From its seedy beginnings on street corners and in alleyways to popular swing clubs and piano bars, the history of jazz runs deep in the city of San Francisco. The Fillmore District in particular was once known as the “Harlem of the West,” home to jazz kings and queens like Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Kenny Dorham. Today the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District encourages the development of clubs in this historic area. As a result, retro-style lounges and nightclubs throughout San Francisco book some of the most talented contemporary jazz musicians in the world.
Rat Pack days live on at this Haight Street jazz venue. Club Deluxe hosts an eclectic selection of bands that play bossa nova, bebop, and gypsy jazz throughout the week and especially on Sundays. Re-opened in 1989, this jazz club became the breeding ground for the swing revival of the 1990s. The atmosphere is set with low red lighting, a full-fledged cocktail and wine bar, and a small stage with seating intimate enough to hold a low conversation. The artisan pizzas served at this joint complement the live music and are made with fresh organic ingredients.
Comstock Saloon, on the outskirts of Chinatown, maintains a stocked, turn-of-the-century mahogany bar backdropped by detailed French blue wallpaper and marble cocktail tables over old tile floors. Antique fans keep customers cool on hot days as the sounds of saxophone and bass can be heard from the upper balcony, where jazz bands perform most nights (except Sunday). The vibe is indicative of the Barbary Coast era between the Gold Rush of 1847 and Prohibition. The cocktails are hard yet simple and include such classics as the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned. The ‘White Lily’ is a favorite among visitors for its sultry mix of absinthe, gin, rum, and curaçao.
The oldest saloon in San Francisco, built circa 1861, this turn-of-the-century former prostitution house is a wooden, shotgun-style place in the middle of North Beach. It is often packed during shows, and it can get loud and rowdy. The bar is cash-only, and it’s usually stocked with cheap beer like Pabst or Genesee. On Friday and Saturday the cover is $5, although the rest of the week it’s free. The scene in The Saloon on any given night is most likely populated by bearded bikers as well as local punk hipsters and other urban barflies.
From the walk down the hallway to the concert hall hang pictures of famous musicians who have played at the Fillmore. Lush, red curtains envelope a large stage accompanied by chandeliers, high-arched ceilings, and three tiered seating areas. The Fillmore got its reputation as a music hall when local entrepreneur Charles Sullivan booked headliners like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, James Brown, and Ike & Tina Turner. By the 1960s, great American bands like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Cream, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and The Who played at the Fillmore. Today, this classy venue continues to book a variety of bands. Come July, the Fillmore Jazz Festival invites over 100,000 guests to Fillmore Street to celebrate the spirit of jazz.
Martuni’s is a roaring good time for traditional jazz. Located across the street from San Francisco’s LGBT Center, this joint has become popular among the gay community. The interior of Martuni’s is dark and lit by single votive candles on cocktail tables with high bar stools. The piano lounge rests in the back of the bar, where it isn’t uncommon for patrons to sing along with musician on stage. The martinis here are shaken or stirred, start at a modest $8, and come in a variety of flavors, including chocolate, bubbles and berries, and creamsicle. Rumor also has it that the lemon shots are the best in the city!
A speakeasy-style supper club, Bix maintains a kind of exclusivity for its luxurious atmosphere. The restaurant offers high-quality classic American cuisine that incorporates modern techniques. Beloved dishes include the lobster spaghetti, potato pillows with California sturgeon caviar, and crispy truffle fries. With bartenders dressed in formal white jackets and fluted columns that give way to smooth, mahogany panels showcasing distinguished, well-lit artwork, elegance is in the air. Classy cocktails like the Bix Perfect Manhattan (made with George Dickel Rye, Angostura bitters, and Dolan Dry & Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth) and the Boxcar (a combination of Scott Zucca Amaro, honey, and smokey ice) give buoyancy to the creative mood. The fine-dining atmosphere at Bix is coupled with soulful live jazz.
The Boom Boom Room is a down-home juke joint, providing live music six nights a week. Mississippi blues legend John Lee Hooker founded the nightclub in 1997. Today the nightclub showcases some of the funkiest, most soulful blues and west coast jazz bands in the country. Guests take advantage of the Boom Boom Room’s affordable happy hour that offers Northern California draft beers for only $3 after 4pm, including prime micro-brew labels like Arrogant Bastard and Dead Guy Ale. Depending on the day of the week and the performers booked, the cover charge ranges between $5 and $20 and starts at 9pm along with the show. On Sundays and Tuesdays there is no cover.