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Honoring Joni Mitchell, who visits S.F. from her hospital bed Print-ready version

by Leah Garchik
San Francisco Chronicle
May 12, 2015

Portraits of Joni Mitchell dominate the bandstand at SFJAZZ tribute

"SFJazz + Joni Mitchell" had been in the works for months. To say that fans were into it isn't quite true, because the people who really get Joni Mitchell can't be properly described as fans; they're acolytes. They admire her performance, her painting, her composing, her lyrics, her outside-of-showbiz-ness, the way she moves in her singular orbit, but also they embrace her as a tale-spinner who's captured the essence of her era in her artist's butterfly net.

So when Mitchell fell ill a few months ago, it didn't change plans for her tribute at SFJazz. The event was about her ideas and her spirit. She was in her hospital bed on Friday, but she was there, celebrating, too, in the music, in the photo images projected above the stage in tones of blue: a silhouette of her ice-skating, a cape-like garment borne by the wind giving her the appearance of a bird in flight; laughing with Mimi FariƱa and Herbie Hancock; looking into the distance or gazing into the camera. "Where did I go?" she'd told Ben Fong-Torres in an interview long ago. "I'm like the Northern Star. I'm always here."

SFJazz Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline said a video of the concert was being made so that Mitchell could see it. But to everyone there, it seemed she'd already done that. She'd been watching, listening, from afar.

In accepting a lifetime achievement award on her behalf, Wayne Shorter noted that when she received a compliment she often said, "I know." "She knows," he said, "and it's cool." The acknowledgment, "with the greatest humility," said Shorter, connected her with the speaker, sharing the words instead of accepting them from on high. "I could drink a case of you, darlin'," sang Kris Kristofferson - all the more touching for his scratchy voice - near the end of the concert, "and I would still be on my feet."

We walked across Franklin Street to dinner, past the Mitchell pictures in the windows of the abandoned building opposite SFJazz, and past the impromptu shrine that's been growing below it. Inside a tent in the central courtyard of the old San Francisco Unified School District headquarters, behind the bandstand, designer Stanlee Gatti, a friend of Mitchell's, said she considered herself a painter first, then a musician. He had two self-portraits of her, one from the front, one from the back, blown up to enormous size, as though she were looking out over the room.

We ate dinner - Michael Tusk's menu, cooked by McCall's, included down-home chicken and waffles and baby carrots so small that right-to-lifers might have protested their harvest - as Trombone Shorty and his band rocked out onstage. We sat with Brian Boitano and Connie and Bob Lurie, and conversation flowed, but the music was beckoning. More than beckoning, it was demanding: Come on out here and take a bite of life.

So the minute dessert was served, everyone jumped up to dance. No matter that the honoree was in a hospital bed in Southern California. She's magical, said the acolytes, and somehow she managed to be on Franklin Street, too ... and for that matter, to have made a nest for herself inside everyone who'd been listening. Long live the songbird, Gatti said.

Tom Miller and the Green Cities Fund are trying to raise money/get permission for the installation of "Anything to Say?" a public art project, on the UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz campuses. The work, by Italian sculptor Davide Dormino, pays tribute to Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, each of whom, says Miller, "gave up their freedom to protect yours."

The sculpture features four chairs, three with likenesses of the three honorees standing on them, the other empty, purportedly for anyone who will stand with the others. At a Berlin showing in May, supporters brought their own chairs to create a field of chairs and participants.

Miller thinks the work, which was installed temporarily in Berlin and is to be in Dresden later this summer, might even find a permanent home on the UC Berkeley campus, perhaps on the balcony of the Free Speech Movement Cafe.

Open for business in San Francisco, (415) 777-8426. E-mail: lgarchik@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @leahgarchik

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