Unpredictability was the one certainty when Gil Scott-Heron performed, recalled former associates of the poet and musician at a Monday night tribute to him. Remembered one Scott-Heron road-trip veteran, "They would ask us, ‘What are you going to play tonight?’ And we’d say, ‘That's why we came, to find out.’”
That's also how it went at the ramshackle but heartfelt memorial to Scott-Heron, who died Friday at 62. There were some choppy transitions and occasional dead air during the nearly six-hour Bohemian Caverns event, but no one seemed to mind. After all, whenever the next act wasn't quite ready, DJ Underdog would just spin a Scott-Heron track, which was both apt and moving.
Scott-Heron lived most of his adult life in New York, yet also spent some years in Washington, including a stint in the 1970s when he taught English at Federal City College (a predecessor of UDC). There are still plenty of old friends and collaborators in the area, among them saxophonist Carl Cornwell and drummer Tony Duncanson, both of whom performed on Saturday. “We lived the blues with Gil Scott-Heron,'' the latter said. "Sometimes it was fun.''
The veterans were joined by younger players and poets, who performed such Scott-Heron songs as "Winter in America'' and "Beginnings (First Minute of a Brand New Day).'' Others did their own material, which ranged from OOO Trio's free jazz to hip-hopper Christylez Bacon's one-person duet between human beatbox and percussive spoons.
The evening sometimes suggested a 1960s multi-media event. The music, poetry and reminiscences were flanked to the left by video footage (Scott-Heron, the Black Panthers, outer space) and on the right by an in-process portrait of the honoree, being painted by an artist who calls herself Choke. There was also a short trivia quiz, although that wasn't one of the highlights.
Political commentary was to be expected at an event dedicated to the performer of such jazzy broadsides as "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'' and "Whitey on the Moon.'' Whether via recordings or in recitations of his verse, Scott-Heron rebuked bygone bogeymen such as Nixon, Reagan and Agnew. Darts were also flung at contemporary targets, notably Barack Obama. "My president's black/But the plan remains the same,'' rapped Enoch 7th Prophet.
Shortly before midnight, the crowd was encouraged to go outside for a candlelight vigil and drum circle. After a few minutes of preparation, however, the show's organizers decided that not all the neighbors would appreciate being thumped into Tuesday, and everyone was directed back into the club. That's when the audience found out that the show would end with a half hour of African-style drumming and Afro-modern dancing, the latter led by members of Urban Artistry troupe.