Empowerment and Community through Jazz

In this week’s blog, USF Journalism major, Megan Robertson, highlights our community partner, the Fillmore Jazz Ambassadors (FJA). Read her deep dive into FJA’s work keeping the rich history of the Fillmore Jazz scene alive.

A band of musicians before me, Sunday traffic behind me, on Halloween afternoon I found myself at an epiphany.

I had been living in San Francisco for less than three months when I learned that, in an earlier life, this city was The Harlem of the West. Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, and so many of the jazz musicians that changed my life played Fillmore Street, where I often walked for lunch or a coffee. I have always loved jazz, and the absence of it saddened me. So, I set out to discover: where did San Francisco’s jazz scene go?

This inquiry became the basis of an article for my journalism course. In my reporting process, I found the foremost expert and activist in the field: Darlene Roberts. She has been living and working with Bay Area jazz musicians for so much of her life and graciously agreed to speak with me on the history of her community. Talking with her and conducting my own research, I learned that the reason for jazz’s mainstream decline in San Francisco boiled down to racism and blatant discrimination towards the Black community.

White politicians and businessmen were threatened at the success of Black musicians in the Fillmore District, leading them to claim “redevelopment” and literally bulldoze their homes, their clubs.

I was led to Charles Dixon, a colleague of Roberts’, who shared the same story from his perspective and told me of how jazz can heal a community.

Roberts founded the Fillmore Jazz Ambassadors in light of this historic oppression, with Dixon working as its Vice President. The organization connects with Black jazz artists to share their music and the history of its oppression.

On that Halloween afternoon, I was there, at one of their first in-person events since COVID-19. I was blown away at the talent, the history, the heartbreak revealed through each one of the numbers. They accomplished all of this in the middle of a parking lot, no less.

It clicked for me, then: the intersection between decades-long pain and immense joy in art. I was shown that, as Lady Day sang, no matter what the future brings, no matter the oppression faced, there remains hope. There remains the beauty of in-person community, the beauty of activism, the beauty of jazz. On that you can rely.

Fillmore Jazzjazzjazz festivalThe Fillmore

Leo T. McCarthy Center • January 13, 2022

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