Guest Blogger Jordon Zorker: Last Missive from The Cellar

With the season of school semesters, the San Francisco History Center has interns in the department working on special projects. What's on the 6th Floor? asked Jordon Zorker, San Francisco History Center intern, to be a guest blogger. He writes here about the Sonny Nelson Papers, a collection that focuses on Beat-era jazz club, The Cellar. 

Last Missive from The Cellar

Sonny is a guy with two (l)onely feet
Sonny is a guy with skies
                                    that way too
A guy who knows that
                                    ‘two is one’
                                                            is true

                                            --Opening of an unidentified poem in the Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78

During the 1950s, San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, teeming with bars and cafes, became the epicenter of the Beat literary movement. It was at 576 Green St., sandwiched between L’Italia Building and the Caruso CafĂ©, on March 9, 1956 (the same year Allen Ginsberg's Howl was published), that a former Chinese restaurant with a basement reopened as a jazz night club called The Cellar. It was soon to become a favorite spot of the Beats and a key landmark of “jazz poetry,” the fusion of poetry performance with bebop jazz.

Original poster for The Cellar, jazz poetry nightclub at 576 Green St., SF, circa 1956 - 1960
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)
The Sonny Nelson Papers (SFH 78) give a fascinating, fragmented glimpse into this moment of cultural history. Sonny Nelson, who used several variant names throughout his life, was a multi-instrumental musician and one of three part-owners of The Cellar (aka the Jazz Cellar), serving double duty as club operations man and as one of the drummers of the house band, the Cellar Jazz Quintet. 

Long after the Beat era, an older Sonny Nelson (aka Sonny Wayne) displays a poster for The Cellar (Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

The Sonny Nelson Papers as a collection speaks more to Sonny's lifelong devotion to jazz and the history of The Cellar than to his own musical career; however, there are some details we can glean about him and following the activity of his life lends some context to the collection. Born Wayne E. Nelson (Jan. 6, 1928 – Sept. 24, 2009), he spent the early part of his life in the Minneapolis area. In 1953, during the Korean War, Sonny was serving in the army-- stationed in Texas and then Alaska-- where he played in the 4th Army Band. According to a remembrance by Billy Faier published in the San Francisco Chronicle, around 1954 Sonny Wayne (Nelson) was performing nightly as drummer at Johnny Elgin’s, 912 Toulouse Street in the New Orleans’ French Quarter. Sonny is described as “a retiring fellow, very easy to be with.”

North Beach Magazine cover showing the Jazz Workshop (nightclub), located near The Cellar. Man at the end of the queue might be Sonny Nelson.
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)
The term “Jazz poetry” may refer to poems that directly reference jazz, suggest its rhythms, or combine the two art forms in performance. Its history is complicated and debatable. One of the earliest innovators was poet Langston Hughes in the 1920s. Some sources claim that poet Kenneth Rexroth strategized combined performance as far back as the 1930s. Nevertheless, it is widely considered that it was the concerts of Rexroth (who had something of an intellectual, non-bohemian image) and Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti that popularized jazz poetry as performance; thus,The Cellar could be considered its birthplace. According to Barry Silesky in Sascha Feinstein’s book Jazz Poetry, only about one hundred persons could fit into The Cellar, yet on the first night about five hundred lined up (p. 67). This soon sparked a movement, with national coverage by Time magazine (and Life and Down Beat, according to Sonny’s notes). One significant LP emerged from The Cellar scene: Poetry Readings in the Cellar, which featured Nelson as "Sonny Wayne" on drums. His performance is competent, if not exuberantly riding on the waves of history-in-the-making.

Rexroth and Ferlinghetti released Poetry Reading in “The Cellar” (1957, Fan. 7002), featuring Rexroth’s political attack against corporate America (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”) and Ferlinghetti’s dixieland-influenced “Autobiography,” later published in A Coney Island of the Mind (New York, 1958). Within two years many writers had recorded poetry with musical accompaniment.
– Grove Music Online

Original LP cover for Poetry Readings in the Cellar (1957), with Sonny Wayne on drums
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

The poets read their poetry while the jazz band improvised. The results were startling and exciting. The Cellar seats a mere handful of people but can accommodate 150 including standees, if necessary. During each of these half-dozen evenings devoted to the jazz and poetry experiments, the club was packed. San Franciscans of every stratum of society came to hear what was obviously a new and intriguing artistic excursion.
-          Ralph J. Gleason, from the liner notes of the LP/CD Poetry Readings in the Cellar

Written at white heat, this poem has the devastating effect of a hydrogen bomb.
-          Henry Miller on Rexroth’s poem Thou Shalt Not Kill, from the liner notes of Poetry Readings in the Cellar

Some of the jazz poetry recordings soon to follow Poetry Readings in the Cellar included works by Kenneth Patchen, Bob Dorough covering Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac with accompaniment from Steve Allen and others. Interestingly, according to Feinstein’s sources, Rexroth and Ferlinghetti were not particularly fans of bebop and preferred older, more traditional jazz forms. Rexroth’s jazz poetry performances were apparently so heavily scripted and rehearsed that it's questionable whether they qualify as improvisation. Often he employed the verses of other poets-- those he translated, such as Pablo Neruda-- rather than his own poetry. 

A related resource found at the San Francisco History Center is a card file index to Kenneth Rexroth's weekly column in the San Francisco Examiner's "Highlight" insert (similar to the Chronicle's Datebook or "pink section" of today). These columns can be found on microfilm in the Library's Magazines and Newspapers Center.

Excerpt from Kenneth Rexroth's weekly column for the San Francisco Examiner, describing a night out on the town with friends at The Cellar, 1960.

The Sonny Nelson Papers includes an interior image of The Cellar labelled “location shot for Subterraneans,” referring to a 1960 Beat exploitation film starring George Peppard and Roddy McDowall, based on Kerouac’s novel of the same name published in 1958 but written much earlier. While the film contains many exterior shots clearly of San Francisco, it’s difficult to tell whether the interior club shots are real locations or Hollywood sets. In one scene in the movie, a nightclub MC making stage announcements refers to people gathering in cellars, possibly filmed in The Cellar, but it’s difficult to recognize the surroundings. Despite the numerous images of The Cellar found in the Sonny Nelson Papers, there are few that include patrons or a live performance, so it’s left to the imagination to get a sense of what it would have been like to be present at one of the shows. The Cellar was also used as a location in Kerouac’s 1965 novel Desolation Angels

Composite photo of interior of The Cellar, showing bar and bandstand;
576 Green St., circa 1956 - 1960
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

The collection contains a number of name list remembrances. A handwritten tissue thin slip of paper labeled “Jazz greats who visited the Cellar in its first year” includes June Christy, Stan Kenton, Bill Perkins, Shelley Manne, Lou Levy, Julie London, the Four Freshmen, Eugene Wright, Paul Desmond, Ray Bryant, Max Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and other names that are less legible.  A similar list, “Played the Cellar,” cites the names of Art Pepper, Leo Wright, Pony Poindexter, Judy Tristano, Brew Moore, Charlie Haden, Joe Albany, Lee Konitz, and others.

Handwritten note of jazz greats who visited The Cellar in its first year
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

Typescript remembrance of The Cellar by Sonny Nelson
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)
On Sept. 22, 1960, Sonny served as part-owner in the opening of a second jazz club, the Boule Noire at 238 Columbus St. The Boule Noire (French for “black ball”; various misspellings are found throughout the collection, with even its marquee as “Boule Noir”) appears to have been situated in a bowling alley: the outdoor marquee resembled a bowling ball, interior photos show bowling lanes, and there is one notice for a Duckpin championship.

Sonny Nelson in front of his second North Beach jazz club, the Boule Noire,
238 Columbus, San Francisco, circa 1960 - 1963?
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

Fewer documents in the collection describe the performances and history of the Boule Noire, although there are several clippings of newspaper advertisements for featured shows. According to Rexroth, the jazz poetry scene soon degenerated into myriad exploitative versions, where a sax player, “poet,” and miniskirted waitresses were thrown together in a night club (Feinstein, cited from David Meltzer, p. 68). Perhaps this description may have been applicable to the Boule Noire as well, as the collection contains ample evidence of such accoutrements at the second club, fewer big name acts associated with it, not to mention the presence of the bowling alley. The North Beach jazz poetry scene was short-lived. Much of the collection calls into question the uneasy proximity of serious Beat culture and its co-opted commercialized forms (which we will see exemplified by Sonny's friendship with Ruth Weiss on one hand, and Rod McKuen on the other).

Waitresses at the Boule Noire, 238 Columbus Ave., 1960.
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

Matchbooks for The Cellar and the Boule Noire, North Beach nightclubs
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

Sonny travelled throughout the U.S. as a musician and there are references in his papers to his having lived in Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and finally Los Angeles at the end of his life. A June 25, 1974 New Orleans Times-Picayune article identifies Sonny as a resident of Metaire, LA, at the time collaborating there with poet Rod McKuen on a new song. The correspondence folder of the collection also includes commercially produced holiday greeting cards from Rod McKuen to Sonny, bearing McKuen’s poems and signature.

Advertisement card for Rod McKuen reading at The Cellar. The collection features greeting cards from McKuen to Sonny Nelson; the two collaborated on a song while living in New Orleans, circa1974 (Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

Another significant correspondent in Sonny’s life was Ruth Weiss, an Austrian or German born (1928) pioneering woman performer of jazz-poetry during the Beat era who preferred her name spelled in lower case for political reasons.

In 1952, she [ruth] hitchhiked again, this time from Chicago to San Francisco's North Beach, moving into 1010 Montgomery, later occupied by Allen Ginsberg and his last girlfriend, Sheila. ruth wrote poetry in the Black Cat, a bar two blocks away, and she entered the all-night jazz world across town in the Fillmore at Bop City and Jackson's Nook.

Through a piano player she knew from New Orleans, ruth met many jazz musicians in San Francisco and jammed in their sessions with her poetry. When three of these musicians, Sonny Nelson, Jack Minger, and Wil Carlson, opened The Cellar in North Beach in 1956, ruth joined them onstage, performing her poetry to jazz accompaniment, creating an innovative style whose impact would reverberate throughout the San Francisco art scene.

- from a deleted blog post on ruth weiss at (courtesy of Internet Archive's Wayback Marchine. See also this interview.

Pioneering jazz poet ruth weiss (center) with Sonny Nelson at Beyond Baroque, Venice, CA
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)
The Sonny Nelson Papers includes correspondence from ruth, as well as some of her audio recordings. The second track from the CD Excerpts from Jazz Fest Berlin 2000 (also available separately at SFPL), I Always Thought You Black (excerpt), references in its lyrics the scene at The Cellar in 1958.

Poster for a ruth weiss exhibit held at San Francisco Public Library, 1994
(San Francisco Public Library Records)

Toward the end of his life, Sonny was living at an address in Venice, California. An undated resume for him lists titles of feature films, television programs, and commercials (as a session musician?), as well as many minor film acting roles. Photos show that he revisited the sites of his beloved North Beach jazz clubs in his later years, and a collection of newspaper clippings (mostly from the 90s and 00s, with some dating back to the early 60s, and of general jazz news, such as book and CD reviews) attest to his lifelong devotion to music. Many thanks to the family of Sonny Nelson for the gift of this fascinating collection!

Gordo, comic strip by Gus Arriola, here with a jazz poetry theme
(Sonny Nelson Papers, SFH 78)

Further reading / viewing

Feinstein, S. (1997). Jazz poetry: From the 1920s to the present. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

Freed, A., MacDougall, R., Thom, R., Previn, A., Caron, L., Peppard, G., Rule, J., ... Video Beat (Firm). (2004). The subterraneans. San Francisco, Calif.?: Video Beat. (Available on VHS rental from Le Video in San Francisco, or  at

Rexroth, K., Ferlinghetti, L., Rexroth, K., Ferlinghetti, L., & Cellar Jazz Quintet. (2004). Poetry readings in the cellar: With the Cellar Jazz Quintet. Berkeley, CA: Fantasy. (Liner notes by Ralph J. Gleason. Available at San Francisco Public Library and sometimes posted in full on YouTube.)

Stewart, E. & Duran, J. (1999). "Black essentialism: The art of jazz rap." Philosophy of Music Education Review, 7(1), 49-54. (One of several journal articles referencing The Cellar found in JSTOR, available through San Francisco Public Library's online databases.)