At Gala, SFJAZZ Connects with Preservation Hall

Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena performs with pianist Ernán López-Nussa and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at a recent SFJAZZ gala. (Photo: Drew Altizer)

A five-plus-hour event on Feb. 1 highlighted personal ties among instrumentalists and strengthened the relationship between a pair of disparate institutions.

With its 2018 gala honoring Preservation Hall, SFJAZZ reminded its West Coast patrons of musical connections to the Crescent City and also of New Orleans’ cultural ties to the Caribbean.

Preservation Hall, which was represented by both its Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Sandra Jaffe, the hall’s co-founder, became the first organization to receive SFJAZZ’s Annual Lifetime Achievement Award, which this year comes along with a $20,000 gift.

New Orleans’ The Original Pinettes Brass Band and the Hard Head Hunter Mardi Gras Indians opened the program, second-line style. PHJB and percussion maestro Airto Moreira kept spirits high with “St. Peter Street Parade.”

SFJAZZ CEO Donald W. Derheim welcomed guests and expressed admiration for Preservation Hall’s integrity, grit and “post-Katrina comebackedness.” He shared news of his nonprofit’s recent educational initiative, which is funded by a grant from the Stupski Foundation and expands SFJAZZ’s in-school efforts to middle schools in San Francisco and Oakland.

Spoken word artist Saul Williams and trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, a New Orleans native who was featured on the cover of DownBeat’s February issue, joined PHJB for “So It Is.” Scott’s clear, mournful solo matched Williams’ crisp prose. The pair exited and Cuban pianist Ernán López-Nussa took the stage alongside the ensemble for “Santiago.”

Young Cuban vocal phenom Daymé Arocena then walked barefoot onto the bandstand, smiling, and offered a powerful version of “Veinte Años” with López-Nussa that ended with a flawless scatted a cappella outro.

Arocena and PHJB exited as Williams returned, and Moreira remained on stage for what was billed as a “percussion prayer.” His impassioned, flowing verses matched up with the fluid accompaniment of Moreira, who sometimes responded with wordless, appropriately percussive singing.

Two generations of Cuban maestros, 76-year-old pianist Chucho Valdés and 34-year-old percussionist Pedrito Martinez, paired up for Valdés’ “Con Poco Coco.” Trumpeter Terence Blanchard teamed with pianist Ellis Marsalis, his former teacher, for a wholly appropriate rendition of “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.”

“Just A Closer Walk With Thee” put Blanchard and aTunde Adjuah together on the front line with Marsalis and a PHJB clarinet trio. Blanchard and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, aTunde Adjuah’s uncle and mentor, co-led a quintet earlier on in their careers, and the history between the two trumpeters flowed from their horns and could be witnessed in their affectionate gestures and smiles. 

One of PHJB’s artistic goals for this program was to place a spotlight on New Orleans’ heritage as a port city with ties to its island neighbors, particularly Cuba and Haiti. A couple of the band’s members are descendants of Haitian immigrants, PHJF double bassist and leader Ben Jaffe later pointed out, and Valdés, Martinez and Blanchard contributed to Cuba native Rudy Calzado’s “La Malanga.”

Martinez remained and joined the SFJAZZ Collective (without alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón) for tenor saxophonist David Sánchez’s “Canto.” The octet concluded with a full-bodied interpretation of Horace Silver’s “Cape Verdean Blues” as arranged by Stefon Harris, a former vibraphonist and marimba player with the ensemble.

After a short video that included interview clips with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Elvis Costello and Jon Batiste that detailed Preservation Hall’s 57-year history, Randall Kline, SFJAZZ founder and executive artistic director, noted that the gala had raised $1.2 million for its educational and artistic programs. He pointed out that PHJB and SFJAZZ believe in both the preservation and evolution of the genre.

In receiving the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award, Sandra Jaffe recalled meeting Kline in the late ’60s and admiring his dreams of having a space to present jazz.

The OPBB and Hard Head Hunters then returned for a concluding second line, after which the brass band played the after party in the center’s Joe Henderson Lab. New Orleans jazz funk favorites Galactic headlined the event on the main Miner Auditorium stage with members of the SFJAZZ Collective sitting in toward the end, as is gala tradition, before the clock struck midnight.

Beyond the big picture of booking star artists and serving food, drink and desserts, good galas also present a theme that reminds attendees of the organization’s core purpose. By illustrating the common ties and shared values between the two groups, SFJAZZ made it as much of a musical—and historical—night as it was a stylish social occasion. DB

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