Influential jazz pianist BJ Papa dies in S.F.
Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
A musical tribute will be held Sept. 28 for BJ Papa, a San Francisco jazz pianist who hosted jam sessions around town for decades and nurtured many young musicians who passed through them.
His given name was William Jackson and he died of liver disease Aug. 31 at his North Beach home. He was 72.
"There are many of us that graduated from the University of BJ," said singer Kim Nalley, who honed her craft and expanded her repertoire under his tutelage. "We never paid tuition, but we received the best jazz education that can be had, on the bandstand and at the jam session."
Nalley, who played with him at the Wild West in Bernal Heights, Cafe Du Nord and numerous other spots, hired the pianist to run the Sunday night jam session at Jazz at Pearl's when she took over the now-closed North Beach club several years ago.
It was one in a long list of joints where BJ Papa presided over the informal sessions where jazz musicians have traditionally cut their teeth. A bebopper whose spare, rhythmic style was shaped by his love of Thelonious Monk, he performed at countless clubs, bars and cafes in North Beach and other San Francisco neighborhoods, among them Mission Rock, Tropical Haight, Soulville, the Streets of Paris and Cafe Prague. Saxophonists John Handy and Bishop Norman Williams were among the artists who played with BJ Papa, a genial man who could often be found sipping red wine at Caffe Trieste.
"He opened the door for a lot of musicians," said bassist-composer Marcus Shelby, who began jamming with him at the Gathering Cafe on upper Grant Avenue when he moved to town in 1996. That's where Shelby met a lot of the musicians who play in his various bands. "He was such a loving cat," Shelby added. "Everybody came to him first."
Born in Mobile, Ala., he learned music from his mother, a professional pianist. As an Army medic in the mid-1950s, he was stationed in San Francisco at Letterman General Hospital in the Presidio. He got the jazz bug listening to bands at the noncommissioned officers' club, and began taking saxophone lessons after leaving the service. (He told Nalley he switched from saxophone to piano because he couldn't afford to get his horn out of hock and there was always a piano around). He heard Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and other stars in late-night sessions at the fabled Jimbo's Bop City in the Fillmore district.
"Dewey Redman, John Handy, Frank Butler and a lot of others, they all helped me," BJ Papa told writer Jerry Karp in 2005, two years after the Upper Grant Avenue Art Fair Association honored him for his contribution to the music scene and the culture of North Beach.
Some of the musicians he helped, including Nalley, bassist David Ewell and trumpeter Henry Hung, will honor him from 2 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 28 at Mojito, 1337 Grant Ave., San Francisco. It's free to the public.
For more information, go to www.bjpapajazz.blogspot.com.
E-mail Jesse Hamlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page B - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle