In Memory of Vernon Alley
is with great personal sadness and San Francisco's deep sorrow that
I rise to pay tribute to Vernon Alley, the most distinguished and
beloved jazz musician in San Francisco's history, who passed away
on October 3rd. Vernon honored his beloved City by choosing to pass
up playing in the big jazz cities of New York and Chicago to devote
his life to enchanting and inspiring generations of San Franciscans.
He elevated our City with his music and his dedication to racial
San Franciscan, Vernon went to high school with Joe DiMaggio, where
he became an all-star full back. His interest in jazz began as a
boy when his parents took him to see jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.
He started his own group in the 30's in the Fillmore. In 1940 he
went to New York and joined the Lionel Hampton Band. Two years later,
he became a member of the Count Basie Orchestra.
Alley knew and played with the greatest jazz musicians and performers
of his generation - Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker,
Erroll Garner, Nat King Cole, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald, and
to his beloved San Francisco in 1942. The music scene exploded in
the 40's when African Americans moved to San Francisco's Bayview
District to work in the shipyards. Vernon fostered jazz in the Bay
Area during the heyday of the Fillmore District and North Beach
jazz scenes of the 1940's and 50's.
was as dedicated to fighting racism as he was to his music. He singlehandedly
integrated the San Francisco Musicians Union. As chairman of the
board of the black musicians local, he fought for integration of
the City's jazz clubs, luring most of the white musicians into his
local, because they wanted to play jazz in the swing clubs. As an
accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, he fought the segregationist policies
of the casinos of Las Vegas.
friend of many San Francisco mayors, he served for years on the
San Francisco Arts Commission and the Human Rights Commission. He
was active in the City's arts community and hosted two popular radio
programs and a television show. His good friend, columnist Herb
Caen, whom he first showed around town when Caen was a young newspaperman,
often mentioned Vernon as a man "whose smile lights up the
town, even on foggy days."
was inducted into the San Francisco State University Alumni Hall
of Fame in 1997. In 2001, when his health was declining, the San
Francisco Jazz Festival put together a 3½ hour tribute called
"The Legacy of Vernon Alley" that drew more than a thousand
musicians and friends. Later that year, an alley in a redevelopment
project was named "Vernon Alley."
We will never
forget our most beloved jazzman. With a twinkle in his eyes, an
infectious smile, a booming laugh, and his bass "Baby"
in hand, he captivated us all. I hope it is a comfort to his brother,
Eddie, his longtime companion, Lorna Ruyter, and his nieces and
nephews that so many friends and fans share their grief and are
praying for them at this sad time."
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