An evening with Herbie Hancock and Nancy Pelosi at the SFJAZZ Gala
By Micah Dubreuil
If you were driving down Fell street last Friday, you might have come upon an unexpected detour. This would have been the block cordoned off for the first annual SFJAZZ Gala  in their new facilities at 201 Franklin St. The building opened in January 2013, and in addition to featuring near-perfect acoustics in the main auditorium — arguably the best on the West Coast for jazz — it provides a sophisticated space for a social and fundraising event such as this one.
The Gala was officially honoring pianist and composer Herbie Hancock, and featured performances by Hancock himself in addition to the SFJAZZ Collective, Booker T., Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires, Terrance Brewer, the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars, and a number of special guests. Standout performances were delivered by Avishai Cohen and Warren Wolf of the SFJAZZ Collective, in particular. And then of course there was Charles Bradley, whose emotional commitment is so thorough that he seems always to be on the verge of tears. Seeing Hammond Organ master Booker T. in a room as small as the Joe Henderson Lab was also a rare and unique experience.
The High School All-Stars played exceptionally well, highlighted by an inspired arrangement of Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane.” It must have been no simple feat for the teenagers (particularly the pianists) to perform mere feet from the legendary Hancock, but they acquitted themselves with distinction. It’d be easy to take the profoundly high level of youth musical achievement in the Bay Area for granted, if not for events like these reminding us that, you know, actual programs drive these accomplishments — programs like the SFJAZZ ensemble, the Berkeley High jazz program, the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly known as the Jazz School) and a number of others — and those programs take passion, effort, and funding. All told, their sweeping institutional support of this music is a remarkable achievement in its own right.
Presenting the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement award to Hancock was saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, who was himself honored in 2008. After receiving the award, Hancock performed a solo interpretation of Shorter’s classic “Footprints,” which was followed by a SFJAZZ arrangement of the same tune. If I had one criticism, the night’s overall programming was extremely safe, featuring nearly all well-traveled (but beautiful) standards by Hancock (and one by Shorter), including Maiden Voyage, Watermelon Man, and Actual Proof. The only deep cut, as it were, was “And What If I Don’t” from Hancock’s 1963 release, My Point of View, performed by the SFJAZZ Collective. However, the programming reflected the nature of the event: A fundraiser aimed at gaining financial support from perhaps a broader audience than merely hardcore jazz fans — though, to be sure, plenty of those were also in attendance.
When the tally was in, SFJAZZ raised over $1.4 million for its educational and artistic programs, which is roughly in line with previous fundraisers. The event reflected this level of ambition, with a red carpet entrance and deliciously decadent food from local and national culinary artisans: Oysters from Tomales Bay, bacon-wrapped mochi, heirloom tomatoes topped with white chocolate. The statuesque models flanking the front doors with platters of champagne might have been a bit much, but otherwise the event was classy and dignified, with a crowd (which included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) dressed to impress; the invitation has read “black tie optional.” Master of ceremonies Robert Townsend, who directed Eddie Murphy’s stand-up film Raw (among other achievements) was jocular, jovial, and energetic. Even his (undeniably offensive) parody of sign-language interpreters received hearty laughter from the mostly-full auditorium.
Watching Shorter and Hancock sit by the side of the stage, it was hard not to reflect on their 50-year history of close collaboration and friendship. Jazz is obviously a major cultural institution, now propelled by organizations such as SFJAZZ, but for decades it was driven primarily by the passion and fearlessness of musicians like Hancock and Shorter. Their personal achievements are nothing short of colossal, and jazz itself would not be what it is today without them. In his acceptance speech, though, Hancock intoned that the jazz spirit “was all about we,” not the individual. He complimented hishosts for continuing those values: “SFJAZZ is all about sharing.” Here’s hoping the coming years keep allowing them to do just that.