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Sheba Piano Lounge: The past is present

Sheba Piano Lounge is one of the best little-known musical venues in San Francisco. With history and tradition, it provides a public forum for working musicians, every night, without a cover charge.

I love Sheba Piano Lounge for many reasons: its location at 1419 Fillmore Street, in what might be considered lower Pacific Heights or the upper Western Addition; the interesting mix of people who frequent it; the casual, cool atmosphere; and the ever-evolving musical traditions it presents.

LEGACY AND HISTORY

Sheba is a hip space. This, no doubt, comes from the fact that its origins and legacy are tied to the Rasselas Jazz Club, and to a history and time when the area was known as the Harlem of the West because of its demographics and its stature as a cultural bastion and showcase for jazz, a genuine original American cultural art form.

The neighborhood was the site of San Francisco’s jazz heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, for which the Fillmore District was famous. Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Dexter Gordon, frequented clubs like Bop City, The New Orleans Swing Club, The Favor, The Havana Club, The Blue Mirror, and The Long Bar, where Ella Fitzgerald held court.

In this context, the Sheba genealogy is connected to Rasselas, its one-time sister restaurant-club and forerunner. That is significant, because Rasselas, at Divisadero and California Streets, was only one of a handful of jazz, R&B, and blues clubs in San Francisco. Rasselas moved to 1534 Fillmore Street in 1999, building what was at the time an acoustically state-of-the-art music venue, with a large second bar, stage, and dance floor.

The Rasselas owners opened the more intimate Sheba Piano Lounge in 2006, almost directly across the street, and while both venues offered great Ethiopian food and live music, each had a distinctly different vibe. Together they were the two foundational clubs which, with the subsequent addition of Yoshi’s, the monstrous jazz complex that opened two blocks south, were integral components of what was easily one of the most happening music districts in San Francisco.

Along with Yoshi’s, Rasselas and Sheba were heralded as ushering in the rebirth of the area as a jazz district. While Yoshi’s thrived for a few years, attracting nationally and internationally renowned players, Rasselas and Sheba hung tough and stayed true to their identities, featuring some of the best local R&B, soul, and jazz musicians in the Bay Area.

SHEBA SURVIVES

  Rasselas closed in 2013, and Yoshi’s a year later, which has since left Sheba — through its adaptability and resiliency in the face of a massive onslaught of economic and cultural changes and demographics of San Francisco in general, and the Western Addition in particular — as the flag bearer for the tradition of jazz, soul, and R&B in the area.

Interestingly, while Sheba Piano Lounge was, and still is, a casual supper club with its small lounge areas and fireplace, its ambiance is well suited to the cultural shifts the neighborhood has experienced over the last few years. Indeed, its presence and survival seems indicative that it intuitively anticipated the social and cultural changes that currently characterize the neighborhood. Sheba is still going strong and remains a hip space to see live music by some of the area’s best veteran players.

SALSA TO REGGAE

The varied musical genres Sheba presents include Bohemian Knuckle Boogie, a group that anchored the local scene through its commitment to the musical traditions of Fillmore jazz, who usually play on Sunday nights with their unique blend of jazz and blues.

On Mondays, there’s an open jam session where musicians and vocalists are invited to sit in with the Larry Nelson Trio, a solid house band that provides the platform for those wanting to bare their musical souls.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays feature various players, such as the highly enjoyable Barbara Ochoa singing jazz classics, usually joined with minimal instrumental accompaniment.

Thursday is reserved for Latin Breeze, an international ensemble that lay down authentic Latin rhythms, including salsa, cha-cha, and merengue, attracting musicians who have included the legendary percussionist Louis Romero on timbales and seven-time Grammy-nominated John Santos on congas, among others.

Weekends also present various acts, although soul, R&B, and the blues are well represented by bands like OG Rhythm & Blues, Groove Riders R&B Band, Wiley Coyotes playing reggae music, and wizardry of the Sheba Jazz All-Stars.

Sheba Piano Lounge is a casual and understatedly elegant venue, where music played by deeply committed performers serves as a heartfelt catalyst for breaking down barriers between people, and in so doing, constitutes a true San Francisco cultural resource.

Sheba Piano Lounge: Daily 5 p.m.–1 a.m., free, 1419 Fillmore St., 415-440-7414, shebapianolounge.com

Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, curator, and art writer. 

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