Miss Bigelow: SFJazz tribute a love song to Joni Mitchell

by Catherine Bigelow
San Francisco Chronicle
May 21, 2015

It's no mean feat to spend months meticulously planning a gala, let alone one honoring a revered musical artist, as SFJazz does every year. But the beat never wavered when 2015's honoree Joni Mitchell was hospitalized in March and was unable to attend the event, where Artistic Director Randall Kline and legendary saxman Wayne Shorter were to present the reclusive musician with the SFJazz Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Very few artists express honesty and emotions like Joni Mitchell," Kline said. "She's not necessarily considered a jazz artist, but we have a very open view about jazz. ... And what we do here at SFJazz is gather around something that can make us feel better and be inspired as a community."

The dominant hue of this fete was appropriately Mitchell-esque blue: from sartorial ensembles to the dinner tent, designed by Stanlee Gatti, who wooed his pal Mitchell to accept the honor.

Yet the mood among 650 revelers was not blue, especially since they raised some major green ($1.5 million) in support of SFJazz arts education programs. In 2013, SFJazz unveiled the nation's only stand-alone jazz center, its existence seeded from a $20 million anonymous donation.

Instead, folks wended their way through the soiree (organized by SFJazz trustee Nion McEvoy and philanthropist Penny Coulter), which undulated like the wail of a supreme sax solo punctuated with moments of melancholy and jamming bursts of joy.

Onstage in the Robert N. Miner Auditorium, Mitchell's music was achingly interpreted by Joe Jackson, Judith Hill, Kurt Elling, Kris Kristofferson and the SFJazz Collective, among others.

But before launching into "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," singer Patti Austin, aware this soulful tribute was being taped for Mitchell, teased, "Joni, I love you madly; desperately! But could you write some simpler songs?"

Post-concert, Brass Band Mission led a New Orleans-style parade across the street to an unused S.F. Unified School District building (adorned in blue Mitchell posters and the hashtag #thankyoujoni), where chef Michael Tusk created a Southern-inspired menu (executed by McCalls Catering), which was followed by a joyous dance jam starring Trombone Shorty.

But as merry-makers slowly peeled off into the night, we recalled the mournful post-concert Victrola segment, a tradition initiated by loyal SFJazz lover Robert Mailer Anderson, who currently resides with his family in Paris.

For the past three years, he'd wheel out the ancient machine and drop a needle on the crackly Billie Holiday groove "I'll Be Seeing You."

That song echoed an earlier recollection by author-music critic Ben Fong-Torres, who opened the program by sharing that Mitchell was the subject of his first cover story for Rolling Stone magazine, and subsequent interviews.

"Where did I go?" she asked, in response to his question years later. "I'm like the Northern Star; I'm always here."

Big screen: Hollywood heavyweights starred at the San Francisco Film Society Awards Night, where film-lovers raised $575K for SFFS' exhibition, education and filmmaker services programs last month.

Led by a stellar supporting cast (starring SFFS Executive Director Noah Cowan and event chairwoman Victoria Raiser and co-chairs Christine Aylward and Heidi Castelein), this soiree unspooled in a new, slightly naughty venue (Kink.com studios) and, thanks to SFFS trustee Todd Traina, featured a fashionable, first-ever sponsor (Net-A-Porter.com).

The evening also heralded philanthropist-inventor-SFFS Trustee Maurice Kanbar, who was thrilled as his pal, Gov. Jerry Brown, presented Kanbar the George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award.

From creating Skyy Vodka and the D-Fuzz-It lint comb, to funding numerous film programs, Kanbar is a somewhat unsung maverick. Yet at heart, he remains a serial-savvy kid.

"I'd watch the latest 'Lone Ranger' at the Nickelodeon; I couldn't wait to see what had happened to 'Tonto,' he recalled. "We are blessed that man, ever since he crawled out of his cave 2,000 years ago, continues to love a good story."

Catherine Bigelow is The San Francisco Chronicle's society correspondent. E-mail: missbigelow@sfgate.com


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