Francisco daily newspapers carried the story on the front page and editorially supported The Blackhawk. Hundreds of letters were received by the Mayor and the newspapers, including testimonials from Catholic priests and Bank of America vice presidents. Eventually The Blackhawk re-opened its teen-age section, disproving the rounders’ folk-saying, “You can’t fight City Hall.”
“I’ve worked and slave for years to keep this place a sewer,” Guido Caccienti, the only original partner still with the club, tells reporters. And even his most loyal patrons are inclined to agree with this dismal judgment. There is no air conditioning, only a fan; there is no heat at all; the carpets are worn, even torn, in places; the funereal black drapes that line the wall are dusty and motheaten; the roof leaks (one stormy night even the Miles Davis engagement at which this “Lp” was recorded, a tin pan was set among the tables in the corner to catch the dripping rain); the original name, “Stork Club” (abandoned after a threat of suit), is still enscribed on the threshold; the club billboard of coming attractions lists long-gone jazz groups and even deceased jazz stars. For years, Guido himself did the lettering in soap on the club windows to herald the coming attractions. Some of the misspellings that resulted rivaled in lunacy his classic reference to Illinois Jacquet as Indian Jacket. At one time a bevy of pigeons made their nest in a hole in the wall alongside the ventilator fan. When the late Martha Davis showed up for a rehearsal one afternoon, a pigeon flew out of the wall right across the piano.
During his tour of duty in the Navy in the Bay Area in the early Fifties, pianist Les McCann used to change into civvies in the men’s room and stash his Navy uniform behind the bar. When Charlie Parker was missing from the stand for his first set opening night at a rival club, he was actually entertaining the patrons of The Blackhawk with a guest appearance!
If you think this description makes The Blackhawk sound like the Fun House at Playland instead of a jazz club, you are almost right. It is gloomy, dirty and unattractive. In daylight, it is absolutely repulsive. Yet it has a world-wide reputation as a center for jazz and some of the very best music I have ever heard was played there.
The reason, of course, is that all these unorthodox events and attitudes indicate a basic truth about The Blackhawk which ties in with Colin MacInnes’ statement from “Absolute Beginners.” The Blackhawk treats every patron, and all musicians alike. The white tie-and-tails party from the Opera House (a few blocks north of the Tenderloin corner which The Blackhawk occupies) stands in line with the taxi driver and the kids from San Francisco State. If the top hat asks for a check room, the hat is put behind the cash register along with the trench coats, slickers and odds and ends of luggage that Elynore Caccienti is temporarily minding for the customers at no charge.
But from the standpoint of music, The Blackhawk has two classic virtues: the acoustics are good – so good in fact that the Modern Jazz Quartet has worked without any microphones at all; and the boss leaves the band alone. With one exception, that is. Right behind the far end of the bar where Guido works his partner, George Weiss, is the other bartender and their wives, Elynore and Susan, are the cashiers, (not an unimportant clue to the club’s success) there is an ancient spotlight, the celluloid filters cracked and torn. This is Guido’s pride and the special lighting effects are his main recreation. This, and the telephone that always rings during solos, the musicians have come to accept as part of the dues.
People continually complain about the club’s lack of air conditioning and other comforts. But it is the kind of place where the waitresses work for years (Millie Tomasi has been there eleven years how, and Virginia Sanders ten). Despite the admission price, a standard $1, no musician was ever turned away, and the customers, no matter how eccentric they may be, are uniformly treated with kindness and tolerance. Guido drew the line, however, when a fan paid his $1, took a spot along the far wall, and proceeded to open a thermos bottle and drink his own coffee.
One evening, during the intermission of one of Miles’ sets, Guido looked over the crowded room at the teen-age section packed with students. “The teen agents are out in force tonight,” he said.
People traditionally maintain that Guido’s gift for malapropisms is not natural. But there are no skeptics among the regulars at The Hawk, which is why they were not surprised when Columbia A & R man Irving Townsend (who had come up from Los Angeles to supervise the recording of this album) was greeted on his entrance by Guido saying, “Here comes Columbia’s N.R.A. man.”
The social pragmatism of The Blackhawk has been beneficial for jazz; such jazz men as Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader have used The Blackhawk as a springboard for their careers. The that these – and other groups – were given a show place early in their careers is not surprising. If ever a club was dedicated to music alone, it’s The Blackhawk. Certainly no sane person goes there for any other reason. “You gotta dig music, you come in here,” Guido says. The author of these notes, for over a decade a steady frequenter of this curious monument to the intrinsic strength of jazz, can testify to the absolute truth of that statement.
– Ralph J. Gleason, who hereby assumes full responsibility (moral and financial) for the statements, inferences and possible libels in this essay.
Cover photo by Leigh Wiener
Read my interview with Gerald Early, author of Miles Davis and American Culture
Read my interview with John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis
Time magazine subscribers can access a 1959 article on The Blackhawk called “Success in a Sewer“
Complete recording of Miles Davis In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at The Blackhawk, San Francisco