Limits of free speech tested at Jazz Workshop – San Francisco Chronicle

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Jazz Workshop was one of the premier jazz venues in San Francisco. John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley and countless other greats played the club at 473 Broadway.

But the most momentous event ever to take place at the Jazz Workshop involved not free jazz, but free speech.

At 10 p.m. on Oct. 4, 1961, comedian Lenny Bruce walked onto the club’s stage and began his act. Bruce, 35, was a rising star in what Time magazine dubbed “sick comedy” – “social criticism liberally laced with cyanide,” further distinguished by “a personal and highly disturbing hostility toward all the world.”

As Ronald Collins and David Skover note in “The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon,” Bruce had evolved from being a conventional jokester to a raunchy provocateur while working in strip clubs in Southern California. But it was at a 1958 engagement in San Francisco that he had first gained national notice as a take-no-prisoners social critic.

Playing the gay-friendly Broadway club Ann’s 440, he launched into a monologue called “Religions Inc.,” in which he portrayed Oral Roberts and his ilk as profit-seeking hucksters and said religion amounted to “occult superstition.” At other times, Bruce used the line, “If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago, Catholic schoolchildren would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”

Three years later, at the Jazz Workshop on a bill with tenor Ben Webster, Bruce accompanied himself on a drum and a cymbal and talked about how he’d gotten the gig at Ann’s 440 – an explanation that included a reference that can’t be published here to one who performs fellatio. That was followed by a riff on the words “to come.”

” ‘To’ is a preposition, ‘come’ is a verb, the verb intransitive,” Bruce said. “I’ve heard these two words my whole adult life … to commmme. … It’s been like a big drum solo. Did you come? Did you come? Good. Did you come good?

“Now, if anyone in this room or the world finds these two words decadent, obscene, immoral, asexual – the words ‘to come’ really make you feel uncomfortable – you probably can’t come,” Bruce said. “And then you’re of no use because the purpose of life is to re-create it.”

The audience howled, but James Ryan of the San Francisco Police Department did not. Officer Ryan had been sent by the cop in charge of the North Beach beat, Sgt. James Solden, to check out Bruce’s performance and determine if anything of a “lewd nature” was going on.

Police not pleased

Standing in the back of the club, Ryan listened to Bruce for a while. Then he went out to confer with Solden.

“Jeez, you know,” he told the sergeant, “I can hardly believe this myself. The man is up there onstage and he’s performing and he’s taking the term” that can’t be published here “and using it.”

In his book “Broadway North Beach: The Golden Years,” former saloonkeeper Dick Boyd recalled that Solden was a “by-the-book” cop who once forced Boyd to make a cocktail waitress working as a street hawker change her clothes “because her 52-inch bust, crammed into a peasant blouse about two sizes too small, was creating a traffic jam outside on Broadway.”

Under arrest

Solden decided that Bruce had broken the law by giving a lewd performance. He entered the club, escorted the comedian outside and placed him under arrest.

“I took exception,” he explained to Bruce. “I took offense. We’ve tried to elevate this street. I’m offended because you broke the law. I mean it sincerely. I mean it. I can’t see any right, any way you can break this word down. Our society is not geared to it.”

Bruce was bundled into a police vehicle and booked at the Hall of Justice. He made $367.50 bail and was out in time to give his 1 a.m. performance.

The first judge assigned to hear Bruce’s case, the aptly named Albert A. Axelrod, was not exactly a paragon of judicial knowledge.

When Bruce’s lawyers argued that the police officers had selected only a few offensive words from Bruce’s routine and had not looked at his performance as a whole – a standard that had been clearly laid down by the governing 1957 Supreme Court ruling on obscenity, Roth vs. United States – Axelrod said, “I don’t need any points and authorities to tell me that this language which was used and which was quoted by the officer, and the context in which it was used is obscene. Now, if the Supreme Court takes a different view, that is up to them. But to me, it is obscene and I certainly wouldn’t let my grandchildren sit in and listen to a show like that.”

New judge

Fortunately for Bruce, his lawyer was able to get him a new judge – a far more enlightened jurist named Clayton Horn, who four years earlier had acquitted City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti of obscenity charges stemming from his publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Horn instructed jurors to consider Bruce’s work as a whole, said foul language was not of itself obscene, and instructed them that if the work had any redeeming social value, it was not obscene. The jury found Bruce not guilty.

During the rest of his short, tortured life – he died five years later – Bruce would be arrested seven more times for obscenity. Bruce was a martyr for free speech, his career and life shattered by a dying American puritanism. His San Francisco bust was the only one that had a happy ending.

Editor’s note

Every corner in San Francisco has an astonishing story to tell. Every Saturday, Gary Kamiya’s Portals of the Past will tell one of those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco’s extraordinary history – from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach, to the Gold Rush delirium, the dot-com madness and beyond.

Trivia time

Last week’s trivia question: What unusual cargo was carried by many 19th century ships that sailed from San Francisco to China?

Answer: The bodies of Chinese who had requested that they be buried in China.

This week’s trivia question: Calvary Presbyterian Church moved from Powell and Geary streets to Jackson and Fillmore streets in 1900. What was unusual about the new church building?

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