While the music-loving world waits and wonders about the health of the legendary Joni Mitchell, SFJAZZ kicks off its #ThankYouJoni campaign this Saturday, with a photo montage installation in Hayes Valley, in the run up to its gala tribute on May 8.
In one of the most memorable moments in The Last Waltz, filmed in San Francisco in November 1976 by Martin Scorsese, Joni Mitchell is called from the stage to perform. She is there among rock and roll royalty—including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Emmylou Harris among others—saying farewell to The Band. Calling it quits after years of grueling touring, it was a moment for them to play with friends and colleagues, including fellow Canadian, Joni Mitchell.
She sways onto the stage, straps on a guitar and tears into Coyote, with the words, “No regrets, Coyote”, which spins a churning tale of a man and a woman locked in a duel of alternating roles of predator and prey, reckless drinking and romancing in roadhouses, and observations of players “licking their wounds,” who have to rely on “their pills and powders to get them through this passion play.” It is, in a word, electrifying.
Fast forward about 40 years or so to December 2014, and SF Jazz announces that Mitchell would be the recipient of the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award. And what could be more fitting for a musician whose career spanned so much, from folk and rock and roll to yes, jazz.
Mitchell’s forays into collaborations with such elemental Jazz figures such as Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, and the band Weather Report were controversial (to say the least) with longtime fans who were baffled, and jazz critics who bristled at her assumptions. She was unapologetic, and a composition like Dry Cleaner from Des Moines more than speaks for itself as to her chops and inclinations in the idiom.
Though she was not expected to perform at the SF ceremony on May 8, she was going to attend the all-star concert, which will feature Kurt Elling, Tom Scott, Mark Isham, Kris Kristofferson, and Patti Austin along with the SF Jazz Collective debuting new arrangements of some her most iconic compositions.
And then about a month ago, Mitchell was discovered unconscious at her home in Los Angeles and taken to UCLA Medical Center for observation. In the hospital ever since, rumors have swirled (TMZ claims the singer is in a coma), conservatorship papers have been filed, but actual information about her condition, impossible to come by. Compared to Mitchell’s camp, the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea is a model of transparency.
In lieu of Mitchell, jazz master and longtime colleague of Joni’s, Wayne Shorter will be in attendance to accept the award on her behalf. “The public is invited to celebrate her legacy with us on Friday, May 8,” says a recent statement from SFJAZZ, who is also installing a visual tribute to Joni on the SFUSD building across the street from the Center, starting this Saturday, May 2.
Over the last decades, Mitchell’s public interviews became increasingly tannic. She smoked her voice into oblivion. She gained the reputation of being isolated and pushing those formerly close to her away; including, it seems, the daughter she had reunited with after putting her up for adoption 32 years earlier. She blithely referred to Bob Dylan as a plagiarist.
And so it went. And here we are. Whatever her condition is at the moment, her reputation as one of the most singular and original artists of the 20th century remains intact.
No regrets, Coyote.