On February 28, 2000, a fatal heart attack struck John "Jimbo" Edwards, (JN cover March 1998) a historic San Francisco character we all hoped would live forever.
Born eighty-seven years ago in Texas, Jimbo leaves Leola, his loving wife; Jerry, his son; two sisters; a brother; two grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; a host of relatives and friends; plus countless "adopted" children. I am an adoptee.
Visiting San Francisco's 1939 World's Fair, Jimbo and Leola liked it so well, they stayed. Ever resourceful, Jimbo became San Francisco's first African American car salesman, but fate intervened when Charles Sullivan, a prominent businessman in the Fillmore community, offered Jimbo a deal on Slim Gaillard's defunct Jazz club, Vout City. The world-renowned Bop City started humbly in 1950 as Jimbo's Waffle Shop, a tiny cafe. When musician friends claimed the empty back room for jam sessions, Jimbo recognized the opportunity and parlayed those haphazard sessions into a wildly successful after-hours jazz club. During its fifteen year run, traveling stars and sidemen mingled and jammmed with the cream of the local Jazz crop's players. For young musicians, it was the ultimate school. For Jazz fans, it was heaven. Guarding the entrance, Jimbo would say, "We don't allow no squares in Bop City. If you don't understand what we doin', then leave and don't come back." But musical and social changes were afoot, and the funky Jazz club closed in 1965.
Subsequent ventures in San Francisco and Los Angeles kept Jimbo busy. But his Bop City memorabilia was beginning to gather dust, and he wanted to document those glory years. We met in 1992 at Coffee Ron's, where musicians informally gathered. I invited Jimbo to the premiere of a Jazz video I'd recently completed, he came, saw the video, and we became friends.
Documenting Bop City turned into a five-year video project, premiering in 1998 as "The Legend of Bop City." The documentary developed a life of its own, as did our friendship. At first, we talked Bop City. With time, though, we laughed, consoled, argued, reconciled, and supported each other through sad and happy days, covering every topic under the sun. And it is here where Jimbo really shines. Gruff and uneducated, hip and dap, blunt and wily, Jimbo was one of the wisest, most caring individuals I'll ever meet. Inside that crusty exterior beat a heart of gold. Behind those dark glasses, a lively intelligence sparked, undiminished by age. Many people have confided, "he was like a father to me" or "he helped me when I was down. He fed me when I was hungry, gave me a place to sleep." He was still doing his thing, right up to the end. In Jimbo Edwards, we had the rare individual who left the world a better place than he found it.
He had an opinion on almost anything, and with his Texas accent, didn't do 'R's if he could avoid them. Here are a few of my favorite Jimboisms:
On the difference between now and then: "Everybody was happy, see, 'cause everybody had jobs. With money you got a different attitude."
On attitude: "Without being friendly, ain't nothin' happenin'."
On aging: "When you get to be eighty, you can be grumpy, too."
On friends and aging: "All the old people ain't there no mo' so you got to go with new friends."
On Bop City: "They was only one boss and it was me." On race relations: "If it ain't for everybody, it ain't about nothin'. I dont want no part of it."
On apologies: "You makin' me into a nice guy-damnit!"
As local musicians passed away, we attended memorials-Flip Nunez, Tommy Smith, Sweetie Mitchell, Wyatt Ruther. It was getting sad. The last time I saw Jimbo was at Yoshi's Tribute to Pat Henry. Jimbo was hale and hearty as we reminisced about visiting KJAZ founder Pat Henry at his Orinda home. It was early in the video project and we were there with Ray Simpson to interview Pat and Jimbo. It was a videographer's nightmare. Pat, the whitest of men with his white shirt, hair and beard sat beside Jimbo, the brownest of men, in his brown jacket, cap, and sunglasses. They talked simultaneously, laughing and telling stories. Pat recalled, "We had a thing called the Jazz Notebook. Because clubs couldn't afford to advertise on a regular basis, we'd combine the nightclubs. We'd read one page of the notebook and later another page. It'd list all these various clubs and their addresses and hours of operation. Of course, Jimbo's operation was unusual because it didn't open up til two in the morning."
"And I had a little cheap spot. Four dollars," Jimbo remembered. "Well, you were on several times a day for that amount of money." "Yeah, and every so often, 'cause, see, I didn't pay good, I pay slowly, and here come Pat with his liitle pad out there. 'Here, Jimbo, what about this?'"
Pat added, "Well, it was very hard to find you." "Yeah. I'd take off when I seen him comin'. Ah, the boy'd say 'He's gone!'"
After all those years, they laughed heartily over it. When shown Pat's vintage automobiles, Jimbo's mouth watered. He'd always been a car man himself, back when he could still drive. Jimbo understood that friendships demand time. He had a pattern of regular communication with each of his friends. Earl had lunch every other week, Rook joined him at the Lucky Penny, Smitty had yet another schedule. Tuesdays were our time for quick status checks by telephone. If I felt ill, I hid it, but he usually called the next day to see if I felt better. He didn't miss much.
Four days before his heart failed, I spoke with Jimbo the final time. He was concerned that "they" wanted to pigeonhole him in the Fillmore District. Why, he wondered, couldn't he just be a San Francisco person? Not to worry, Jimbo. For the record, Jimbo Edwards was among the best citizens that San Francisco ever produced. In that last conversation, we discussed grandchildren, friends, work, concerts, plans for the upcoming week. We ended cheerily, with his usual signoff, "OK, I'll get back to ya! Hanh!"
by Carol Chamberland
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