Vernon Alley, the bassist who played with his generation's greatest musicians and was considered San Francisco's most distinguished jazz artist, has died. He was 89.
Alley, a longtime San Franciscan, died Sunday after a long illness.
Musicians say Alley could have become one of the biggest names in jazz. Instead he chose to spend his career in his native San Francisco, where he attended junior high school with Joe DiMaggio. Jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks once called Alley "the dean of San Francisco jazz."
Alley was born in 1915 in Winnemucca, Nev. Not long after his birth, Alley and his parents moved to San Francisco, where he was a high school track and football star. Alley's interest in jazz started when his parents took him to see jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton perform.
Alley began his career playing clubs in San Francisco's Fillmore district before World War II and started his own band, the Vernon Alley Trio, in 1939. In 1940, Alley went to New York and joined the Lionel Hampton band, and two years later he moved to the Count Basie Orchestra, reaching the pinnacle of the jazz world at age 27.
But Alley left the Basie band after several months to return to San Francisco, where he stayed the rest of his life. He became a fixture on the city's nightclub scene, worked on television and radio and served as musical director of the Blackhawk, the city's top jazz club.
During his career, Alley played with jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald.
As chairman of San Francisco's black musicians union, Alley fought to break down racial barriers and advocated the integration of the city's jazz clubs. After the black and white unions merged, he served as chapter president for many years. In 1974, he became the first black man to become a member of the exclusive Bohemian Club.
Alley was hospitalized with a stroke in August 2002 and spent the rest of his life in a residential care program. He is survived by his brother Eddie, 94, and a longtime companion, Lorna deRuyter.