It was a strange night in a strange week. At a time when it appeared that the world had (temporarily, one hopes) gone mad, “Kaddish,’’ Allen Ginsberg’s lament for his mad mother was being presented at the San Francisco Jazz Center, in an unusual collaboration between protean hipster music producer Hal Willner (no relation to yours truly, although we both probably have roots in the same Lithuanian village), with music composed and conducted by the multi-talented guitarist Bill Frisell, in a production directed by actress Chloe Webb with illustrations by Ralph Steadman, the mordant British artist most famous for his partnership with Hunter S. Thompson (the Jazz Center is also presenting the world premiere of a collaboration from the same group later this weekend celebrating Thompson’s celebrated trip to the Kentucky Derby .)
As attendees filed into the Jazz Center’s beautiful new building, which just opened this January and the lights dimmed, the sounds of the Hebrew prayer for the dead began to echo through the hall, interspersed with a call-and-response from Ray Charles, “One of these days, and it’ won’t be long, you’re going to look for me and I’ll be gone.’’
It was a fitting tribute to Ginsberg’s mother – the poem’s subtitle is “for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956) – and for the shell-shocked emotions of an audience with minds and souls filled with confused images and responses to the carnage in Boston, with more shocks, more confusing information awaiting when the time shared together at the concert was over.
Although Frisell, an SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director, is justly regarded as perhaps the best guitarist, across several genres around today, his role in this production was as composer and conductor of a score intended to reflect the beauty and the tragedy of Ginsberg’s poem, perhaps less known than “Howl’’ but probably his greatest, and most enduring work.
The group he quietly commanded included Robin Holcomb, on voice and piano, Jenny Scheinman on violin, cellist Hank Roberts, Doug Wieselman on clarinet, Ron Miles on trumpet, Curtis Fowlkes and trombone and Kenny Wollesen on drums.
Their delicate task was to provide contrapuntal musical accompaniment, and enhancement, to the poem, innovatively read by Willner himself in the voice of the poet and Webb, as Naomi.
Although Steadman’s images are best known for their wild adumbrations of Dr. Thompson’s even wilder journalistic explorations, here they were more lyrical, projected on a wide screen on the stage behind the musicians, along with film shot by Webb. Flowers opened, and closed, in moments that recalled Franz Kline, interspersed with photographs of Ginsberg as a child with his mother and filmed segments in a field.
Again, it seemed fitting for these times to drink in the sensibility of Ginsberg, whose combination of Buddhist beatitude and Jewish humor and outrage at the madness of the world, and the agonies of trying to reach a mother who seemed irretrievably lost.
Willner held the stage, poised more like a musician himself than a “performer,’’ communicating the poet’s vernacular voice with understanding and tactful timing:
“Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on
the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village…”
Webb, clad in a shawl and sometimes clutching a mandolin from her youth as a Catskill Communist, seemed more like his partner in a jazz duet than a “literary’’ interpreter, calling out her visions:
“Yesterday I saw God. What did he look like? Well, in the afternoon I climbed up
a ladder – he has a cheap cabin in the country, like Monroe, N.Y. the chicken farms
in the wood. He was a lonely old man with a white beard.
‘I cooked supper for him. I made him a nice supper – lentil soup, vegetables, bread
& butter – miltz – he sat down at the table and ate, he was sad.
‘I told him, Look at all those fightings and killings down there, What’s the
matter? Why don’t you put a stop to it?”
The poem set to music, film and art soared and plummeted, feeling like an evening of familial emotion reflecting the rich rhapsody of Ginsberg’s words, treated with reverence - but no piety -by the talented collaborators.
It was only the most recent in a series of ambitious stagings by SFJAZZ, a group that, it should be noted, has somehow managed to come up with the money, imagination and ambition to create the only freestanding jazz facility in the United States. I’d been there before, on opening week, to see a more conventionally “jazz’-like but no less inspiring program with the great Bay Area vibist Bobby Hutcherson< pianist McCoy Tyner, violinist Regina Carter and too many more to mention. More programs are coming, including a series of performances starring pianist Brad Mehldau (April 25-28_) and SF JAZZ Resident Artistic Director Jason Moran (May 2-5).
It’s a reminder that positive things can happen in a world that seems like it’s gone wrong. Ginsberg’s ecstatic visions are not just Beat artifacts of a bygone time, but reminders of the importance of maintaining humane values, no matter what the time. And the fact that they can be set so successfully to music reminds us, too, that the world is what we make it., not just what we see on television, the rattlings of social media and the disappointments of the day. The struggle continues, but so do the sounds of survival.