Not far from where The Vivants frontwoman Emily Bonn lives in San Francisco, a stone’s throw down Post Street, is the Hamilton Pool and Recreation Center. On the building’s north wall is a mural; most people who walk by don’t even notice it, Bonn says. It depicts the history of black music in San Francisco, starting with tribal African drummers and gospel singers and running through vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley and into modern hip-hop. Among the notable figures depicted are Louie Jordan and Louis Armstrong, prominent early jazz musicians who often played the Fillmore, a few blocks away on Geary Street.
The mural sits in the heart of the Western Addition, one of the most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods in San Francisco. Nineteenth-century Victorian homes sit next to housing projects; swanky restaurants nestle alongside stalwart small businesses. Long ago, the neighborhood was the epicenter of San Francisco’s jazz scene, and one of the birthplaces of the jazzy country offshoot known as Western swing.
“It used to be called the Harlem of the West,” Bonn says. “And even though I grew up so close to San Francisco, I had no idea there was such rich tradition of jazz and R&B there until I moved there.”
But like many neighborhoods in major American cities, the Western Addition’s getting whitewashed by gentrification. People don’t even call the neighborhood by that name anymore, Bonn notes; they call it NoPa (shorthand for “north of Panhandle Park”). As the neighborhood gets reconditioned, its vibrant musical history is slowly getting lost, The Vivants’ latest record, the jaunty and vivacious Western Addition, is a love letter to Bonn’s historic ’hood.
“I really wanted to pay homage to [the Western Addition], especially since San Francisco is changing so rapidly,” she says. “It’s just getting wiped clean with the tech boom that’s happening. It’s heartbreaking.”
Though Bonn’s a native of California, her music and that of The Vivants is also tied to the South. Bonn grew up in Marin County, California, but she spent a few summers in the South, mostly in Atlanta, where she lived for a few years, but she also spent time in the mountains of North Carolina and Georgia. The Vivants also boast a Columbia connection in bassist and clarinetist James Touzel, a University of South Carolina music school graduate and ex-member of long-ago local rock band Fling.
It was during her time in the Southern hills that Bonn picked up on old-time music, which informed The Vivants’ earliest songs.
“It was just this welcoming sense of community,” she adds. “That was something that was lacking in my life growing up right outside of San Francisco; playing music was something you do where, you know, you have recitals. It was more, not competitive, but it was more goal-driven.”
While Western Addition still drips with old-timey charm, it also finds The Vivants drawing from a deep well of influences from the early vernacular of American music. “Only Got Time” bears distinct lineage to Appalachian folk. The shuffling “All in All” pulls from Western swing and Dixieland jazz. “Don’t Call Me Darling,” anchored by high and lonesome pedal steel, evokes early country-western ballads. “Touzel Twofer,” with its warbling woodwinds and tap-dance percussion, is a jolly ragtime swinger. And the grand instrumental highlight “Fillmore Swing” draws from all of the above, even rolling a bit of bebop into its marbled trombone solo.
Its title is a reference to the club that still sits in the center of the Western Addition, anchoring The Vivants’ accidental mission to keep the neighborhood’s vibrant musical history alive.
“I guess, sort of inadvertently, it’s educational,” Bonn says. “We hope people listen to it and say, ‘Hey, I want to check that music out.’”
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