After nearly 14 years, Rassela's Jazz Club on Fillmore Street closed this month — but not without one last burst of sound. Before the club's final weekend, owner Agonafer Shiferaw fired off a letter to Mayor Ed Lee arguing that the closing of Rassela's is a sign of a bigger failure in the neighborhood. "The visionary promise of a revitalized, thriving African American commercial presence along Fillmore Street with a jazz ambiance is fading, and fading fast," Shiferaw wrote. In essence, he argues, the city's investment in the Historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District — which attempted to atone for a decades-long redevelopment program that moved black residents and businesses out, killing a jazz scene that had been world-famous — was foundering.
"This area should have been no less than Hayes Valley, no less than Divisadero, and benefiting everybody in the surrounding community," Shiferaw says. "I just don't know where we went wrong."
Despite the handful of nightlife outposts on Fillmore Street, there's no mistaking the area for a Hayes Valley or a Valencia. Especially not the three-block stretch between Geary and Eddy, where the city focused its latest improvement efforts. Yoshi's throws big concerts, sometimes two per night. The Fillmore and the Boom Boom Room, on either side of Geary, draw healthy crowds. Fat Angel offers interesting food and drink at mid-level prices. But lower Fillmore doesn't have the energy you feel in Hayes Valley on a Saturday night, or even on Divisadero, much less Valencia. It feels quiet, removed. Late at night, even on a weekend, it can seem dead. There are rows of empty storefronts along the main street, and many of the commercial spaces that are occupied don't stay open into the evenings. The few destinations in the area, like Yoshi's and 1300 Fillmore, draw an older, more moneyed crowd, as did Rassela's.
Numerous cities around the country have tried to revitalize struggling neighborhoods by deeming them jazz preservation districts, and advertising their history. The Fillmore tries to trade on having been known as the "Harlem of the West," and the allure of that past is obvious. But considered abstractly, naming part of a city after a music that's decades past its popular and commercial prime seems an odd path to revitalization.
Consider other potential scenarios: What if, in 40 years, San Francisco decided to name 11th Street "The Mashup District," honoring the giant parties Bootie has held at DNA Lounge for the last decade or so? (Perhaps there could be a vast bronze statue of two vinyl records being smashed together? Or a giant hand moving around an Apple mouse?) Should the Mission one day decline in vitality, would the city trade on its history of punk rock, putting up redevelopment money to rebuild long-lost venues like Valencia Tool & Dye or the Deaf Club? Wouldn't it be strange to sit down over a meal of artisanal Twinkies and small-batch Milwaukee-style lager to watch an 80-year-old Jello Biafra howl about Jerry Brown? And yes, jazz has had a vastly more profound impact on American culture than mashups or punk rock, to say nothing of its significance in the ongoing American conversation over race. But recasting the identity of a neighborhood to a music that has decreasing relevance — even, and perhaps especially, to the people who live there — remains a curious strategy. And there are signs that the main thing that isn't working about the Jazz Preservation District is, well, jazz.
Shiferaw is cagey about exactly what brought about the end of Rassela's, although he's quick to blame what he deems a lack of attention from the city. He owns the building that housed the restaurant and jazz club, and plans to lease it out to new tenants who will turn the space into what he calls an upscale "New York-style" nightclub. "It's a business decision," he says of the closure, offering few details. But the conclusion, for this club anyway, seems clear: Offering upscale Ethiopian food and pricey drinks, and charging patrons covers for mostly local live groups, failed.
Rassela's booked a few notable shows that drew the jazz heads from around the Bay Area, like the Robert Stewart Experience in May. Past performers have included Ledisi and Tracy Chapman. But for the most part, the club hired local acts to play in the dining room. And several in the local music community say that Shiferaw didn't have the best reputation among musicians. "There is no loss with Rassela's," says Mars Breslow, a longtime jazz photographer for Downbeat magazine and an advocate for the music in the Bay Area. "It was part sleazy, [and] part good musicians that were being low-balled, that were desperate." Stephanie Dalton, a promoter of local music who is often critical of the rates musicians are paid by local clubs, concurs. "[Patrons] were not going there for his food or his overpriced cocktails ... they were going there for the music," Dalton says. "In the last, I would say, 10 years, [Shiferaw] actually had an out-front contempt for musicians."
Even the area's bigger bookers of local jazz have struggled. Yoshi's is the major live music destination in the Fillmore, but the restaurant and so-called jazz club is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to restructure its debt. (Club officials say there is no possibility of its closure.) After going through several artistic directors since opening in 2007, Yoshi's has finally discovered that the way to profitability isn't through presenting lots of jazz, but instead with hip-hop, soul, world music, and local bands. With the Oakland location booking the brunt of Yoshi's jazz offerings, the S.F. club finally reached profitability in August 2012. Along with changing bookings, the club's managers have sometimes bypassed its traditionally seated performances, opening up the wooden dancefloor so that standing-only patrons — who pay less for tickets — get a modern experience more like a rock club than a jazz club.
Meanwhile, the city's biggest success story in jazz, the new SFJAZZ Center, isn't even in the so-called "jazz district" — it's in Hayes Valley, near the symphony, the opera, the ballet, and a bunch of upscale bars, restaurants, and boutiques. It's also nearer major public transportation routes like BART, which, SFJAZZ officials say, was not a coincidence.
So what does this mean for the Fillmore? Shiferaw isn't getting out of the neighborhood altogether, since he still owns the building that housed Rassela's. He's quick to blame the city bureaucracy — which issued redevelopment loans to Rassela's, Yoshi's, and 1300 Fillmore — for not following up on its investment and marketing the neighborhood more. But would marketing really help? Looking at the neighborhood, one wonders if perhaps the explanation for Rassela's failure is simpler and less pernicious. The Fillmore's jazz district isn't the vibrant nightlife destination many want it to be, but there are successes there. They just don't have very much to do with jazz.