San Francisco Examiner

Monday, Oct. 20, 1997 · Page C 1
©1997 San Francisco Examiner

Blues at the Rock

Alcatraz is setting for annual Bread & Roses benefit

Philip Elwood

IN SUPPORT OF a 1912 textile strike, James Oppenheim wrote a poem with the line, "Hearts starve as well as bodies." " Bread and roses! Bread and Roses!" ended each stanza.

In 1974, singer / social activist Mimi Farina formed "Bread & Roses," an organization that brings free, live entertainment to institutionalized people. Bread & Roses held its first Festival of Acoustic Music in Berkeley's Greek Theater in 1977, beginning an annual tradition that has continued in various forms and venues.

"Music is a healing force - the spirit of Bread & Roses," said Farina on Saturday evening, standing on the makeshift stage in the Cell House Dining Hall on Alcatraz.

As famed musical entertainer Jon Hendricks began his "Evolution of the Blues" benefit show (the evening's entertainment), many in the audience of more than 400 reflected on their ironic situation. For the night, we were incarcerated if not institutionalized, surrounded by the walls, barred windows and doors of what was once the most secured and infamous prison in the country. We were, like most of Bread & Roses' 400 audiences in the course of a year, anticipating a musical presentation that would raise our spirits, bring us "music from on high," as Hendricks put it in introducing "Steal Away," as sung by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir Ensemble.

"It All Began In The House of The Lord," proclaimed Hendricks as he narrated his poetic lines, sang the songs and brought forth other "Evolution of The Blues" performers. With percussionist Babatunde playing the conga drums, Hendricks then took us to "Mother Africa," then onto a slave-carrying ship bound for the Caribbean, then to the American south. An auction scene featured a whip-snapping Gary Goodrow of the old "Committee" cast (Farina also was a member).

Then to "That's Enough" by the choir, featuring the evening's finest voice, that of Barbara Traylor of Oakland. Her performance, later, on "Something's Got A Hold on Me" was an even grander display of gospel singing. Pianist-singer Les McCann took over for Ed Kelly on this and some of the evening's other numbers.

"Everyone smiles when Buddy Bolden plays; you can hear him for miles," comments Hendricks about the "first jazz cornetist," when he gets into his "Three Jazz Messiahs" routine. Bolden of course, wasn't the first Jazz Messiah - that was Louis Armstrong - and as Hendricks sang his "Satchmo," trumpeter Allen Smith blew two magnificent Armstrong-like solo choruses.

Hendricks' second Jazz Messiah is saxist Lester "Pres" Young. When the stage quintet got rolling, like the Reno Club band in old Kansas City, tenor saxist Robert Stewart's hot solo got the crowd cheering. Charlie "Yardbird" Parker is Messiah Number Three, celebrated by bebop scatting by Hendricks.

"See See Rider" is one of Hendricks' best song-stories - circuit riders coming through town, "hittin' on somebody else's old lady then splitting." Watching some of the gospel singers' reactions to those lines and, "Where did you stay last night? Your shoes ain't laced and your clothes don't fit just right," was quite a treat. Hendricks sang "See See Rider" in the late Jimmy Witherspoon's style, perhaps as a tribute to 'Spoon, who sang it at the "Evolution's" first performance (at Monterey) in 1960.

After "Chain Gang," and his marvelous "New York, New York" poetry routine, leading into a lot of "Hotsy Totsy Club" and "wino" jokes, Hendricks led a singalong on "Gimme That Wine." After his daughter Michelle's gorgeous "Mood Indigo" vocal (Smith on muted trumpet), the father and daughter got to "Everybody's Boppin' " and eventually Judith Hendricks' joined her husband and daughter to sing the Annie Ross lines in the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross classic, "Jumpin' at the Woodside."

Before the show ended, McCann and the crowd went on a spree singing and bopping to his "Compared To What," followed by the choir's singing and clapping to "Signify" as they paraded off stage.

A benefit for Bread & Roses, the boat ride to Alcatraz, the private tours of the facility, a panel discussion ( "Forgiveness and Reconciliation" ) and Hendricks' presentation, defined the spirit of Bread & Roses.

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