Our own Great Day, here in San Francisco

Jimmy Ryan on a set break at Bird and Beckett.

By Murray Schneider

On January 29th, Jimmy Ryan and his Balboa Be Bop Band performed an encore to their earlier May 19, 2011 gig in the Richmond District’s Balboa Theater. Ryan, 72, and his Generation X jazz band mates warmed up the nearly capacity-filled theater with a rendition of Horace Silver’s “Blowin’ the Blues Away,” and then blew the 190 member audience away with two complete sets.

After Adam Bergeron, owner of the Balboa, tallies up his box office receipts he may not ever have to feel “blue” again about the future of his community-friendly theater, an endangered species given the myriad ways we now receive our entertainment.

“There are as many people here tonight,” said Leslie Rodd, a retired public librarian, “as I’ve seen before.”

Rodd, who lives with her husband, Carl, on Fulton Street and 10th Avenue, walked two miles to hear Ryan, a fixture at Bird and Beckett’s Friday night jazz scene, and then watch “A Great Day in Harlem,” the 1995 Academy Award nominated documentary that recounts the events surrounding the taking of the iconic 1958 Esquire Magazine photograph of 57 jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie standing on the steps of a Harlem brownstone.

Well, 56 jazz giants were standing: Dizzy sat on a curb, looking very much like a very cool cat, allowing 12 neighborhood kids to mess around with his hat.

Art Kane, a young Manhattan art director and neophyte photographer, choreographed the Smithsonian-worthy photograph. And it was like herding cats, cool or otherwise, trying to cajole each one of the jazz luminaries to hit their marks at 10 A.M. on a summer’s morning at 126th Street and Madison Avenue.

Headliner and drummer Ryan reminisced after playing his two sets, which were sandwiched between the film and a cartoon at the eclectic Balboa, the last independently owned movie theater in the Richmond.

“Getting my guys together a few minutes before show time,” Ryan joshed about assembling his ensemble that turned up only minutes before curtain time, “was like getting 57 players to stand still in front of a brownstone.”

Leslie Rodd, who often travels to Manhattan to check out jazz at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note, and whose first husband was a jazz guitarist, was impressed. “The music was high quality and exciting,” she said. “It had a family feel because of Joel Ryan.”

Jimmy Ryan’s son, Joel, played trumpet in a sextet that included Bird and Beckett veterans Danny Grewen and Attila Medveczky, while Rory Ryan, Ryan’s wife, sold raffle tickets in the lobby and verified pre-sold tickets in the 1926-built art deco theater that prides itself on scheduling repertory programming.

Balboa Theater - Jimmy Ryan and "A Great Day in Harlem"

Like Bird and Beckett, which serves as an impromptu third place to Glen Park villagers, the Balboa Theater is more than simply a venue for Leslie and Carl Rodd to watch first-and second-run films.

A veteran librarian, Rodd has often reflected on the salutary nature of public places such as the Balboa. “It has a feel of a good public library,” she said, recalling that pianist Horace Silver donned a T-shirt embossed with ‘Save Books’ while interviewed for the film. “The theater’s inviting and it’s educational and it’s nice to be able to recognize your neighbors here.”

A veteran of many Balboa double bills, Rodd goes to some lengths to support her neighborhood resource, even buying holiday and birthday gift cards for her husband and friends that bundle together five films.

“The Balboa has a sense of the City,” she said, ‘”It tailors movies to San Francisco, not films that may play well in New York.” What the Balboa Theater does, what Jimmy Ryan’s Bird and Beckett Books and Records also does, is what Art Kane intuited over a half-a-century ago.

Both theater and bookstore speak to our need to gather in familiar and comfortable public places with groups of like-minded people. Hovering over a computer, opening a Netflix envelope or stuffing iPod ear buds into our lobes sometimes just doesn’t cut it.

“Art Kane was smart enough,” said Rodd, “to shoot his photograph on the steps of a Harlem brownstone, not in a studio.”

Esquire published Kane’s photo in January 1959 and Kane later concluded without an ounce of false modesty:

“It’s the greatest picture of that era of musicians ever taken.”

Movie patron studying the lobby photograph for Balboa showing of "A Great Day in Harlem."

But, of course, it’s much more than simply a record of 57 sleepy-eyed musicians who rarely rubbed the crust from their eyes before noon. It’s a record of a hip Manhattan neighborhood where people had protean night job playing jazz rifts, but also unvaryingly lived and shopped together, did chores for one another, attended church together, as well as jammed and rehearsed together.

It’s a photograph of not simply 57 jazz idols, all but four of whom are now no longer with us, but of an era and its quintessentially American music and musicians, empathetic and resilient enough to allow 12 children to sidle over to Dizzy Gillespie, the monarch of be bop, and play tug-of-war with his “Mad Men”-era topper.

Leslie Rodd summed it up well as anyone when she cited trumpeter Art Farmer from the “A Great Day in Harlem.” “Farmer said of Young,” Rodd said “that Lester is gone now, but his music will live on forever.”

Rory Ryan figured as much, as well, when she studied a second set backdrop for her husband and his youthful group. An outsized replica of Art Kane’s photograph replaced a white movie screen while 21-year old Danny Brown blew a mean tenor sax and Michael Parsons tickled his keyboard ivories.

“These were giants,” she told Ryan’s band, thinking about the threads of continuity stitching one musical decade to another. “You’re the next generation and your playing in front of giants.”

In his turn, Jimmy Ryan picked up on the significance of the evening’s events. “It was a privilege for an old guy like me to play with top guys like these four thirty-somethings.”

And Leslie and Carl Rodd? Well, they’ve been to the Balboa before when it has bundled jazz and cinema, attending a recent weekend retrospective of six film noirs, one movie melding the ethereal jazz chords of Miles Davis with two-timing femme fatales. “We plan our lunch around tubs of popcorn,” Rodd smiled.

It’s their theater in their neighborhood, but it’s also all of our music and all of our movies.

Read about the iconic Harlem photo at www.harlem.org

Jimmy Ryan and his band perform at Bird and Beckett on the second Friday of each month at 5:30 P.M.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Our own Great Day, here in San Francisco

  1. At this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival I saw the world premiere of a film, The Girls in the Band, which supplies the other gender’s story of the Great Day in Harlem. Two of the people in the GDiH photo were women, and they, and their sisters, women who played in early bands, are the subject of this amazing documentary. (You can google and see a preview of the film.)

    I was lucky enough to get hold of a DVD (not for public viewing) of the film, and people in Glen Park who are very interested in Jazz and Women can get in touch with me … I’m sydney@eceteacher.org

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