John Fisher Jr.: Jazz Drummer

by Alex Walsh

John Fisher is a jazz drummer, singer, Local 6 Life member, Local 6 Diversity Delegate, and former Local 6 Board Member and Vice President. He made a living as a professional musician for 17 years until 1988 when he went into the maritime industry. In 2007 he retired early so he could get back to gigging full time. The music scene had changed so much in the 19 years he had been gone that it shocked him.

“When I was in high school, in 1959, I was making $25 a night playing at the Hamilton Air Force base. Now the local jazz gigs don’t even pay that much if you factor in inflation over the years.”

John’s band in high school was an oddity. They played jazz, songs like Moonglow, the kind of music that parents would hire for their parties. John wasn’t interested in rock and roll. “In middle school all the other kids thought I was nerdy because I was into jazz records.”

John was born in San Francisco in 1946. He went to grade school at St. Dominic’s, where he sang in the boys choir. In 5th grade, the Fishers moved to Terra Linda in Marin County. John’s father worked as a ship’s clerk on the waterfront in San Francisco and his mother raised John and his two younger sisters.

“Every Friday my dad would go to Melrose Records on Fillmore street and he would get my mom a box of See’s Candy and a 78. One of them was called The Swinging Shephard Blues by the Johnny Pate Quintet. When I heard the sound of the brushes on the drums, I was like, ‘Whoa!’ So, I went out and bought some brushes and I wore that record out. This was the big thing that got me into the drum set.”

John remembers getting busted by one of the Local 6 business agents for playing at a restaurant. “My band was playing and this guy walks in with a trench coat, like right out of a gangster movie. He told us we weren’t supposed to be there because we weren’t a union band. We didn’t know any better, we were just kids.”

After high school John went to college at Loyola Marymount in Southern California. He played gigs all through college and graduated with a degree in psychology (with courses in music theory and harmony) in 1968. He returned to the Bay Area determined to make a living as a musician.

By then, John had grown to like rock music and dove headfirst into the San Francisco psychedelic music scene. He played in a number of bands with varying degrees of musicianship, including the Fairfax Street Choir; Electra, a rock band hired for a play produced Chet Helm’s Family Dog which was shut down by the police for public nudity on stage; jazz legend John Handy’s sextet, where he learned how to play softly but with intensity; and in an R& B band backing up members of the O’ Jays.

In 1970, John started taking lessons with George Marsh, at the SF Conservatory. Soon John was taking his overflow students and teaching at the Blue Bear School of Music.

John was having a hard time making ends meet as a musician. He started working on the waterfront in San Francisco, which was still booming. He continued to play gigs and auditioned to replace the drummer at the Shadowbox, a union jazz club in San Francisco. “I was working on the docks the day I got the call for an audition at 6 o’clock that night. I told the boss I had to leave and went home to practice. I got the gig and didn’t come back to the waterfront for 17 years.”

“At that time there were a lot of intimate jazz clubs, and they had union contracts. In 1971, I was paid $163 for playing the drums five nights a week. It was heaven! This was what I wanted to do with my life. This was my passion.”

John immediately joined Local 6. “I went down to Jones Street and Billy Catalano auditioned me. He told me to play a 5- stroke roll on a tabletop, and that was it. The union hall had a pool table and guys would be hanging out in the morning because they might get jobs that night. It was like a dispatch hall. It was crazy down there.”

John says that when he joined in 1971, there was rampant prejudice against black musicians. “Most of the big bands that played the hotels were all white. Maybe once in a while a black musician got in there. The white musicians didn’t like the black musicians. They claimed that the black musicians couldn’t read music. I remember one bandleader going off in front of me. ’Those jibs, they can’t read.’ I said to him, ‘Hey, first, I happen to be part black. And second, those bands swing their asses off. You can stick your head in a piece of paper but if you can’t swing in a jazz band, then what good is the written music?’ Needless to say, he didn’t ever hire me again.”

Shortly after John started playing at the Shadowbox, a singer named Tony Hall came in, introduced himself and said he needed a band for a 3 month gig in Sun Valley, Idaho. John joined the band and the two became lifelong friends. “We came back and got a regular gig in Burlingame and started playing better and better clubs. I was making $300 a week. It was a great time.”

In 1974, Tony’s band signed a 2-year contract in Las Vegas. John flew back and forth to San Francisco on his nights off to rehearse with Noel Jewkes band, Dr. Legato and the Rubicon.

John returned to the Bay Area in 1976 and played as a side musician with groups including Tony’s band, various cruise ships, and a country-western band. One group, Harley and the Comets, went on a grueling 6 month tour of the midwest. Stuck in his hotel with nothing to do all day, John started watching the commodity reports on TV and became interested in the stock market. “I had been saving all of my money. I started investing and I was doing well.”

Back in San Francisco, John continued to play as much as he could. By now the fateful 1978 Consent Decree had been handed down by the courts which said that venues were no longer the employers, the bandleaders were. It took a few years for this ruling to have an effect locally. John says he didn’t know about it until it affected him personally. “Tony’s band got hired at the Starlight Roof of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Everybody wanted that gig. We played five to six nights a week for two and a half years. After the democratic convention in the summer of ‘84, Tony told us that the hotel said the new ruling states they no longer have to be the employer and pay pension. We could keep our jobs, but no pension benefits. We’re thinking, ‘Now wait a minute, we’re in the union. If we keep our job and don’t pay the pension, the union’s going to kick us out.”

When John went to Local 6 to find out what was going on, he says things were strange. “The front office said, ‘Pay your dues and go by the rules. Don’t do anything against the union. If they’re not going to pay your pension, you shouldn’t do the gig.’ But in the meantime, people in the front office are soliciting the same gigs they were telling members not to play. This went on until even the union contractors got screwed by the talent agents who told the hotels, ‘We can bring in a new band every 29 days so they won’t have to join the union. You won’t have to deal with the union when you deal with us.’”

With the new changes in effect, John says he couldn’t get the gigs that he was used to anymore. The smaller jazz clubs and restaurants that had paid union scale became non-union, or went out of business. When the stock market crashed in 1987, John became overextended. With music becoming less lucrative, he decided to go back to work fulltime at the waterfront to pay his debts. He worked there until he retired in 2007. “When I retired I thought, ‘Ok, now I’m going to just play jazz for the rest of my life.’ Unfortunately, everything had changed. Local jazz artists were struggling.”

In 2007, John was elected to the Local 6 Board of Directors, and served as interim Vice President. For twelve years he has served as the Local 6 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council and the California Labor Federation. “As musicians, we are driven by a passion for our art and we don’t tend to think of ourselves as workers, but we are subject to the same forces of exploitation. That’s why it is important for Local 6 to keep strong ties with the labor community.”

John serves as the Local 6 Diversity Delegate to the AFM Convention, a position he holds out of respect for Eddie and Vernon Alley, Willis Kirk, Earl Watkins, and all of the members who struggled for equality. “I believe the so-called Diversity Delegate was conjured up to soothe the guilt over the vestiges of dual unions [see below]. At the recent AFM conventions, they just refer to us as delegates.”

Overall, John says it’s been a good life. “I still have as much passion as I did when I was a kid. I still practice every day. I’m thankful I still get to play the drums.”

Local 6’s Racist History:
Local 6 was established in 1885 as a union for white male musicians. In 1924, black musicians petitioned the AFM to form their own union, Local 648. It had the same jurisdiction as Local 6, but black musicians could not play east of Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco, where the lucrative hotel and theater jobs existed. There was animosity from the white musicians towards the black musicians because when Local 6 would go on strike with the hotels, the black musicians, who had been starved out of those jobs, started filling in.

In 1934, the AFM revoked Local 648’s charter because Local 6 claimed black musicians played in its jurisdiction. The AFM decided that Local 648 would be placed under Local 6 stewardship, a humiliating ruling which said Local 648 members had to pay membership dues and work dues but could not vote on wage scales or job conditions, or receive the death benefit. In 1943, AFM President James C. Petrillo abolished all black subsidiary locals. He demanded that white locals accept black musicians as equal members, or he would grant them their own charters. When Local 6 refused, the black musicians chartered Local 669. Over the next 15 years, several attempts were made to merge the two locals, but the majority of white members refused. The two locals were finally merged by court order on April 1, 1960, in response to the California Fair Employment Practice Act of 1959.