Wynton Marsalis sings praises of SFJazz as he takes spotlight at record-breaking fundraiser

SFJazz Gala Host Wendell Pierce (left) with Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard.
Photo: Katie Ravas / Drew Altizer Photography

What do you get a highly decorated musician like Wynton Marsalis — a nine-time Grammy winner, the first jazz artist to win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master?

Well, SFJazz not only honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award and a city holiday, the organization threw its biggest gala fundraiser ever.

The sold-out event on Friday, June 3, raised a record $1.9 million for its artistic and educational programs, a feat Marsalis can appreciate as the founder and artistic director for New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. So even as the 60-year-old trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator was being feted, he thoughtfully sang the praises of SFJazz and others.

“There’s so much to celebrate about SFJazz and your achievements over these last 40 years,” Marsalis said while accepting his award. “Receiving this honor is extremely significant 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 because of COVID, and this year’s event postponed from its original January date because of the omicron variant, patrons seemed extra excited as they queued up on the red carpet Friday night to show their proof of vaccination and recent negative test. (A nearby tent was set up where one could self-administer and wait for the result of a free antigen rapid test.)

Once inside the Hayes Valley venue’s Robert N. Miner Auditorium, they were greeted with an octet featuring members of the SFJazz Collective, SFJazz High School All-Stars and drummer Jaz Sawyer, who started the gala performance, walking down the main floor stairs while performing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a nod to Marsalis’ New Orleans roots. 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.

“This is a fragile time we’re living in,” Kline acknowledged in his penultimate gala as executive artistic director before he steps down next fall, “and music, this music, is a balm that lifts us — lifts us all.”

Indeed, it was the music that Marsalis wanted to honor over the course of 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 youth education a mission for both 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 1997 Pulitzer-winning jazz oratorio “Blood on the Fields.” Trumpeter Skyler Tang, a rising junior at Crystal Springs Upland High School in Hillsborough and this year’s winner of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dr. J. Douglas White Composition and Arranging Contest, delivered a fiery solo alongside Marsalis.

“Tonight’s gala recognizes the two leading jazz organizations in the world, SFJazz and Jazz at Lincoln Center. We cherish our longstanding friendship and partnership that continues to grow,” said SFJazz board chair Denise Young. “We recognize how important it is for both organizations to encourage this art and to elevate the messages of hope and collaboration this music has always represented.”

The Collective performed “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” and “Phryzzinain Man,” pieces Marsalis wrote and recorded in his 20s, before Blanchard went mostly off script for his frequently humorous remembrances 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 marked its 20th anniversary 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 “Jazz” documentary; trumpeter Chris Botti; and brother Branford Marsalis, who joked that at least the gala honor isn’t coming posthumously.

Then Marsalis was back in the musical mix, giving a rare quartet performance of his 1983 release “Knozz-Moe King.” A jam session-style take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A-Train” followed, before with the same octet that kicked off the event — plus a few extra Collective members — closed out the gala out New Orleans-style with an appropriately lively reading of “Second Line (Joe Avery Blues).”

As the crowd filed out to the raucous afterparty, one couldn’t help but recall the words Marsalis addressed to the student musicians in the audience as he accepted his award: “There’s a lot of jazz yet to be played … but the one element you must hold above all else is this feeling that has guided SFJazz all these years,” he said. “Community is the highest calling. Love is its calling card, and balance is its destination.”

SFJazz 2022 Gala: Available to stream for free at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 5, on

by Yoshi Kato
Source: San Francisco Chronicle

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