What do you get a highly decorated musician like Wynton Marsalis – nine-time Grammy winner, the first jazz artist to win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master?
Well, SFJazz didn’t just honor him with a Lifetime Achievement Award and a vacation on the town, the organization hosted its biggest gala fundraiser yet.
The sold-out Friday, June 3 event raised a record $1.9 million for its arts and education programs, a feat Marsalis can appreciate as founder and artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. . So even as the 60-year-old trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator was celebrated, he thoughtfully sang the praises of SFJazz and others.
“There’s so much to celebrate about SFJazz and your accomplishments over the past 40 years,” Marsalis said as he accepted his award. “Receiving this honor is extremely important to me, because both of our organizations actually have the same mission – to raise the soul quotient of our nation and the world through the art of jazz.”
With no SFJazz gala in 2021 due to COVID, and this year’s event postponed from its original January date due to the omicron variant, patrons seemed very excited as they lined up on the carpet. red Friday night to show their proof of vaccination and their recent negative test. (A nearby tent was set up where one could self-administer and await the result of a free rapid antigen test.)
Once inside Robert N. Miner Auditorium in Hayes Valley Hall, they were greeted by an octet featuring members of the SFJazz Collective, SFJazz High School All-Stars and drummer Jaz Sawyer, who started the gala by going down the stairs from the ground floor while playing. “When the Saints Go Marching In”, a nod to Marsalis’ roots in New Orleans. A pair of subsequent collective performances preceded comments by SFJazz founder and executive artistic director Randall Kline and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who declared June 3 Wynton Marsalis Day in the city.
“We live in fragile times,” Kline acknowledged at his penultimate gala as executive artistic director before stepping down next fall, “and music, that music, is a balm that uplifts us — uplifts us. all.”
This is also the music that Marsalis wanted to honor throughout the evening. First, he joined sublime New York vocalist Catherine Russell and fellow Crescent City trumpeter Terence Blanchard, along with a young rhythm section, for the New Orleans classic “Basin Street Blues.”
And, with educating young people a mission for SFJazz and Jazz at Lincoln Center (the latter inspired the creation of SFJazz, Kline noted), it was a poignant moment when the SFJazz High School All-Stars performed “Back to Basics” with Marsalis, from his Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio “Blood on the Fields” in 1997. Trumpeter Skyler Tang, a rising junior at Crystal Springs Upland High School in Hillsborough and winner of this year’s composition and arrangement Dr. J. Douglas White of Jazz at Lincoln Center, delivered a fiery solo alongside Marsalis.
“Tonight’s gala honors the two leading jazz organizations in the world, SFJazz and Jazz at Lincoln Center. We cherish our longstanding friendship and our partnership which continues to grow,” said SFJazz Board Chair Denise Young. “We recognize how important it is for both organizations to encourage this art and elevate the messages of hope and collaboration that this music has always represented.”
The collective performed “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” and “Phryzzinain Man,” pieces Marsalis wrote and recorded in his twenties, before Blanchard exited the script for his often humorous memories of the artist. Tributes also came from actor Wendell Pierce, a friend of Marsalis since high school now known for his portrayal of William “Bunk” Moreland on the popular HBO series “The Wire” (which celebrated its 20th birthday the day before), and via video from Grammy winner and “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste, who, like Marsalis, hails from a New Orleans musical dynasty; filmmaker Ken Burns, with whom Marsalis worked on his 2001 documentary “Jazz”; trumpeter Chris Botti; and her brother Branford Marsalis, who joked that at least the gala honor doesn’t come posthumously.
Then Marsalis was back in the music mix, giving a rare quartet performance from his 1983 album “Knozz-Moe King.” A jam session-style take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A-Train” followed, before featuring the same octet that kicked off the event – plus a few additional members of the collective – closed the gala in New Orleans with a proper animated reading of “Second Line (Joe Avery Blues)”.
As the crowd headed into the raucous after-party, one couldn’t help but recall Marsalis’ words to the student musicians in the audience as he accepted his award: “There’s still plenty of jazz to play…but the one thing you have to remember above all is that feeling that has driven SFJazz all these years,” he said. “Community is the highest calling. Love is her calling card and balance is her destination.
Gala SFJazz 2022: Available to stream for free at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 5 on www.sfjazz.org.