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The Jazz Mobile Meets People Where They Are With Free Live Music

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I was walking down Divisadero, back to work at Josey Baker where I shuttle bread to and fro. It’s a good job for someone who wants to keep their head down and to themselves. You see, I’ve been pretty overwhelmed with the existential weight of all the God-awful crap around us, which doesn’t typically make for great conversation. But something was different that day.

It was mid-day, and I was enjoying the sun on my red cheeks when I noticed a guy taping up flyers. The scene was just entirely normal, and that was a beautiful thing to behold. He was just out there doing his thing with a shoddy roll of tape, a cigarette pinched between his seersucker lips and a plastic bag carrying all his paper bills; it was old school. 

Watching him out there on a sunny afternoon, I had the rare urge to strike up a conversation and find out what it was he was trying to share with the city that day. So, I asked and he was happy to oblige.

“Jazz show at the weed shop right over there.”

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He enthusiastically shared a bit of his knowledge about the history of Fillmore jazz.

“Eight jazz bands were running the show back in the day. Now, there’s only one; The Charles Unger Experience.”

That was hard to wrap my mind around, so I pressed him. With his cigarette bouncing around between his lips, he explained:

“Yeah, man. Charles Unger, Sue Crosman, Ben Luis, and Tony Coleman. Those guys — and ladies — are the OG’s! And they do it all out of a fuckin’ van, man! This crazy thing is called Bay Area Jazz Mobile.” 

I told him that sounded like a legit good time and I’d be there. As I started walking away, he yelled:

“AND THERE’S WEED!”

Sunday rolled around and as luck would have it, the air wasn’t stifled with smoke and depressing haze. My girlfriend and I were grateful to walk around and breathe in cool, crisp San Francisco air without worrying about the AQI. We passed by the Page where hangovers were being nursed over Bloody Marys and the Giants game played from iPads set up on bar tables. It all felt normal, natural, like everything was as it should be. I resisted the urge to kill the moment by checking in on the Twitter horror show, choosing instead to go with the happy flow.

As we walked up to Divisadero and Grove, smooth jazz permeated down the block. The notes were crisp and melodic. The people gathered looked like they were anywhere between their 30s and 70s, but I was surprised the crowd wasn’t larger. I mean, free music on a Sunday afternoon with Basa, a local weed shop right there, and a Popeyes just down the street — what more could you want?  

We settled down with our Bi-Rite sandwiches, healthy kale salad and enjoyed the show.

A trumpet player, bassist, keyboard player, saxophonist and a drummer filled the air with sweet sounds. The vibe was warm, approachable, structured, and contrasted against improvisation and flow. There was no doubt they were veterans and they knew how to tease and entice the passersby, drawing in young and old. Life poured and pulled from their instruments; real, tangible life.

San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area community have been through hell this past year. COVID robbed us of so many small businesses, beloved music venues, cafes, bars and restaurants. We were stripped of so many loved ones and neighborhood legends. But in that one perfect Sunday moment, jazz out of a van made us remember what living was like again and how amazing our community still is. In a sea of shit, the show felt like a beautiful triumph, and we thanked them for it with an outpouring of love. 

The band bowed and tried to wave off the audience’s praises, but we wouldn’t stop. With every clap, every whoop and shout, it was a show of respect, reverence, and, at least for me, awe. Like so many performers in the pandemic age, they risked their well-being to entertain us, to show us that however scared we are, that whatever God-awful thing is going on, hope still lives between the notes.

I urge you to catch some of that joy by checking the Bay Area Jazz Mobile’s schedule, next up at Washington Square Park on Thursday from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m.

You can also check out an interview with the Jazz Mobile folks in the HereSay Media/Broke-Ass Stuart video below:

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Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.

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