SFJAZZ sent singer/songwriter/sentient being Joni Mitchell a get well message in the form of a festive concert and celebration, and it made everybody involved feel much better. The intention to honor the versatile 71-year-old musician with a Lifetime Achievement Award was in the works long before she fell ill last month, but it made the evening’s outpouring of love that much more passionate and poignant. The annual event raises funds for the SFJAZZ Center’s artistic and educational programs, which were in abundant evidence…throughout the Center on Franklin and Fell, there was a performer around every corner, playing joyful music for Joni and jazz. #ThankYouJoni was the official hashtag and the unofficial sentiment of the soiree. The evening began with a blue-carpet arrival (“Blue, songs are like tattoos,” she sang in 1971) and proceeded with a boisterous cocktail reception in the lobby adorned with mastermind Stanlee Gatti’s big yellow spheres of sunflowers (580 blooms in that big one!), and anointed by Chef Charles Phan’s addictive hors d’oeuvres. Waiters squeezed through the convivial crowd with trays of ham biscuits and tequila shots before the sold-out concert commenced. Ben Fong-Torres introduced the evening with a brief interpretation of why Joni Mitchell matters to jazz, and then a cavalcade of performers offered their renditions of Mitchell magic: Kelly Jones, Laura Antonioli, Joe Jackson, Kris Kristofferson, Kurt Elling, Judith Hill, Patti Austin, the SFJAZZ Collective and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars each had their moments, backed up by a best-of-class band that held audience members in a syncopated swoon. The Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline was accepted by Mitchell’s friend Wayne Shorter, who received the same award in 2008. Amidst all of the heartfelt accolades, Patti Austin spoke directly to the camera recording the event. “Joni, I love you madly. But could you write some simpler songs?” While the audience applauded with amusement, the musicians onstage grinned and nodded vociferously in agreement. The evening belonged to the absent powerhouse, her contradictory angelic soprano crooning devilish riffs occupying minds and hearts throughout the Robert N. Miner Auditorium, giving everyone A Case of You.
For the fortunate proceeding on to the supper, the music kept coming from Both Sides Now. Brass Band Mission provided a Second Line escort across Franklin Street, a jovial march past the impromptu tributes along the fence below the “Thank You Joni” signs event organizers had installed in the SF School District windows. Gatti’s gallants had paved paradise and put up a transparent tent dominated by two of Mitchell’s delicate self-portraits and Turbulent Indigo lighting, but the mood was anything but. The delectable dinner was designed by Quince and Cotogna chef Michael Tusk as a refined variation on chicken and waffles, preceded by crudités and caviar, and succeeded by strawberry shortcakes. The High School All-Stars serenaded during supper, and then the New Orleans sensation Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue ensured the joint was jumping on This Flight Tonight. Or, to paraphrase her ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat, “Tonight these crowds/Are happy and loud/Children are up dancing in the streets/In the sticky middle of the night/Summer serenade/Of taxi horns and fun arcades/Where right or wrong/Under neon/Every feeling goes on!”
In Two Grey Rooms and a tent: Musical Directors Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd, SFJazz CEO Donald Derheim, Gala Chairs Penny Coulter and Nion McEvoy, musicians Melvin Butler, Aaron Embry, Jeff Haynes, Kelly Jones, Greg Leisz, Marvin Sewell, and Chris Thomas, SFJAZZ Collective members Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez, Avishai Cohen, Robin Eubanks, Warren Wolf, Edward Simon, Matt Penman, Obed Calvaire, High School All-Stars Director Paul Contos and Combo Director Dann Zinn directing diminutive dynamo bassist Kanoa Mendenhall and her compatriots, and powerhouse patrons Sakurako and William Fisher, Katie Hall and Tom Knutsen, Labe and Robers, Tim Dattels and Kristine Johnson, Alison and Michael Mauze, Meridee Moore and Kevin King, Randi and Bob Fisher, David Bonderman and Dr. Laurie Michaels, Lori Lerner and Terry Berkiemeier, Harriet Heyman and Michael Moritz, Lisa and John Pritzker, Rich Silverstein and Carla Emil, Darian and Rick Swig, Mimi and Peter Buckley, and Jennifer Battat. Also going round and round: Juanita Moore, Robert Della Porte, Sam and Jane Hawgood, Genevieve Renoir, David Newman, Glen and Patti Burke, Christine Aylward and her daughter Eve Spalding, snazzy skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Brad Hedican, chanteuse Paula West, Lori Chavez and Tim Jackson, Lindsay Tusk, Tony and Angela Harris, John Handy and Del Anderson Handy, Bill Bowes, Laura and Michael Lazarus, Teresa Pantaleo, Phil Kaufman, Peter Kaufman and Christine Pelosi, Willie Brown, Jeffrey Fraenkel, Frisch Brandt, Alan Mark, Saer Coulter and Christian Cimmino , Leslie Berriman, Justin and Lauran Tuck, Katiti Crawford and Jean Lu, Kelly Carter, Senator Mark Leno, Mark and Jessica Zitter, Kate Duhamel, Michelle and Mark Edmond, Steven Haines and Nicholas Chastain, Bruce and Dagmar Katz, singer Kitty Margolis and Alfonso Montuori, ballet favorites Pascal Molat and Genevieve Brisebois, Laura Connolly, Joshua Robinson, Nina Vaswani, Owsley Brown, Jeff Goodby, Diane Mailey, many Ladies of the Canyon, and more who hear The Hissing of Summer Lawns.