One of the benefits of hanging around on the fringes of San Francisco’s arts culture is the occasional chance to attend a truly wonderful, historic event. The kind of event you just know you’re going to have to raid the dog’s college fund to go to. Well, the dog is going to end up applying for financial aid because The SFJazz Center Opening Night Concert was an event worth mortgaging his future for. My wife, Judy, and I were in some pretty illustrious company; in the audience we spotted pols Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris and Willie Brown; actors Delroy Lindo and the guy that does all those buddy movies with Jackie Chan; musicians Tom Waits, Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland; Ronnie Lott; authors Thomas Sanchez, David Corbett, and many others, plus lots and lots of friends, fellow booksellers etc.
Robert Mailer Anderson greeted us as we walked in off rainy, cordoned-off Fell St. and into the reception tent. From the time he was a teenager, and into his early twenties, Robert worked for us in the bookstore we had up in San Rafael. He slept under our dining room table for a time. We initially got to know him through our mutual appreciation of music. Music played constantly in the store, blues, soul, funk, modern jazz, country and western, a little classical. We could always please our customers with pre-war jazz—Armstrong, Waller, the Big Bands. Billie Holiday, particularly the exuberant early recordings—the Columbia sides from 1933 – 44 with Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Ben Webster, Ray Nance and especially Lester Young—always went over the best. (Also: Bob Wills.) We loved those records and played them over and over. Later on, when the store moved onto the main drag, and Robert and his girlfriend owned the café that made up the front of the place, he used to pull out his hand-cranked Victrola evenings and play his old 78s for the customers. These were magical, timeless moments when the whole joint was transported back six decades. We were revisiting our cultural history together and no one seemed to be in any hurry to return to the quotidian.
Those were different times, as Lou Reed would say, and Robert is now the Opening Night Chair of the biggest jazz concert this city has ever seen. It is clear that if he didn’t have a direct hand in selecting of the evening’s music that his taste has at least been a governing influence. The program is a who’s who of twenty-first century jazz: the SFJazz Collective, the SFJazz High School All-Stars, Jeff Ballard, Regina Carter, Chick Corea, Pete Escoveda, Bill Frisell, John Handy, Eric Harland, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Lovano, Jason Moran, Matt Penman, Elena Pinderhughes, Joshua Redman, Eric Reed, John Santos, Saul Sierra, Esperanza Spalding, Mary Stallings, McCoy Tyner, Miguel Zenon. SFJazz Executive Director Randall Kline has been dreaming and working for years to raise the money to create this building, this permanent home for indigenous American music, and he and Robert are making sure they’re kicking it off with the best.
We mill around in the Reception Tent for a while and then the lobby, chatting and visiting. Too soon we’re summoned into the concert hall, which seats 700+ and is a simple-looking marvel of sound.
The first set opens with a drum invocation led by Pete Escoveda and a small band of percussionists and we spy a droll-faced Bill Cosby, standing in the back, banging away.
Cosby is Master of Ceremonies and a master of stammering, sputtering befuddlement; a bit he keeps up all evening. He’s still very funny and charming after all these years. His lifelong love of jazz is in evidence all evening, as well, as he joshes familiarly with the musicians as they rotate on and off stage.
Chick Corea provides the highest of many high points in the first set, covering “Alice in Wonderland” in tribute to Bill Evans. Evans’ elegant delicacy and intelligence could sometimes mask his monomaniacal rhythmic drive—the best way to hear that drive is to not listen directly but to surprise yourself out of the corner of your ear—and Corea’s interpretation brings that drive up front. Esperanza Spalding’s inspired bass playing—she grins seemingly involuntarily while she plays—especially her solo, practically reincarnates Evans’ late bassist Scott LaFaro.
Things heat up from there. Next up are Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, caught up in a good old-fashioned battle of the tenors over Lovano’s composition “Blackwell’s Message” (a tribute to drummer Eddie Blackwell who played with Lovano; Redman’s dad, Dewey; Ornette Coleman and many others ) with each topping the other on chorus after chorus. It is damned close, but I guess if I had to pick a winner it would be Redman who blows more raucous energy into the tussle than Lovano.
The first set closes with Lovano and the SFJazz High School All-Stars supporting Regina Carter’s swinging, sweet violin on “Don’t Git Sassy.” Carter serves, along with Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, John Santos and Miguel Zenon, as a Resident Artistic Director for the new center.
In the second set, Spalding is the first act all evening to receive a standing ovation, singing and scatting and accompanying herself on bass with the imaginatively, intensely dexterous Eric Harland on drums. It is a transcendent performance, Spalding again playing with such transparent joy that it is impossible not to root for her. The audience’s enthusiastic reaction confirmed why she is one of the music’s rising stars.
Another second-set standout, not surprisingly, was Joshua Redman on Irving Berlin’s “Remember,” (a song specifically requested by Bill Cosby and preceded by an inspired bit of Abbott-and-Costello-style banter between Redman and The Cos). Redman’s playing epitomizes the spirit of the evening as he pushes himself and his instrument to ecstatic heights. He is lifted off his feet, his knees dip and jump apparently of their accord, as if the music originates somewhere below the stage; he twists and pushes his body into his horn, working like an athlete to achieve the sounds he wants. There is a sense in the room that in the construction of this beautiful new hall—the first free-standing building dedicated to jazz in the United States—that all these disparate musicians have found an artistic home and that Redman is celebrating that homecoming.
McCoy Tyner’s brilliant rendition of his “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” brings four certifiable geniuses—Tyner, Spalding, Lovano and Harland— together on stage and the results are predictably enthralling hard bop. For his second piece, “Blues on the Corner” he is joined by Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy, Bill Frisell, Redman, and Harland. This is even better than “Walk Spirit…,”if that’s even possible, with Frisell, Tyner and Handy all taking particularly memorable solos.
After a visit to the Dessert Tent—Imagine! A Dessert Tent! Name two other words that could signal more sweet excess than those! Opium Den? Harem Room?—we boogaloo on down a drizzle-damp block to the Rickshaw Stop for the after-party where Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have the crowd in a funk sweat. Pure, high-intensity Stax/Hi soul; Jones wailing and rocking through a wonderful version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (a la Gladys Knight and the Pips, not Marvin Gaye) and their breakthrough hit “100 Days, 100 Nights.” After three hours of quietly contemplating the shadings, intricacies and abstractions of jazz, here is some down home music that has everyone dancing like mandrills on hot coals. As Randall walks by I’m tempted to holler, “Finally! Music people can understand!” But I think better of it. It’s his night, after all, and a night he’s been waiting for all his life, a night to celebrate his achievement, not a night for jokes from some smartass. I say it to my wife instead, and she laughs.
Before the Dessert Tent and the After-Party and all that, Robert closed the jazz portion of the evening from the darkened and quiet stage. All the musicians were gathered around, as were Cosby and Randall. Robert sang a gospel number, a capella, while swigging from a bottle of booze. He rolled out his ancient wind-up Victrola and cranked it up.
“This is for all those who died for jazz.”
The lights went way down. Silence fell over the building. He placed the tone arm on a record and sat down, his head lowered, looking like a penitent or a beaten fighter.
It was a 1944 recording of Billie Holiday singing Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The entire building strained to hear as the pristine 78 spun. The Victrola is entirely mechanical, not electrical, and amplifies itself through an internal horn that is an integral part of its wooden cabinet, designed to be heard in a living room or a parlor, but the Center’s acoustics had no difficulty carrying Eddie Heywood’s lonely, lovely piano opening to every ear. (Someone coughed along about here and the whole hall heard it.) We were all right there as Holiday stepped into the first chorus, a little thin but very clear. She sounded prematurely aged, or perhaps ageless, as if she was 70, not 29; there were already cracks in her voice, even at that young age. There were no instrumental solos, as if it would have been disrespectful of the seriousness of the vocal for any other musician to have stepped up to the mic. The song is lonely beyond words.
“It’s not just a song about leaving,” David Corbett pointed out in the lobby afterward, when everyone had started to breathe again, “it was recorded during the war, it’s also about going off to war and the very good possibility of never seeing each again in this world at all. Maybe I’ll be seeing you in heaven, it’s saying. Then again, maybe not.”
“And when the night is new,
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.”
She sang the lines slowly and carefully and mournfully as the song came to a close and no one was sure if it was the Victrola or Holiday herself that was running down. Maybe it was both. And for a few moments there I’d have sworn, even though I don’t believe in magic or haunting or any of that New Age bunk, that we’d been visited, however briefly, by the shade of Billie Holiday. Son of a bitch, I thought, now Robert has managed to conjure Billie Holiday for us, just like back in the book store days. And for a few silent seconds Billie belonged to us, alive again, and beautiful, and seventeen as she was when she first stepped into a studio—Not 29. Not 70.—and full of life and promise, in the beautiful new structure dedicated to her music. I could tell I was not the only one who felt her presence at that moment; I saw a few others drying their eyes as the lights came up to end the concert. I held Judy’s hand like we were kids at a scary movie. I marveled at our mingled destines; Robert’s and ours; the audience’s and Billie’s; Billie’s and history; history and this building.