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Café Babar

Sherry Gendelman

A great old popular song starts with the line, "There's a small cafe..." Which is a good beginning for a description of the Cafe Babar. "Small," however, is a bit too big it.

Housed in a narrow, old storefront, the Babar sits on the border between the Mission and Noe Valley neighborhoods of San Francisco. Riding by, the place seems unlit and closed because the windows are done in reflecting glass - more mirror than window. You have to come right up to the windows and stare through to make sure someone's inside.

You also have to hope that "someone" will be Alvin himself. When you push open the door and enter the Babar, you try focusing your eyes towards the back of that darkly lit room. If you're lucky, Alvin will be standing behind the bar. The incarnation of Mr. Adorable.

He's bald to the very back of his head. He has a handle-bar mustache that covers his upper lip and droops down the sides of his mouth, passing his chin by a couple of inches at least. He's five foot eight, perhaps, with a wiry, slightly stooped frame. His walk is more of a shuffle. His nose isn't large, but prominent none-the-less. When he smiles, his eyes twinkle so much they appear electrified - the corners crinkle, his nose and chin move towards each other. His face is simple poetry, music, something to cherish.

His conversation is a vernacular, the language of Detroit, of the 40's and 50's. It's jazz talk. Someone playing (or living) non-traditional jazz, is "outside the envelope"; a dollar is an "ace". Tooth trouble is a set of "lousy chops". Money is "coinage" and on and on.

Alvin was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1934 and stayed there through college studying Latin. When he was twelve, he remembers being home sick with a cold. As he lay in bed, he searched the radio for music. It was in the middle of the 1940's. There was a revival of New Orleans sounds. Alvin and the music were made for each other. His childhood discovery blossomed into a life-long love affair. He searched out more music and found jazz. He discovered he could pick up stations late at night broadcasting from New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York. He started buying jazz records before he had a phonograph. He told me that was his thing. He built a dog house before he had a dog. "Why?" "Because I wanted a dog".

He went from the New Orleans sound to Bebop. He bought records at a jazz store where Pepper Adams worked. He picked up a record by Stan Getz and got hooked. He went to concerts where they let in kids. He'd go to hotels, or Jazz at the Phil(harmonic), or the Paradise Club during the day. He'd skip school to hear three or four acts, like Getz or the Billy Eckstein Big Band. He heard Billy Holiday, Johnny Hodges, Dizzy, Coltrane. Alvin was one of the original members of a "true" jazz club in Detroit, the New Music Society. Other members were Kenny Burrell and Barry Harris.

1957 was a "happening year" for him. After graduating from college he married his artist sweetheart, got drafted and was sent to Germany. Again he joined a couple of jazz clubs, one in Nuremberg.

He returned to Detroit in 1961 and had a variety of gigs, from selling clothes, to process serving for several friends who were lawyers, to teaching Latin in Detroit's high schools. Eventually he opened his first "joint", Alvin's Finer Deli.

It was a happening place, reflecting the sixties culture - the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the counter-culture movement and music. Rock n Roll, Acid Rock, Blues and above all else, for Alvin, Jazz. People still come to the Babar who went to Alvin's Deli or who heard of it.

He has friends from next door and across the globe who play and love the music. On any given night at the Babar someone will wander in from Germany, Spain, Denmark, or France. They either know Alvin or heard about the joint from another club owner with a similar MO. Alvin is an international source of information for gigs, performance, friends, food.

Since he opened the Babar in 1975 or '76, he's not exactly sure, there's been live jazz, coffee, espresso, Vov, beer and wine, sometimes food, and Alvin. Bob Hanamaura, an artist and architect, designed the Babar in absentia. It has a Japanese flavor to it, strange touches and accoutrement, which all come together, sort of.

The front room fills with smoke. The vent doesn't work as often as it does. There aren't any "No Smoking" sections at the Babar. I once went to a restaurant with Alvin, who at the time had quit smoking. However, when the waiter asked if we preferred to sit in smoking or non-smoking, Alvin immediately replied "Smoking". "Alvin, you don't smoke". "I know, but I prefer the mentality!"

When there are no live performances and no poetry readings, Alvin's tapes, a near legendary collection of music, fill the room. There is rarely a night when someone doesn't come in to hand Alvin a tape of music. He immediately inserts it, recognizes the artist or inquires if he doesn't. He fills his cup with red wine, maybe white, on some nights beer, and chats - with visitors, regulars, jazz people, foreigners. The conversation runs from jazz through life and back to jazz. It's a special place for creating, sipping, talking and listening ...


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cafeman in a coffee cup