SFJAZZ Gala Spotlights Mavis Staples’ Enduring Career

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Vocalist Mavis Staples performs with guitarist Rick Holmstrom during the SFJAZZ Gala on Jan. 30 in San Francisco. The event marked the vocalist’s expansive career.

(Photo: Drew Altizer Photography)

“Mavis is in my DNA, she’s in the DNA of American music,” said SFJAZZ Collective vocalist Martin Luther McCoy, one of several dozen musicians paying tribute to the achievements of gospel-soul great Mavis Staples at the annual SFJAZZ Gala on Jan. 30 in San Francisco.

The nonprofit’s state-of-the-art venue was transformed into a pink and grey wonderland of moody lights for the long but well-paced program. From the cocktail hour featuring music from McCoy and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars to the after party, there was never a dull moment as Bonnie Raitt, Roseanne Cash, Charlie Musselwhite, Lizz Wright and more performed.

Ultimately, though, the guest of honor’s performance was the highlight.

Setting the tone for the homage to Staples and her divinely-inspired music was Robin Hodge Williams & Friends Gospel Choir, accompanied by the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars and McCoy for a version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Following a rapturous standing ovation, a voice declared, “The church doors are now open.” The choir also closed out the night with a righteous rendition of “I’ll Take You There.”

Musselwhite told a story of listening to Staples’ family group, The Staple Singers, led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples, on repeat replay during a bout with TB in the early ’60s. “There’s no doubt in mind, the music healed me,” he said, before laying down a solo version of his own lonesome blues, “Town To Town.”

Vocalist Wright moved the crowd with “I Remember, I Believe,” written by one of Staples’ freedom-marching and singing contemporaries, Bernice Johnson Reagon. Cash turned in a version of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger,” as well as a somber original, while Raitt kept it simple with a version of civil rights movement song “Turn Me Around,” and a heartfelt speech in tribute to her longtime friend, before Staples took the stage to receive the award.

After a few brief remarks about the wonderful time she’d had listening to the performances, Staples stepped to the mic for “You Are Not Alone,” the song she wrote and recorded with Jeff Tweedy, and “Change,” from her collaboration with Ben Harper, accompanied on both by guitarist Rick Holstrom. Both songs are from more recent efforts, pointing to the strength of her vocals so deep into her career.

Strangely, in an evening of tribute to Staples’ artistry there was little from the Staple Singers classic repertoire: Where was “Freedom Highway” or “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” both ripe for interpretation? Instead, the SFJAZZ Collective performed two songs by Sly Stone, another musical great with a strong message, though not perfectly in synch with the evening.

The annual gala benefits the educational and artistic programs of SFJAZZ, which now reaches into Bay Area schools. It also supports a growing a teaching staff who filled a row of chairs behind the stage. Previous honorees at the event have included Chucho Valdés, Zakir Hussain, Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock.

Among the revelers for the evening were the Bay Area’s own arts and culture contributors, jazz bassist Marcus Shelby, harpist Destiny Muhammad and pianist Tammy Hall; children’s author Daniel Handler, philosopher and activist Angela Davis, and at least one other American music legend: singer Barbara Dane, 92.

Dane and Staples first became acquainted when they were both young women, working for peace and justice with their voices. “Mavis is a force of nature,” Dane said after the show. “She’s nonstop beauty and love.”

Referring to her own staying power and longevity from the podium earlier in the night, Staples smiled and said, “God ain’t done with me yet.”

Though it was nearly midnight, San Francisco club favorites Con Brio and touring act The Suffers drew dancers onto the floor, and a crowd remained, basking in the afterglow of the show. Staples’ positive vibrations had left its mark on the SFJAZZ building, its patrons and everyone in it, including McCoy, who’s more often accustomed to singing the songs of long-gone American soul-gospel icons like Cooke.

“It’s wonderful to be able to honor her while she’s alive,” he said. DB




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