Just look at ours. In a little over a decade Glen Park has witnessed Canyon Market claim the corner of Diamond Street and Wilder Street while it watched Hal and Susan Tauber retire as hardware store owners on Chenery Street and Aaron Esquivel and his crew take it on. We’ve seen Chenery Park shuttered and in December we watched P’tit Laurent change hands.
After a ten-year tenure, we’ve seen Facilities Coordinator Oskar Rosas depart the Glen Park Recreation Center, and we’re still wrapping our minds around the absence of Glen Park Association president Michael Rice who, with his wife Jane, moved to Portland, Oregon.
Mitch Badran who puzzled over physics problems at Higher Grounds passed, so did Tom Coulter, owner of Glen Park Station. Dwight Smith, once a fixture at Café Bello, up and moved to Denver and Ernie Solon whose front yard Chenery Street gewgaws entertained us, moved to the Heartland.
And yet amidst change there have been constants, sources of continuity. Bird & Beckett Books and Records — turning 21 this year — for one.
Originally on Diamond Street where the restaurant Manzoni is now, Glen Park’s independent bookstore moved to its current Chenery Street location in August 2008. Its new home was the former site of the Glen Park library before the library moved to its new-built space over the Canyon Market.
Eric Whittington, Bird & Beckett’s bookseller since 1999, receives die-hard neighborhood support.
His customer base has no difficulty shelling out a buck or two or more to buy a book (rather than ordering online from a certain company in Seattle) or kicking in a hundred dollars or more a year to his 501(c)3 non-profit Bird & Beckett Cultural Legacy Project. As long as it keeps him in business.
And it’s not just because of the paperbacks and hard covers that fill the store’s shelves, the book launches, the readings he schedules or the poetry slams he sponsors.
There are few City venues such as Bird & Beckett’s postage stamp-size performance stage where one can enjoy live jazz.
If you’re in any doubt, collar writer and photographer Jessica Levant who makes a habit of crisscrossing the City, sometimes two or three times a week, looking for jazz joints and dive bars where she can hear incomparable West Coast jazz and bebop.
“I’ve been to jazz and supper clubs such as the Bix’s and Feinstein’s,” Levant told the Glen Park News, “and dive bars like The Saloon and the Lucky Horseshoe.” But Bird & Beckett is special.
“Bird & Beckett is in a neighborhood.” Levant explained. “It brings a sense of community to people who may not live here and owner Eric Whittington is especially personal. He knows your name and on top of that he’s passionate about jazz.”
Levant, who lives in Dogpatch, has compiled two books on local jazz musicians and the clubs where they hone their chops. On December 13 she went to the bookstore to listen to Eric Shifrin, of Eric & the In Crowd.
Raised in the Sunset District, Levant attended Lawton Elementary School, then A.P. Giannini.
“When I was 12 I joined the Columbia Record Club,” Levant said. “I bought Ella, Basie, and Erroll Garner.”
She’s a lifetime jazz buff, whose opinions on the uniquely American musical genre are respected and sought after in Bay Area jazz circles.
“I ushered at SFJAZZ for eight years at the Masonic and Herbst Hall and heard Dave Brubeck,” she told the Glen Park News. “He was an international luminary. But I prefer watching music at clubs and bars. I want to hear and interact with musicians and listen to them interact with one another.”
There’s no shortage of intimacy at the Whittington’s bookstore where he’s cultivated a cozy vibe and books jazz and blues musicians who have few peers.
Housed in a building constructed in 1970 to hold the Glen Park Library, Bird & Beckett will never be mistaken for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
It’s Dickensian in curiosities. Books are tightly shelved, posters adorn walls, LPs are boxed and T-shirts stock tables. But the bookstore’s jazz connoisseurs know their music, which they’ve curated from a lifetime of listening to KJAZ, KCSM, and way back when KSFO’s Al “Jazzbo” Collins broadcasted from the Purple Grotto and the legendary Bobby Dale spun vinyl featuring the vocals of Blossom Dearie, Esther Phillips, Rickie Lee Jones and June Christy.
Bird & Beckett hasn’t missed offering a Friday night of jazz in two decades, an heir to iconic San Francisco clubs such the El Matador, the Black Hawk and the Jazz Workshop.
“You go to SFJAZZ and see Etta James and Ruth Brown as I did and you’re in a concert setting,” said Levant. “You’re receiving and the musicians are giving.”
“You go to Bird & Beckett to be interactive, to listen to jazz in an intimate setting,” she said. “The players respect this music. It comes from their souls each time they play, not just when it was composed.”
On a riff, Levant wouldn’t lift the needle from her long-playing recording.
“The interaction between seasoned players, even if they haven’t played together before, creates an experience both visual and auditory.”
“I like to sit in Eric’s bookstore and I enjoy players saying to another, ‘what key are we playing,’” she said. “Or simply over-hearing the patter with one another between numbers.”
Such talk took place on December 13. Shifrin and Rick Elmore, the band’s trombonist, played off one another, verbally as well as musically. Behind them bandmate Bing Nathan hugged his bass and drummer Randy Lee O’Dell fingered his sticks. From the stage Elmore recalled Little Willie John, a bluesman whose R&B career was cut short because of an explosive temper. It landed Little Willie in the penitentiary after he committed a homicide.
“We’re just working musicians,” Elmore said.
“We keep playing gigs,” Elmore explicated. “It’s like the time Dick Cavett interviewed Ethel Merman and asked her what was the secret of her success?”
Elmore had his audience hooked now. They were either old enough or sophisticated enough to know Merman’s significance.
Then with fine-tuned comedic timing, Elmore repeated Merman’s explanation to Cavett.
“Repeat bookings,” the Broadway musical actress had said.
Individuals who frequent performance halls with state-of-the art acoustics and productions values such as the Kennedy Center might serendipitously stumble upon Whittington’s bookstore during a West Coast trip. They’d hear such repartee and possibly err, labeling it minor league. But anyone tutored in the ways of San Francisco’s 230 Jones Street union hall musicians knows professional players consult over chord changes, check out beat, and talk about tempo while on stage and while traveling from one job to the next.
Fact of the matter is, a common sojourn Whittington’s working musicians make is traveling to “casuals,” one-time gigs such as weddings and corporate parties where their payday is usually higher.
It’s an eleventh commandment among players such as Shifrin that they never shake hands with a bandmate while on stage for fear of providing ammunition to worth-a-bundle nobs who think the musicians have assembled for the first time.
“Some confuse musicians’ banter with being amateurs,” said Levant, “but a comfort level and intimacy with one another and with their audience doesn’t mean performers are amateurs.”
Shifrin was now well into his first December 13 set. He ended the final notes of Bob Dorough’s standard, “Devil May Care,” and watched Levant get comfortable on a folding chair, the sort one might find at a garage sale, not at the David Geffen Hall.
He called over, “Hey Jessica.”
There’s nothing bush league about Shifrin, a piano player who has performed as the Fairmount Hotel house pianist for 15 years, and who Levant met six years ago, subsequently shining a light on him in her two-volume book, “San Francisco Bay Area Jazz and Bluesicians.”
Shifrin is one of 250 local musicians she and her friend and contributor, Linda McGilvray, photographed and profiled. Shrifin had learned piano from his mother. Traditional lessons followed, then improvisation, then influences from Scott Joplin, Ray Charles and Johnny Winter.
An accomplished photographer whose work hangs at the San Francisco Women Artists Gallery on Irving Street in the Inner Sunset, Levant spent her early years as a social worker, then as a management and organizational consultant in London where she met icon Mose Allison.
“I heard Mose twice at Pizza Express in London’s Soho,” Levant said. “The second time I brought my album for him to autograph and it remains one of my most treasured possessions.”
Eric Whittington weighed in on Shifrin’s pedigree.
“He’s like Mose, Dr. John and Albert Ammons,” Whittington told the Glen Park News about Shifrin’s bonafides.
Shifrin dedicated the evening’s music to saxophonist Ralph Carney, a revered sideman, who only recently passed, and who performed with Tom Waits, and blew at recording sessions with Neko Case, K.D. Lang, Laura Veirs, and Elvis Costello.
Taking a page from Ethel Merman’s musical score, Carney often said,” I just pick up an instrument and blow.”
He’d put his lips on a horn in support of Shifrin dozens of times.
“Ralph and I played together in a band called EaR Candy. Ralph named it for Eric and Ralph. Get it – EaRCandy,” Shifrin told the Glen Park News. “We played together, oh, over 25 times in dive bars like The Lucky Horseshoe and the Rite Spot Cafe.”
“Ralph came out of Akron, Ohio in the 1970s and played with Tom Waits through the 1980s,” said Whittington. “Between 2015-16, he played five times in the bookstore with Eric in EaR Candy.”
“Ralph was unique,” said Shifrin, “a very natural player, not a cerebral one.”
Anyone who’d ever heard them cover “My Little Brown Book,” would have no trouble being convinced.
“We played that tune at the Cadillac Hotel,” reminisced Shifrin.
The Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin isn’t and and will never to be confused with Carnegie Hall.
“I saw Ralph play at the Cadillac.” Jessica Levant said of Carney, who she’d featured in Vol 2 of her book. She’d heard him play at both Bird & Beckett and the Rite Spot Café.
Taped on the window of Whittington’s bookstore is a photograph taken in front of San Francisco City Hall of accomplished Bay Area jazz musicians. It’s a homage to the classic 1958 Esquire photo by freelance photographer Art Kane on a Harlem front stoop at 17 East 126th Street at Fifth and Madison Avenue.
Sitting in the San Francisco front row is Mayor Willie Brown surrounded by local music legends.
In the photo are jazz’s clean up hitters. Jimbo Edwards sits in the front row next to Sonny Buxton. Edwards ran Jimbo’s Bop City, a Fillmore District club where Billie Holliday and John Coltrane once performed. John Handy’s pictured, as is guitarist Eddie Duran who played sets with Charlie Parker and a very young Chet Baker at the Say When Club in the 1950s. So is Vernon Alley, who is seated next to fellow San Franciscan Duran in the second row. Alley played at the 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival with Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge, and, like Eric Shifrin, was a fixture at the Fairmont Hotel.
“In that photograph, which was taken in 1999 — the month Bird & Beckett opened — are some of the players who performed in the bookstore,” said Whittington. “Sadly, many are gone now.”
“Pianist Frank Jackson and guitarist Eddie Duran are in the second row,” said Whittington. “In the fourth row are alto Bishop Norman Williams and drummer Benny Barth. Pianist, composer and jazz historian Don Alberts is in the fifth row and bassist Chuck Metcalf is in the seventh row.”
Whittington took a breath.
“Thankfully, lots of the musicians in the photo are still alive.”
Shifrin delights in telling a story about Vernon Alley.
“I played maybe five years at the House of Shields on New Montgomery Street,” Shifrin said. “Probably around 1995, Vernon drops by and we invite him to sit in.”
Smiling, Shifrin continued, “I made sure to play above my everyday level.”
“The drinkers were doing a lot of jabbering,” Shifrin said. “Vernon stopped and told them to cool it!”
Whittington has seen his own changes after 21 years in Glen Park. In the last decade, two of his long-time bookstore clerks have gone. Blanche Bibb passed away and Loretta Marcel moved to Portland, Oregon where Ralph Carney died, after sustaining an injury in a fall at his home. He was was 61.
Drummer Jimmy Ryan and horn player Howie Dudune have passed . Blues vocalist Dorothy Lefkovits moved to New Jersey, replaced by blues stylist Denise Perrier. Tenor saxophonist Chuck Peterson relocated to Santa Rosa.
The takeaways aren’t all that difficult to figure out.
Bird & Beckett’s become a third place that is neither home nor work. It’s embroidered into the fabric of Glen Park, a cultural phenomenon where music aficionados can assemble and enjoy what’s a uniquely American musical art form.
After a Friday night Bird & Beckett date, Jimmy Ryan would spend the next day practicing at his house across 280 in the Excelsior. Chuck Peterson on Arlington Street would do the same.
That’s what working musicians do when they’re not tuning pianos, arranging music, or giving lessons. They practice. Then they practice some more.
Ryan and Peterson didn’t practice in anonymity in garage bands, their chords circling to ceilings with not a soul in the cellar to hear them. While Whittington didn’t discover either, he provided a space to showcase each of their talents.
Jessica Levant turned up again at Bird & Beckett on January 24 to hear Grant Levin, then again on January 31 to hear the Macy Blackman Trio.
Keeping Levant from Bird & Beckett is like trying to convince a toddler to say “yes.”
She sat in the first row, her camera in one hand, a thermos of a fruity libation in another.
Blackman, who Eric Whittington describes as Fats Domino meets Professor Longhair, was backed by tenor player Nancy Wright and on bass by the ubiquitous Bing Nathan. The threesome went through two sets of New Orleans ragtime, covering King Oliver and James P. Johnson.
Between numbers, Wright eyed Eric Shifrin, who’d dropped by to pay his respects and who’d camouflaged himself between Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane.
“You never know who’s going to walk into Bird & Beckett,” Wright quipped.
Blackman vacated his stool. Shifrin took it. Blackman picked up a cornet.
Holding the horn, Blackman said, “This is going to be a culture shock!”
Then he took a place next to Nathan.
Levant seemed delighted, the jabber among the musicians hitting high notes. Wright volunteered “If I Can Be with You One Hour Tonight” was a favorite tune. Later, about “Down in the Alley,” she doubled down, saying “We haven’t done this in an eternity,” which egged Blackman to rib, “We’ve been together for 13 years. That’s an eternity.”
At the set break, Blackman — who’d only emailed a set list to his bandmates that same day and who hadn’t come up with a set order — took a swig from a water bottle. He leaned over and surveyed the milling throng.
“There aren’t any places like this to play anyone,” he told the Glen Park News. “That’s why it’s important.”
“Besides, every time I come here,” he said, “I buy stuff!”
Earlier, the Sunset girl who resides in Dogpatch emailed the Glen Park News a familiar refrain, one neighborhood music lovers have trumpeted now more than 20 years.
“Playing jazz in a bookstore is the perfect thing,” Jessica Levant said, “if you can swing it!”