Evolutionary Blues: West Oakland’s Music Legacy

Staff at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland share stories and information about West Oakland's Music Legacy.

Guest post by African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO) Staff Member, Sean Dickerson.  Stay tuned for more posts from AAMLO soon!

Singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, one of many musicians featured in filmmaker Cheryl Fabio’s documentary Evolutionary Blues, remembers learning to play classical piano as a child in the 1930’s Bay Area. DeSanto, whose mother was an African American concert pianist, grew up studying classical and jazz standards recalling in an interview with KQED , “back in those days, we didn’t have the blues because we’re not southern people.”

Evolutionary Blues traces the social forces that brought about the birth of blues in Oakland and its significant contributions to the West Coast blues style. Fabio drew inspiration from Isabel Wilkerson’s National Book Critics Circle Award winning The Warmth of Other Suns to tell the story of the Great Migration of African Americans heading west from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana to Northern California. This meeting of musical influences, what musicians in the film refer to as "the Texas-Oakland blues pipeline," resulted in the fertile blues sound of West Oakland characterized by strong piano-dominated sounds and jazzy guitar solos. Postwar West Oakland haunts such as Esther's Orbit RoomSlim Jenkins Café and Eli's Mile High Club stayed packed late into the night with the sounds of musicians such as Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jimmy McCracklin, Big Mama Thornton, and Lowell Fulson.

As urban “renewal” dramatically altered the make-up of West Oakland in the 1960s, so too did the local blues sound splinter off and evolve. Although the thriving clubs of Oakland’s 7th Street corridor have since closed, Fabio sees the musical styles that emerged as vital to understanding how communities responded to the economic and social challenges facing the neighborhood. Included in the film is an interview with historian Ricky Vincent connecting the same injustices that birthed the Black Panthers with the shift towards funk-based hip-hop.

Along with interviews with musicians, Fabio used archival material taken from the historical collections at the Oakland Public Library’s African American Museum & Library at Oakland and the Oakland History Room. 

Explore further the history behind Evolutionary Blues with the Oakland Public Library:

And discover some of the African American Museum & Library at Oakland collections used by the filmmakers and related to the Oakland blues: