The San Francisco Bay Area has long
been a center for literature, the visual arts, music,
theater and dance. Interviews collected by the
Regional Oral History Office convey the experiences
of important figures in all these areas. These
recollections of writers, painters, musicians, composers,
architects delve into the development of their aesthetic
ideas, as well as the events and people who shaped
their work. Other interviews
document the activities of museum directors, curators, impresarios,
gallery owners, and patrons. Related projects include Community-Based Arts, Doctor Atomic, and SFMOMA.
Alice B. Toklas, left, with her companion Gertrude Stein and their dog
Basket II, near Belley, France, ca. 1941.
Photo courtesy of The Bancroft Library.
Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) The Bancroft Library Interview. Interviews conducted by Roland Duncan in 1952. 131 pp.
Ludwig Altman (1910-1990) A Well-Tempered Musician's Unfinished Journey Through Life. 1990, 183 pp.
Madi Bacon (1906-2001) Musician, Educator, Mountaineer. 1989, 236 pp.
Sheldon Cheney (1886-1980) Conversations with Sheldon Cheney. 1977, 166 pp.
Photo by Terrence McCarthy
Ruth Felt The Making of a Modern Impresario: San Francisco Performances and Nonprofit Organizations from 1960s to Today Interviewer: Martin Meeker
In the summer of 2004, the Regional Oral History Office was commissioned by Camilla Smith to conduct a life history interview with Ruth A. Felt. The occasion for the interview was to commemorate the then upcoming 25th anniversary season of San Francisco Performances, the nonprofit performing arts presenting organization founded by Felt in 1979. In the intervening quarter century, San Francisco Performances under the leadership of Felt established itself as one of the premiere fine arts presenting organizations in the United States. Moreover, San Francisco Performances has charted new territory by commissioning innovative musical and dance compositions, by developing an educational program for high school students, and by reaching out to diverse audiences around the San Francisco Bay Area.
The interviews were conducted from September through November 2004 during four separate interview sessions. Each session lasted roughly two hours. All interviews were conducted in the home of Ruth Felt in the Ashbury Heights section of San Francisco. Along with research into the history of San Francisco Performances, nonprofit arts organizations, and arts management, exploratory unrecorded interviews were conducted with Camilla Smith (San Francisco Performances board member), Marian Kohlstedt (Director of Public Relations and Publishing at San Francisco Performances), Melanie Smith (Director of Education at San Francisco Performances), as well as with Ruth Felt. As a side note, this interview only briefly covers Felts years working at the San Francisco Opera under the leadership of Kurt Herbert Adler; for more on her years with the opera, see the interview with Felt for the Adler series at ROHO.
For more on the arts and artists in the San Francisco Bay Area, see the numerous interviews in ROHO's arts series, in particular the interviews with James Schwabacher, Kurt Herbert Adler, and Betty Connors.
Laurette Goldberg (b. 1932) Early Music Performance in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1960s-Present. 1997, 467 pp.
Alto saxophonist John Handy came to the Bay Area from Dallas when he was fifteen, joined three bands at McClymonds High School in Oakland and was soon playing in the San Francisco Fillmore District's jazz clubs, particularly Bop City, which he considered a second home.
In the late 1950s he moved to New York City, where Charles Mingus heard him at the Five Spot Club, announced “Bird is back!" and invited him to perform with his band—he subsequently recorded eight albums with Mingus. Charlie Parker was a major influence on Handy's music. “He brought to me the use of chromatic skills—half-tones—like nobody else. He expanded the sound and made the music bigger."
Raised in the bebop era, Handy's approach to jazz is cerebral and virtuosic. Known for his collaborations with blues and jazz artists, Indian classical musicians and others, and for compositions such as “Spanish Lady," he taught for many years at San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley and Stanford. Handy continues to live and perform in the Bay Area. His oral history is part of the American Composers Series.
Kronos at Mills College, 1979. L-R: Hank Dutt, Joan Jeanreneaud, John Sherba, David Harrington.
Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet.
David Harrington, founder, director and first violinist of Kronos Quartet, has committed Kronos since its beginnings in the 1970s to living composers, commissioning music from all corners of the globe. When the quartet reached its thirtieth year it had commissioned and performed more than five hundred new works.
Forging past every genre barrier, Harrington formed an ensemble with a startling new look and a willingness to explore uncharted territory (Rolling Stone named the quartet the “Fab Four"). Harrington was inspired to form the quartet after hearing George Crumb's Black Angels with its clear anti-Vietnam message; the Kronos journey began with the exchange of a bag of doughnuts with composer Ken Benshoof for his piece Traveling Music.
Since that time, Kronos' forays into the far reaches of classical music, jazz, rock and folk idioms have been unique. Through collalborations with composers and musicians from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, Kronos has made a substantial contribution to quartet literature, helped create a mass market for world music, and proved that classical music is no longer exclusively a European-American enterprise.
Ali Akbar Khan agreed to undertake an oral history as part of the Regional Oral History Office's American Composer Series in the spring of 2006. The interviews were held at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California, with cups of strong tea coming from the kitchen and students greeting "Baba" in the formal manner as they arrived for class. Mary Khan, who took part in most of the interviews, helped edit the transcript.
Khan came to the United States for the first time in 1955 at the invitation of Yehudi Menuhin, who named him "the greatest musician in the world." Together with his brother-in-law Ravi Shankar, Khan brought Indian classical music to audiences worldwide. In 1971, he and Ravi Shankar took part in the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden organized by George Harrison.
Born in the village of Shibpore in what is now Bangladesh, Khan studied with his famous father Allauddin Khan, who designed for his son such a strict system of voice and instrumental lessons that speaking was discouraged. Khan made a long study of vocal music, upon which all Indian classical music is based, and became a master of the sarode, a stringed instrument in the lute family with an unfretted metal fingerboard. In addition to traditional ragas, he composed scores for Sayjit Ray's Devi, the Merchant-Ivory film The Householder and Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, among others, and recorded more than ninety albums. In the history Khan talks of the raga, which is at the heart of all Indian music, of dying and rebirth, and of the magic that was so important a part of his childhood.
Ali Akbar Khan performed and taught at the College until his death at the age of 87 in 2009.
Khuner, Felix (1906-1991) A Violinist's Journey from Vienna's Kolisch Quartet to the San Francisco Symphony and Opera Orchestras. 1996, 167 pp.
McCracklin, Jimmy (b. 1921), Oral History Transcript in Progress
Born in rural Arkansas, Jimmy McCracklin migrated first to St. Louis, then Los Angeles, and in the late 1940s, to Richmond, California. Like thousands of African Americans who relocated to northern cities during and after World War II, McCracklin brought with him the musical culture and styles of the South. His story is profoundly sad in terms of the overt racism, music piracy, illness and loss he has encountered, but equally joyous in the gift of music he possesses and the hundreds of songs he has written.
Caroline Crawford directed the documentary film, Jimmy Sings The Blues, focusing on the powerful themes of McCracklin's life and music.
Photo of Turk Murphy
Courtesy of Charles Campbell
Turk Murphy Oral History Project Turk Murphy, Earthquake McGoon's, and The New Orleans Revival. 2011. 298 pp. Featuring interviews with Charles Duff Campbell, William Carter, John Gill, Richard Hadlock, Linda Jensen, Carl Lunsford, Leon Oakley, Bob Schulz, and Pat Yankee.
Trombonist Turk Murphy was a key figure in the traditional jazz revival that began in San Francisco in the late 1940s. Born in California in 1915, he was a veteran of the big bands, but his passion was the music of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and their New Orleans contemporaries. In the 1940s he performed with Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band and subsequently formed his own band, eventually playing "trad jazz" in San Francisco from 1960 to 1984 in the Earthquake McGoon’s clubs he created. By reputation Turk Murphy was a superlative musician, with a robust sense of humor and a strict work ethic. He seemed to know everyone in San Francisco and was given the key to the city many times. Shortly before his death he performed before a full-house audience in Carnegie Hall.
Interviewed for the oral history were seven musicians who performed with Turk Murphy over four decades: Leon Oakley, John Gill, Bob Schulz (with Linda Jensen), Pat Yankee, Bill Carter, Carl Lunsford and Richard Hadlock. The oral history begins with an interview with Charles "Duff" Campbell, who managed Murphy’s band in the early years and was associated with Murphy until his death in 1987. Caroline Crawford directed the Turk Murphy project.
Joaquin Nin-Culmell and his sister Anaïs in 1927
Photo courtesy of Joaquin Nin-Culmell
Nin-Culmell, Joaquin Growing Up with Anaïs Nin, Studying with De Falla, Composing in the Spanish Tradition. 2006.
Pauline Oliveros in her faculty office at Mills College, 2002
Photo by Caroline Crawford
Trumpeter Allen Smith was born in a mill town in Pennsylvania in 1925 and moved to California in 1943. That year he was drafted into the U.S. Navy, and had the good fortune of being selected to replace Clark Terry and perform in the renowned Navy Hellcat Band in Hawaii. Upon his return he earned a master's degree in education from SF State University, and from 1950 to 1985 served as an elementary school teacher and principal in San Francisco schools school. He performed in the Fillmore District when other areas of the city were closed to African Americans and performed, recorded, and toured with Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Benny Goodman and others. Smith played in San Francisco jazz clubs until shortly before his death in February, 2011.
Jazz drummer Earl Watkins was born and raised in San Francisco in the 1920s. He became a professional at 17, and after serving in the navy he joined the African American branch of the musicians union and performed in the dozens of clubs in San Francisco’s "Harlem of the West," the Fillmore District. Watkins was influenced by Gene Krupa and Max Roach, whom he heard perform here with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the early 1940s. After redevelopment closed down the Fillmore, Watkins was in the house bands at the famous Blackhawk Club and the Downbeat Club, where he backed Billie Holiday. From 1955 to 1963 he performed and toured with Earl "Fatha" Hines, whom he calls "jazz royalty." Watkins worked to break the color barrier in music and housing in the Bay Area, serving for more than 20 years on the board of directors of the musicians union after unions merged in 1960. He performed until his death at the age of 87 in 2007. In his obituary in the English newspaper The Guardianhe is described as "a key figure in the San Francisco Bay Area jazz scene." Caroline Crawford directs the jazz project, which includes the oral histories of Dave Brubeck, John Handy, Allen Smith and others.
Dr. Herbert H. Wong
(Photo courtesy of the Wong family)
Herbert H. Wong's oral history, entitled , is part of an ongoing series in the field of jazz and rhythm and blues that includes Dave Brubeck, John Handy, Allen Smith, Earl Watkins, Turk Murphy, Eddie Alley, Johnny Otis and Earl Brown.
In his career as a teacher and administrator in Berkeley and Oakland schools, Dr. Wong established a unique combination of science and jazz in the curriculum by bringing jazz into the elementary school classroom. He taught environmental concepts through music, and at his invitation such legendary musicians as Oscar Peterson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Phil Woods agreed to perform for his students. He also persuaded Duke Ellington to take the time from a booking in Las Vegas to give a concert in Berkeley and attend a jazz band rehearsal and a Black Student Union reception at Berkeley High School. A lifelong jazz aficionado, Dr. Wong has served as critic, adjudicator, lecturer, record producer (he was president of Palo Alto Records and Black Hawk Records),hosted KJAZ programs for decades and has written hundreds of liner notes for recordings. Caroline Crawford directs the Jazz/Rhythm and Blues Oral History Project.
Carl Rakosi (1903-2004) A Century in the Poetic Eye: Carl Rakosi on Poetry, Psychology, and World Affairs in the Twentieth Century. Interviewer: Kimberly Bird
Carl Rakosi is best known as a member of the “Objectivist" group of poets, who were first linked together in a special issue of Poetry Magazine published in 1931. Poetry editor Harriet Monroe chose Louis Zukofsky as guest editor and charged him with the task of handpicking the finest young U.S. poets and to present them as a new movement. However arbitrary their initial association, this grouping that included Zukofsky, Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and George Oppen endured and developed from that “Objectivist" issue of Poetry to occupy an important position in the history of poetry. During the 1930s, Rakosi was one of the more politically engaged of the group; yet, by the end of that red decade, he found it increasingly difficult to place his work. He did not write the kind of Marxist poetry being published by the journals popular with the left. His desire to support his family led him away from poetry and into a career as a social worker and then as a psychotherapist. He did not return to poetry until 25 years later, and then it was as if he never left.
The interview, which began in July 2002, is a record of Rakosi's extraordinary memory looking back at his 99 years as a son, husband, father, grandfather, poet, social worker, psychologist, and citizen of the world. Among many other topics, Rakosi goes into depth on the Objectivists as individuals and as a group, the role of poetry in U.S. society, the evolution of social work and the field of psychology, the experience of Jewish peoples in Eastern Europe and as immigrants to the U.S., the history of anti-Semitism in the U.S., the 2001 World Trade Center catastrophe, and his assessment of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon as statesmen.
Rakosi's epigrammatic prose style, his aphorisms, and his short poems evidence his love of the concise. It is no surprise then that the stories he tells in this interview lack neither depth nor meaning, but neither are they sewn up neatly for the reader. Throughout, Rakosi demonstrates his unique ability to place the final punctuation mark, in the form of a smile and shoulder shrug, of a particular story exactly at the point where others might begin to explain or interpret the story for the listener. As in his poetry, Rakosi's oral history demands that we slow down, think, and draw our own conclusions and connections.
Stern, Gerd (b. 1928) From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978, 2001, 397 pp.
and Landscape Architects
Vernon (b. 1908) A Life in Architecture:
Indian Dancing, Migrant Housing, Telesis, Design for Urban Living, Theater, Teaching, 1992, 576 pp.
David (b. 1930) Inside 500 Capp Street: An Oral History of David Ireland's House. 2003, 150 pp.
In July 2001 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art president Richard L. Greene got in touch
with the Regional Oral History Office about his wish to have us undertake an oral
history of David Ireland's house. House? What the museum wanted was not-your-ordinary oral
history. Rather than setting out to do an oral account of a life, marching through the
chronology of birth, education, and work, the subject of the interview would be a house,
500 Capp Street, San Francisco. David Ireland's house, his embodiment, his "action".
Dorothea Lange(1895-1965) The Making of a Documentary Photographer, 1968, 257 pp.