Unpredictability was the one certainty when Gil Scott-Heron performed, former associates of the poet and musician recalled at “Pieces of a Man,” a Monday night tribute to him.
Remembered former Scott-Heron manager Bernard Jackson: “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 (one of the evening’s organizers) 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 the University of the District of Columbia). In 1982’s “Washington, D.C.,’’ he described the city as both capital and home town: “Symbols of democracy, pinned up against the coast / Outhouse of bureaucracy, surrounded by a moat / Citizens of poverty are barely out of sight / Overlords escape in the evening with people of the night.’’
Holly Bass, a local poet and performer, remembers seeing a film of Scott-Heron walking the streets of Washington reciting his verse. “He just had this fire in him,’’ she said the day after the memorial show. “I learned a lot about rhythm and cadence and the emotional narrative from Gil Scott-Heron.’’
But Bass also noted something that no one mentioned at the Bohemian Caverns event: Scott-Heron’s decline from the effects of cocaine addiction and illness. “It was always so sad,’’ she said, “to see that genius crushed under the weight of his personal demons.’’
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 Monday. “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 multimedia 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 event’s 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.
It was a suitably vibrant ending for a memorial jam session at which one admirer — even DJ Underdog isn’t sure who the guy was — told the crowd that “Gil is not dead. He’s more alive than most of the walking dead out there.’’
Jenkins is a freelance writer.