Since abruptly leaving his Comedy Central show in 2006, Dave Chappelle has been something of a ghost in the comedic world. He’s not disappeared, exactly, he’s just gone lower profile. He pops up here and there performing standup, usually on short notice, creating a big to-do wherever he does it.
These gigs are often soured by hecklers who wear backwards baseball hats and drink one too many Mike’s Hard Lemonades before yelling “I’m Rick James, bitch,” and the other famous lines that a 36-year-old white dude with a chinstrap might remember from Chappelle’s Show. (These are the sorts of details we hard-hitting journalists of Stanford Arts Review can bring you.) It came as no surprise, then, that the audience was exhaustingly reminded that heckling would not be tolerated, “at the request of the performer.”
The evening was advertised as a night of music and comedy. This was confusingly ambiguous billing. What could this mean? Would it be Dave sitting on a stool listening to music, naming the hits like a late night CD infomercial? Would he tell jokes with a banjo around his neck, à la 1970’s Steve Martin? Would the musicians be a marginalized sort of stage prop, the unfortunate byproduct of a self-doubting comedian’s stoned fantasy?
In hindsight, the venue should have given me a clue. The SFJAZZ Center is a serious deal. Completed in 2013 for 64 million dollars, it describes itself as “the first stand alone structure in the country build specifically for jazz.” The auditorium inside it is gorgeous, both acoustically and architecturally. Basically, they aren’t fucking around — even with the man Esquire called “the comic genius of America.”
From the start I saw no evidence to contradict that claim, by the way. You’ve got to be at the top of your game in order to break the fire codes of such a prestigious location with charm, but when he walked onstage with a cigarette, that’s exactly what Dave did. With him were four musicians – a drummer, a guitarist, a bassist, and the man Dave affectionately called “Fingers,” who had barricaded himself between a couple keyboards and a piano.
Dave carries an aura. He took the stage with the humble confidence of a nice guy extremely good at what he’s doing, and the excitement of the audience didn’t just come from “I’ve seen that dude on TV.” “In the presence of greatness” is a vomit-inducing phrase, but there is something uniquely thrilling about watching someone live who is writing their way into history.
The band played a tune or two. And they were good. Seriously solid, big surprise. A collection of top-notch local musicians brought together specifically for this occasion. And then Dave started talking.
Most of his material seemed to be off-the-cuff improvisation interspersed with bouts of more prepared bits. Such is the natural ability Dave possesses that it becomes very challenging to distinguish one from the other. He came out flying with a roundabout series of quips. These covered such things as being the only black dude watching 12 Years a Slave in a theater (“treading water in a sea of white guilt”), some pointed lines admonishing young people not to quit their shows (“life is easier with a show!”), and a terrific chat with a well-dressed audience member (“if you’re not gay, you should be!”)
He then brought on a close friend of his, Frédéric Yonnet, a singularly talented jazzy, funky harmonicist. This is the rough pattern the rest of the evening followed. Dave would joke, Dave would request music, music would play. The whole thing was entirely freeflowing. Dave continued to bring guists up to the stage. Yonnet was followed by the R&B star (and Oakland native) Goapele. When Dave said “gimme me some reggae before my weed wears off,” Martin Luther McCoy (who may be remembered as Jojo, the Jimi Hendrix-inspired character in Across the Universe) led the whole crowd, including Goapele and a shamelessly off-key Chappelle, through some Bob Marley.
At one point Dave turned to Fingers and said to him, in that inimitably declarative tone of his, “Here, lemme play your instrument.” The night was one big miracle of spontanaeity. People hadn’t come for the music, but they didn’t resent it either. In fact, it added texture – an element of richness to the crass humor in a way that was charming if only because everyone on stage was so damn good at what they were doing. Dave was essentially a glorified MC, and a remarkably generous one.
As we started approaching the end of the show, Dave brought out one more guest to the, by now, thoroughly cluttered stage. The legendary Talib Kweli – one of the enduring good guys of hip-hop. It was the perfect way to wrap up the show. Kweli got to rap, Dave got to tell a story about a young Kanye West watching unseen Chappelle’s Show sketches, getting a phone call, and telling the caller, “I can’t talk right now. Why? ‘Cause I’m at Chappelle’s Show watching sketches. Yeah. ‘Cause my life is dope, and I do dope shit.”
Dave turned to his old friend. “Talib, you wanna play us out?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess so.”
The SFJAZZ Center late on that Sunday night was a very special place to be, and to be a part of. It was a gathering of talented people who liked one another. Who weren’t self-concious about the thrill of it all. Who were more than willing to surrender to the wild impulses of it. It was now after midnight. All good books have a last page. Out into the rainy streets with the diverse audience and smiles all around. A whole lot of days made better for that night.
Photo credit: http://scottchernis.wordpress.com/