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SF’s Longest Running Musical Show is in This North Beach Cafe

Updated: Sep 19, 2023 10:13
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Photo from the Caffe Trieste FB page

By Chris LeBoa 

In its 52nd year, the Caffe Trieste free Saturday Afternoon Concert Series might be telling the truth when they claim to be “The Longest Running Musical Show in San Francisco”.

The Caffe Trieste house band shuffles members through the afternoon. The clarinetist holds the 6 member band together behind three cafe tables pushed together in front of the jukebox that’s always set to “free”. No one in the band is under 60. Band members are clad in an impeccable array of hats: a newspaper boy cap, a Golden State Warriors hat, and beret are worn, while a fedora lays cast aside on the table.

The accordion tells a sad story of this land long ago. A time when sailors walked up the hill after pulling in a catch of halibut and salmon at the wharf below. A time when the city was more rough and less corporate. The Caffe Trieste house band’s tunes tell the stories of times they’ve known and ones they have only dreamt of. Their presence here today keeps those stories alive.

As the bearded gentleman with a black bandanna and key lime button down starts a slow number on a harmonica, I’m transported to my great grandmother‘s dining room on Christmas afternoons up by Mount Sutro, where old Uncle Emil, who spoke only in a thick Swiss accent, would gather everyone around to play harmonica while his wife Caroline sang into the night.

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The lady next to me, Marie, is dressed impeccably in all silver and black: her earrings, bracelets, shoes, socks, pants, each a different design. She says she takes the bus across the city for the band every first Saturday of the month when they play. After a few minutes of silence between us, she leans over to tell me that this joint is famous, and people passing through often play with the band. As if on cue, a woman with a bob haircut, brown dress, and checkered shirt stands up from one of the six tables, weaves around a walker, and grabs the microphone:

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you

Her name is Maryann Sfarzo and she’s visiting the band this week from Mexico. She’s also performing there again on November 1st. Behind her the clarinet and accordion converse. In the corner, a picture of “Poppi Gianni” Giotta looks down approvingly. Dressed in sunglasses a black top hat and black suit, he was the Godfather of the joint here at Vallejo and Grant.

This flyer from a recent show comes from the San Francisco Medicine Ball Band FB page

David Sturdevant, the bandleader, has been playing here for 37 years but “hasn’t always led the band”. He first walked into Caffe Trieste holding a guitar back in ‘72, before the script of the movie “The Godfather” was written in the back corner. It was back when beat poets like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti sat in the same seats we are now, scribbling out observations of a broken America to the beat.

“This was the first espresso house on the West Coast,” David tells me. In those days the band only played Italian music and opera singers would stop by to play for Papa Gianni and the regulars. “It is an institution, nothing else like it.”

Papa Gianni and his wife Ida started Caffe Trieste in 1956. Yolanda, Gianni’s sister, was the head barista.

“She knew everybody’s names. She was the reason people came here every day,” David reminisces while leaning into the chair next to me and looking off towards the counter stacked with pizza and cannolis. Their Saturday Concert Series has been going on since 1971, and is the longest running concert series in San Francisco.

The house band is called the San Francisco Medicine Ball Band and they play jazz primarily from the 1920s to 1940s, but also anything else they feel like playing that day. They are there on the first Saturday of the month from 1-4 pm at 601 Vallejo St in San Francisco’s North Beach

“We got famous busking the streets of San Francisco, down by Union Square…the Ferry Building…Herb Caen…” he makes sure to spell out each last name letter by letter “from the Chronicle” wrote them up 27 times. Their membership has included famous musicians like Remi Jackson who was the bass player for Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Another, Pee Wee Little, used to play with the band whenever he wasn’t on tour with the James Brown Band.

At this point our interview is cut short by Patty, the singer, yelling out to the whole cafe: “Everybody’s going to Sadie’s!” An open invitation to all.

In a world in which experiencing music, concerts and gathering always seems associated with a price, Caffe Trieste is your ticket rto world class jazz for the cost of a cappuccino, if you feel so inclined ($3.90).
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