Ok… I’m backtracking a bit here, so no spoiler alert necessary… I’m sure everyone and their brother knows by now that Dave Chappelle played a great, relatively new (opened in October 2009), little club in Oaktown called The New Parish. What folks may not know, is that I was lucky enough to see one of these shows. Woo hoo!!
First, The New Parish at 18th and San Pablo. It was called “Town Hall” prior to its new debut last fall, and apparently Dave made a super-secret appearance there in April of 2009 (his first appearance in Oakland since 1996)… not a bad notch to have on your belt. Prior to its short-lived incarnation as Town Hall, the venue was known as Sweet Jimmie’s after its proprietor Jimmie Ward, who opened the club in 1990 (he had a previous location, opened in 1982, but it was damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake).
“Sweet Jimmie” Ward died just a couple of weeks ago at the age of 74… I’m going to quote extensively from a blogpost I found about his passing (Sweet Jimmie Ward Dies – Aimee Allison | Oakland Seen) because his story fits neatly into the framework I discussed last week, of that first generation of Southern Blacks who came to Oakland in search of better opportunities, to leave their lasting marks on our city:
A former longshoreman, he was one of hundreds of thousands who came from the South to work at the shipyards or on the Army base during World War II and stayed to raise families and start businesses and shape neighborhoods. Ward made Sweet Jimmie’s into the place to go – dressed to the nines – where old soul from Mississippi and Louisiana and Georgia was alive.
Those in Sweet Jimmie’s generation brought small town manners and blues and political organizing and art. They created a legacy and culture in Oakland that defines us today. Now, Oakland’s black population has plummeted under the weight of unemployment and police sweeps and shady mortgages. But you can still see the storefront of the old Sweet Jimmie’s at 577 18th Street in downtown Oakland. Many people don’t know that for many years it was an important meeting place for African-American political and community organizations. It was a center of influence. And while many celebrate the remaking of culture and nightlife in the city, I am taking a moment to mourn what we lost. See, Sweet Jimmie’s wasn’t just another nightclub, Jimmie Ward just another nightclub owner. He represented an era here in Oakland. And that era is over.
While that era may be over, it is no secret that Sweet Jimmie’s nightclub suffered a decline in its later years. There are some entertaining stories on Yelp. Even Dave Chappelle did a riff on this during his show, spoofing on the scene from Sixth Sense… “I see dead pimps… and they want me to do things for them!” The crowd roared in hilarity, because before the whole remaking of the Uptown district of Oakland, this little stretch of San Pablo was known to be hella-ghetto, to put it bluntly.
One era ends… another begins… and I am here to loudly celebrate the new era of The New Parish, Uptown, and Oakland at large.
But let’s get back to the show…
For those who don’t know (I didn’t know) Dave is known for his ridiculously long sets… My friend who went to the late show said she left at 4:15 am and Dave was still going strong! We went to the early show… Thank God!
While we lined up outside, we were told that Dave was across the street at the Piedmont Piano Company. Doing what you might ask? Well… I assume playing piano. And if you’re gonna play piano, this is a pretty sweet spot indeed.
Housed in the historic California Furniture building, just one of dozens of Art Deco gems in downtown Oakland (stay tuned… I’m hoping to do a whole Art Deco series next month), the new location just opened a few weeks ago. They’re a family owned and operated business, providing not just new and used pianos for sale, but rentals, tuning services, music lessons (including guitar, drums, and more), and recitals. That’s right… they’re utilizing this gorgeous space for live performances too. Next performance is March 13th at 8:00pm – Rebel Tumbao… “merging Roots Reggae and Roots Afro-Latin vibrations with original compositions and wicked arrangements of Bob Marley’s music, all with a critical progressive social message for our times.” Sounds pretty cool, eh?
But I digress…
As we waited in line, we chatted with all the folks who were equally excited to see Dave in such a small venue. I don’t know for sure but my guess would be that the Parish holds about 300 people. The line ran right past the windows of the new restaurant next door, Hibiscus, where Dave would later eat dinner after he tired of his piano playing. I heard from friends the drinks are good. We’ll have to check them out another day…
The Parish staff were ultra-professional and seriously buttoned-up. Notices were posted along the full length of the line about restrictions on photography, video, and most interestingly, heckling… “NO HECKLING WILL BE TOLERATED.” Who the hell would heckle Dave?! Anyway, despite all the notices, the doorman gave us the full verbal run-down as well… You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you will get thrown out. I asked, “Jeeezzz… Are we allowed to laugh?!” Absolutely. Enjoy the show.
Above is the one and only picture I took inside, taken well before Dave took the stage… there was no way I was getting thrown out of that gig. It’s a pretty bad shot, but it gives you a feel for the space. I’ve been to one other show at the Parish and there was no seating as there was for this show (to enforce the two drink minimum). Typically there’s a nice dance area directly in front of the stage with wrap around areas on three sides and an upstairs with another bar and prime viewing from on-high.
What else can I tell you? Dave was hilarious. Of course. There was a ton of interplay between him and the crowd and I was surprised how conversational the show was… definitely not a scripted routine. The man is smart. And quick. Of course race played a big theme throughout the show, but not just black vs. white and not your stereotypical race-based humor. The crowd was incredibly diverse, as is our city, and Dave poked fun at all of us equally. The female scientist from Tunisia. The hipster Saudi with his trucker cap askew. And the hippy kids from Nevada who entered the club with backpacks in tow. I could try to replay the jokes, but I know they’d fall flat. I’ll just say we all laughed together, at each other, at ourselves, and for me, it was a truly transcendent experience. Props to The New Parish… Thank you!