A man who broke down many racial barriers in his lifetime and played with the greatest musicians of his generation, Alley could have become one of the most famous names in jazz, but the bassist chose instead to spend his career in his beloved hometown.
A lifelong San Franciscan who went to junior high school with Joe DiMaggio and first showed the young newspaperman Herb Caen around town, Alley went to New York in 1940 and joined the Lionel Hampton band a few weeks before recording "Flying Home," one of the landmark recordings of the swing era. He moved two years later to the Count Basie Orchestra, landing at the pinnacle of the jazz world at the age of 27.
But Alley left the Basie band after several months to return to San Francisco, where he remained for the rest of his life. Jazz vocal great Jon Hendricks called him "the dean of San Francisco jazz."
"He wandered the world and always played with the best," said jazz pianist George Shearing. "But he always went home."
He played with Duke Ellington and toured with Erroll Garner. Nat King Cole became one of his closest friends. He knew and played with practically every great jazz musician of his time -- Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. As an accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, he battled the segregation policies of the Las Vegas casinos.
Although the all-white musicians union did not merge with the black musicians union until 1960, Alley virtually single-handedly integrated the San Francisco local of the Musicians Union. As chairman of the board of the black union local, he fought the color barrier and pushed for the integration of jazz clubs around the city, luring most of the white musicians into his local.
"They wanted to be where the swingin' was instead of playing with some society band," Alley said in a 2003 interview. "They wanted to play jazz."
After the black and white unions merged, Alley served as president of the local chapter for years.
He also was the first black member of the Bohemian Club.
Alley was born in Winnemucca, Nev., in 1915, and his parents moved to San Francisco while he was still a baby. He developed into a high school track and football star and was voted into the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame in 1993. His interest in jazz began around the time his parents took him to see jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton perform at Maple Hall on Polk Street, making Alley a man whose lifetime spanned the entire history of jazz.
He began his career in the Fillmore District before World War II, where the black neighborhood jumped at clubs like Jack's, Café Society, the Blue Mirror and Club Alabam. He played with bands led by Wes Peoples and Saunders King before starting his own group in 1939. After the war, the Vernon Alley Trio was a fixture on the city's nightlife scene at the El Matador, Jazz Workshop, Facks -- anywhere jazz was played. He worked on television and radio and also served for many years as musical director of the town's top jazz club, the Blackhawk, where he backed up and played with a steady procession of the biggest names of the '50s.
"Charlie Parker used to come into the Blackhawk and play with us every night, just for fun," Alley said. "Once I got a call from the owner of the 'Say When' who asked, 'Is Charlie Parker there?' I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Tell him to get over here. He's supposed to be working right now.' "
Alley, a close friend of many mayors, served for years on the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Human Rights Commission. In 1991, he made political waves when he starred in a commercial for Art Agnos during his mayoral race against retired police Chief Frank Jordan. In it he recounted how he was unable to get a job as a San Francisco police officer in the 1940s because he was black.
"A lot of angry people say they want to bring back the so-called good old days," Alley said in the ad, echoing one of Jordan's nostalgic campaign themes. "But for a lot of us, the good old days were only for the good old boys."
Jordan won the election and subsequently fired Alley from the Arts Commission.
When it became known in 2001 that Alley's health was declining, the San Francisco Jazz Festival put together a 3 1/2-hour tribute called "The Legacy of Vernon Alley" that drew almost 1,000 musicians and old friends.
When Alley walked out on stage, the whole place rose up as one for a thunderous standing ovation. Visibly moved, Alley ignored his illness and played several numbers, including "Big Fat Butterfly," his signature tune for 60 years.
He entered the hospital in August 2002 after a minor stroke and never returned to his apartment, living the rest of his life in a residential care program.
An alley between two buildings in the sprawling redevelopment project at 200 Brannan St. was named Vernon Alley in November. Nearly 300 of Alley's friends, relatives and former bandmates gathered to honor the musician.
"Look at all my friends," he shouted to the crowd, a tear forming in his eye. "I don't think anybody in the world has this many friends."
A lifelong bachelor, Alley is survived by his brother Eddie, 94, and a longtime companion, Lorna deRuyter. A memorial service will be held in San Francisco at 2 p.m. Monday at Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church, 1100 California St.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be sent to the Department of Athletic Scholarship programs at San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Ave., San Francisco, 94132-4041.
Source: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/VERNON-ALLEY-1915-2004-Jazz-bassist-played-2719977.php accessed 9th April 2013