A photo of an older man,sitting with a cane and a pink shirt. And to the right a young man in a blue/green shirt, and a guitar.
Left: Rev. Jesse James, Photo by Anne Hamersky Right: David James, Photo by Lenny Gonzalez

Growing up as an angry teenager in the 1970s, guitarist David James wanted nothing to do with his father, a troubled man who’d turned himself into a Mission District crusader. 

The unlikely story of his father’s life, an arc that includes New York City juvenile delinquency, heroin addiction, hard prison time, Islamic conversion and charismatic leadership in the mid-‘60s anti-poverty movement, is the subject of James’s new multimedia song cycle, “Mission Rebel No.1: Looking for Reverend Jesse James.” A work in progress for several years, the production premieres Friday at Brava Theater Center (and Sunday afternoon at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Community Center).

It’s a music-centric work featuring James’s ensemble GPS (Good People, Son), an all-star band that includes clarinetist Beth Custer, trombonist Alan Williams, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, Cosa Nostra Strings violist Keith Lawrence, and drummer John Hanes, with guest vocalists Allegra Bandy and Sólás Burke-Lalgee. Drawing on his father’s writings, news accounts, and his own memories for lyrics, James also tells a story with each musical setting, evoking particular times and places with the chosen cadences.

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“One challenge is that I’m so influenced by so many different things,” said James, a supple and deeply funky guitarist who’s toured and recorded with acts such as Michael Franti and Spearhead, Sila and the Afrofunk Experience, The Coup, and the Beth Custer Ensemble.

“Each of these musical snapshots can be its own little world. There’s an early piece centered around my father’s time and place of birth, New York City circa 1928, with an early jazz feel and vibe. Other moments draw on classical choral counterpoint, because that’s what the moment called for — and also, I’ve done a lot of choral singing in the last few years.”

It takes a lot of musical styles to represent a life marked by such extreme zigs and zags. With a moniker that sounds like a throw-away from a Tom Wolfe novel, Rev. Jesse James landed in San Francisco in 1965 after serving 15 years in prison and reinventing himself as an outreach worker for at-risk youth. 

He moved west at the behest of David Wilkerson, who’d founded the evangelical group Teen Challenge, which sought to minister to Harlem youth in difficult circumstances. After launching a San Francisco chapter, however, James, who died in 2005 at the age of 76, parted ways with Teen Challenge and helped found Mission Rebels, a group riding the Great Society “War on Poverty” zeitgeist with a series of grants from the city and federal government.

According to a 2021 essay by Ethan Asher, a philanthropist donated a three-story building on South Van Ness Avenue to the new organization, and the former warehouse became a hub for a cadre of college students and professors volunteering to teach neighborhood teens job skills, art, drama and other topics. True to the name, Mission Rebels didn’t just provide youth with opportunities. 

Under the leadership of Rev. James (an honorific he attained via the academy of the streets, rather than a seminary), Mission Rebels tried to recalibrate the neighborhood’s coalescing factions by taking over a 1968 meeting of the Mission Coalition Organization, which brought together community groups that had fought urban renewal around the 16th and 24th Street BART stations. 

Cesar Chavez, the meeting’s keynote speaker, sought to bring the Mission Rebels into the fold with a rousing speech about unity, but James pushed his own leadership slate and was voted down by the vast majority of the 60 organizations. By the end of the year, James was out, falling victim to an increasing dependence on alcohol.

“The story is that he was given an ultimatum by the sheriff and had to get out of town,” James said. He spent about a decade living in Chico before moving back to San Francisco in the mid-1980s. 

James largely reconciled with his father before his death, and has spent years researching his life, scouring the San Francisco Public Library for news stories about the media-savvy Mission Rebels. “I interviewed his siblings, my aunt and uncle, and I was able to get a fuller picture of him with the context they provided,” he said. “That included some intense realities, and allowed me to see him as a more full human.”

Like so many long-simmering projects, “Mission Rebel No.1” coalesced in 2020-21 with the advent of the pandemic and the evaporation of all gigs “when I needed something to do,” he said. Composed and developed with support from the San Francisco Arts Commission, with live performances made possible by grants from the Zellerbach Family Foundation and InterMusic SF, the song cycle reflects James’ extensive work with ambitious composers like Lisa Mezzacappa and Beth Custer, who has written scores for plays by Octavio Solis, dance theater productions by Joe Goode, and classic silent films (including her widely toured work for the 1929 Soviet satire “My Grandmother”). 

“I had been writing mostly instrumental pieces, individual pieces with nothing to connect them,” James said. “Being a part of these things that were about longer forms and not just a song was so inspiring. I had been researching my father’s life off and on for years, so there was a gestation period, thinking this could be something I could investigate musically, around which I could stretch my compositional attempts.”

Creating “Mission Rebel No.1: Looking for Reverend Jesse James” gave him “a deeper under understanding” of his father, said James, a Mission resident for the past two decades. In premiering the work at Brava, he’s bringing his father back from exile, just blocks from where the family lived before his parents split up in the late ‘60s. 

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Karina Deniké at the Make Out Room

The supremely versatile San Francisco vocalist Karina Deniké has held down a regular gig at The Make Out Room for years, but this Sunday’s performance is something special. Focusing on her original songs from her resplendent 2015 album “Under Glass,” she’ll be joined by reed expert Cory Wright on bass clarinet, drummer Eric Garland, pianist Michael McIntosh and vocalist Lily Taylor (who’s also performing her own solo material).

The quadruple bill includes Graham Norwood and Nancie Lualhati, and Macerator. I reviewed “Under Glass” for The California Report on KQED when it came, and I stand by everything (except, to my eternal shame, mispronouncing her name—that’s duh-nee-KAY). It’s a beguiling late-night reverie of an album with occasional jolts of giddy pop energy that always leaves me longing for another round. 

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Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Speaking of amazing women vocalists, the seventh iteration of “Let Her Sing: A Celebration of Female Voices” returns Saturday to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Presented by Diaspora Arts Connection, which concentrates on showcasing artists from Islamic countries (with a particular focus on women who have ties to Iran), “Let Her Sing” fosters support for female artists whose voices are suppressed in their ancestral lands. 

This year’s lineup includes Elaha Sorooor, Emma, Emel Mathluthi, Farah Siraj, Hani Kian, Mandana Khazraei, Sakina Teyna, Sanam Maroufkhani, and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. Drummer and musical director Yahya Alkhansa leads a talent-laden house band with Asaf Ophir (wind instruments), Bahar Badiee (oud), Josh Melinger (percussion), Mohammad Talani (guitar), Niloufar Shiri (kamancheh), Nima Hafezieh (keyboard), Narges Jajarmi (accordion), and Safa Shokrai (bass).

“On the first anniversary of Iran’s Woman.Life.Freedom movement and two years after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, our talented vocalists will raise their voices to defend women’s right to self-expression,” said Nazy Kaviani, the founder and guiding spirit of Diaspora Arts Connection.

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