Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Free Marcus Books

June 2013

Western San Francisco, June 2013

GOOD OL’ USA–June has been quite a month so far:  Bradley Manning’s trial kick-off was the first troubling thing, while jury selection for the George Zimmerman case must’ve been way more than just troubling for the family of Trayvon Martin. For those strung out on the injustice of the young man’s  killing in 2012, it is post-traumatic revisitation time.  Then there was the terrible mass shooting in Santa Monica. Just as my heart broke in two, thinking of friends and old neighbors we’d left behind there, we got the news (?) the N.S.A. is surveilling just plain folks on the regular. I thought we knew this already and so I just figure time is going backwards now. Incidentally, while all this was going down,  I saw a defaced billboard/piece of street art that seemed to fit the mood ’round these parts.

“I have so much trouble on my mind,” I told my husband, not even counting the day to day personal challenges of survival.  “I know,”  he said, though at least we could laugh at me quoting Chuck D accidentally without irony. Meanwhile, a national historic landmark, located in San Francisco, was moving into jeopardy.

The Richardson-Johnson family,  proprietors of the Marcus Book Store in the Fillmoreslider-2 district, have been on a course of change for over 50 years here and have survived those changes royally. Founders Julian and Raye Richardson were directly invested in the struggle for civil rights and equality, first with their Success printing company, followed by the opening of their bookstore.  To cite just one example: During the historic student strike at SF State in 1968, they used their home as collateral, to pay the bail for those arrested in the demonstration. They also printed the student paper when no one else would touch it. The result of the student action, by the way, are today’s multicultural studies departments and diversity programs  enjoyed on college campuses from here to Timbuktu (and when I say Timbuktu I do mean Timbuktu, quite literally).

Marcus Books, named after Marcus Garvey, specializes in books about Africa and African Americans, books by and about black people, among other things.  The authors they’ve hosted are those great writers, thinkers, poets, and humanitarians of the 2oth Century: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Ishmael Reed, and those are just a few of them. Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, Wanda Coleman, Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Walter Mosely and Oprah Winfrey have also passed through the doors at one of their two locations (the other is in Oakland). In San Francisco, the purple building stands near the corner of Post,  at the former location of Jimbo’s Bop City, the Fillmore’s premier jazz spot, back in the day.  I mention all this on the first day of what I expect will be a long hot summer here in our chilly little town, because some of us are concerned about such things. Yes, it’s for some of the usual reasons small businesses and booksellers have been struggling in the Amazonian jungle for a decade, exacerbated by the economy’s mess, but the wages of income disparity have also come to bear, the way it makes some people in town go boom while the rest of us go bust are also mixed up in it. You can read more about the store’s situation; as these circumstances do not resolve overnight, the fight to save Marcus Books has really only just begun.

As a native daughter of western San Francisco, I’ve recently returned home following some years in Atlanta, Los Angeles and on another side of town, and Marcus Books has since became my new favorite old place here. There are only a handful of places like that here, where I find it harder and harder to recognize the people and places I used to know as uniquely San Francisco. But some of what I remember best about our town’s openness, and willingness, I re-found at Marcus. There, if you are so inclined, you might talk to Karen Johnson about James Jamerson. Or Charles Mingus, Soul Train and Don Cornelius; Fillmore Street’s jazz heritage, quantum physics, Marvin Gaye and the beginning of all life in Africa. Self-reliance, self-knowledge, the rise and fall of Egypt, astrology, numerology; Harry Belafonte, Smokey and Stevie may come up, depending how you go. I don’t know about you but there aren’t too many places in town where people are conversant in the things I want to talk about and that’s just my own personal reason for wanting Marcus to hang around. The other is that I care about Karen, her family, and of course the general community in the Sucka Free City, served by the book store.

It has been said that the Fillmore is the heart and soul of San Francisco; certainly I have been witness to those flavors at work at Marcus Books in the hands of the Richardson-Johnson family. And because there is hardly any other place on earth I’d rather be than in a friendly neighborhood book or record store, chances are if you’ve read this far, I suspect you feel the same way too. So please, if you will, sign the petition to help Marcus Books, the oldest African American Bookstore in the United States stay around not only to educate the young and curious, the avid reader and casual seeker, but to stand as one of the longest standing community safe places for black authors and black people, and all folks, even those who are white, like me.

A gathering of concerned customers and citizens will convene at the store on Saturday June 22 at noon. Marcus Books is located at 1712 Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

Filed under: Book news, Harry Belafonte, income disparity, , , , , ,

For Father’s Day: Kind of Blue

I have an image of him in the late ’50s: Still underage, he sneaks through the curtains at the front door of the hungry i, the Keystone Korner or the Purple Onion, slinks into one of the seats in back, and gets lost in music.

He must’ve told me of the nights he went to hear Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and The Mastersounds, with Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t until he died that I understood what it meant to be there at that time: North Beach, San Francisco, probably 1958 or ’59.  The Beats had arrived by then–outlaw heroes like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg passed through as did my dad, the cleanest cut kid in the joint. Lenny Bruce would’ve called him “Jim,” the comedian’s nickname for a straight, but my dad was no square: I like to think of the original hipsters welcoming him in, an innocent among them for the night.

As a child, I didn’t grasp that my dad was a jazz fan, though his stack of interesting looking records were his only possessions I ever admired. I realize now that his was a modest-sized collection, though it was very tidy, very specific and literally very, very cool. It was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast, that my dad favored. He had every recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring Milt Jackson. I guess he liked Jackson’s vibraphone because Cal Tjader’s records were also well represented, as were MJQ sound-a-likes the Mastersounds with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and his brother Monk on bass, and sometimes Wes on guitar. Piano jazz also rated on his scale–Brubeck was a hero, as was iconoclast Ahmad Jamal. And there were even stranger sounding names to this kid–Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida–with their pronunciations that confounded me, and their breezy bossa nova guitars that captured the scene at Ipanema Beach. And then there were the Stans: Getz and Kenton, alongside tenor sax man, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was still just Roland back then). Flipping through the stacks, I felt like I knew these jazzmen, in a way other kids might’ve known Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan; they were a part of the family. 

It was the colorful, modern art-inspired album covers on the Verve, Prestige, Argo, and Fantasy labels that first drew me in, long before I knew anything about musical shapes, colors or subtleties, and all the shades they could throw. I think of putting one of those records on the turntable now, pouring over the liner notes and getting lost myself, while holding an actual Blue Note or Impulse! sleeve, instead of a reissued imitation. And yes, I could pick up a copy of one or two at a vintage vinyl store but it’s my dad’s records I want, with his energy, the stories of their purchase, and a recounting of the historic gigs where the songs came alive for him. I also want his enthusiasm for my taste for the avant-garde and for my similarly small, tidy and very cool stack of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. But even if he were here to sit with me, I don’t know that he’d be all that interested in talking jazz because somewhere along the way he left behind his passion for it.

By the mid ‘60s, more and more fans of Cool Jazz had turned to hard bop and rock’n’roll. Times had changed, The City, as it’s known, had been psychedelicized.  My dad was now living as a young suburban family man.  A periodic drinker who put down the bottle long enough to regain his vision from time to time, he became a health food nut, a jogger and a tennis bum, long before all three things helped define the laidback ‘70s. “Over-committed,” is how he referred to the house, the yard, the two kids and three cars— his life, between jobs, outside San Francisco. Naturally there was no nightlife to pursue, no trips to town to hear music; most of the old clubs had gone dark by then anyway. And so he spent a fair share of time at home, sleeping in the hammock, sitting at the kitchen table, pouring coffee, typing mysterious reports and letters on the old Royal, watering the lawn, but never touching the stack of vinyl or the phonograph, even though it was positioned to be within easy reach of the California-style kitchen-family room-patio. It was as if the simple act of putting a needle to a record was too much trouble.

Occasionally, he’d ignite the old jazz flame: He once took me to see Cal Tjader locally, though teenage me couldn’t understand why a so-called legend should be playing in the St. Francis High School gym. My brother has a similar story: Was it Milt Jackson at the Grand Opening of the Mayfield Mall? I don’t know, I have to ask him. And if dad ever dug the music in the air, he’d partake of that strange jazzer’s custom, the finger click (shoulders hunched). Sometimes while driving, he’d find the jazz spot on the radio and start bopping, gesturing with an occasional air-cymbal crash. For me, these small acts were simultaneously embarrassing and ethereal: Jazz made life bearable for a moment as we floated, refreshed, for a couple of beats or bars.

When my dad moved out of the house at the end of the ‘70s my mom gave his records to a young jazz enthusiast, a boy she thought would appreciate them; our jazz days were over and so was our family. And yet the LPs—their covers, their vibraphone, horn and piano sounds, and their longwinded notes on the people who played  them—occupy a significant space in my heart and light my way in the darkness.  Sometimes I wonder had he lived, if my dad would’ve rediscovered his passion for jazz. And if only it had occurred to me when he died in the ‘80s to have played a little Louis Armstrong at his funeral. If he was with us today, would he have succumbed to the Quiet Storm? Or would he hold strong and enjoy classic Mingus and Monk with me? For sure we would agree that Duke is the king, and we certainly would’ve gone to see Ahmad Jamal when he rolled through town last week. But would he still put on that ridiculous posture as he be-bopped down the hall, and would I reflexively roll my eyes like I did as a teenager when he paused by my bedroom door, approving of the horn charts of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago? Hard to say. I’ll never know. Though whatever the mood, and  whether we agreed or not, it would all be ok by me—if only he was here right now. Because what I really need to ask him, what I really want to know, is if he can remember the moment he stopped listening.

Filed under: Jazz, , , ,

Never Forget: NAACP Field Secretary, Medgar Evers (June 12, 1963)

It’s been 50 years since civil rights leader Medgar Evers was slain in his driveway, returning home from a meeting over matters in the NAACP. Following the cold-blooded killing by a white supremacist, and coinciding with the period of ever-intensifiying racial hostility in the South, writers got more and more direct with their songs of southern hate.  “The Ballad of Megar Evers” is an a cappella spiritual by the Freedom Singers (a different group than the one founded by Cordell Reagon); Bob Dylan covered the Evers tragedy and its political ramifications in “Only a Pawn in Their Game;”

Phils Ochs weighed in with “Too Many Martyrs.”

Perhaps most famously, there was Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”

Though it was the bombing of the four little girls at Sixteenth Street Baptist that forced Simone’s lyric,  the situation in Mississippi culminating in the assassination of Evers earned the song its title.  Evers’ killer was finally convicted in 1994.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Keep On Pushing, Never Forget, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, video, ,

Ron Franklin is Gasoline Silver

If you listen closely to Ron Franklin’s music, you may experience space and time jumping the tracks. It can happen when he switches from an electric rhythm guitar blast and picks up a lonesome slide lead, or when his wrangly, whisper-from-the-past vocals kick in, then choogle off into the distance. Shifting into another dimension, you may hear contemporary imagery and language brushing against old time themes, and a definite restlessness, rustling through his sensory-laden lyrics that echo the music and travel together in perfect unity—original but familiar; inviting but opaque, heavy but with heart.

Franklin’s self-titled set for Alive Records, City Lights for the Memphis International label, and a limited edition special pressing of Blue Shadows Falling, are demonstrations of the lengths he’s gone for a song. Schooled by Memphis music greats from Willie Mitchell to Jim Dickinson, learning from the hands and words of Otha Turner, Arthur Lee and Solomon Burke, Franklin’s a man of history, just now coming of age with Gasoline Silver, a thoroughly modern, electric album and band. With classic song styles that recall the Doc Pomus-inspired sound of the city, Ron Franklin stands alongside the timeless, gypsy souls of rock’n’roll—the Heartbreakers, Patti Smith and Suicide—and comes up swinging. With his poetry of the street, and southern R&B bona fides, he is readymade for the great rock’n’roll shakedown.

Franklin’s enigmatic stories, about blue devils, hill country picnics, and girls lost to footprints in the snow, are rooted in real life, then spun into musical universes of their own. Occupied by  different cars, different characters, and different versions of the American dream or nightmare, every verse is as right for a country night as it is for urban lights. Like time travelers passing in the night, sometimes the worlds collide and connect up, a little like the way real life and its players begin to reveal themselves: Stranger than fiction stories, unfathomable coincidences and outcomes impossible to predict. His surreal yet believable subjects concern a certain kind of dream and dreamer, the ones with romance and melody in their hearts, and trouble in mind. Franklin refuses to check his intellect or his wit at the door when he sings,  “There are no free refills for the taking / There ain’t no four winds that blow strong,”  as he does in “Dear Marianne,” an epic that speaks to the betrayal of the Americas, late 20th Century-style. And yet, riding side by side with his realist is a seeker and eternal optimist, stoking the fire of “Black Lightening.” To hear him sing “If you don’t see me tonight, I’m underneath the stars so bright / Listenin’ to that black smokestack lightnin’ blow again,” is to travel to where the black smoke is rising and the train whistles blow, manifesting a space where the images are as real as the record and the player on which they’re spinning.

See and hear Gasoline Silver live on the West Coast, June 14-22. Check local listings for details.

Filed under: Concerts, Solomon Burke, You Read It Here First, , , , , , ,

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