‘Working on music during the day has been amazing,” said guitarist and bandleader David James of his newly adopted pandemic routine.
For years, the musician had rehearsed and performed at night while holding down a day shift as a record buyer at Amoeba Music, though when both lines of work abruptly shut down in March and with no return date on the horizon, James finally settled in to compose a suite of songs for his father, the late Reverend Jesse James.
“Not having grown up with him for the most part except for a couple of summers, I was aware that he had started the Mission Rebels here in the ‘60s,” said James, who lived the first years of his own life in the Mission — coincidentally not far from where he and his wife Suzanne Lee live now — until his mother moved the young family to Oakland. Though the pair had reconnected before the Rev passed in 2005, “I wasn’t able to get that much from him,”James said.
Digging into local contacts and archives, James found TV news clips and articles, including some from the Examiner, detailing his father’s calling as a street preacher who advocated for youth and jobs.
“His was such a rich, complicated life, though if one were to look at his life on paper up until the age of 35, you wouldn’t necessarily think, ‘This is a good person.’ You’d think, ‘This person is going to probably spend the rest of his life in jail,’” said James.
A former felon from New York City, Jesse James was on what is now called the school-to-prison pipeline, “only minus a lot of the school part,” said his son. Arriving here in the ‘60s and assigned to work with a community outreach program for teens, in 1965, James the elder founded Mission Rebels, an early model to engage youth in community service. His charismatic approach to extolling the virtues of the straight and narrow earned him the nickname, Reverend.
“My father was a complex dude, and he wrestled with addiction issues throughout his life,” stressed James in a follow-up email. “I don’t want to give the impression that once he ‘turned his life around,’ everything was perfect. Far from it. But he did try to do good for the community, even while he wrestled.”
Having percolated on the project for three or four years, the well-timed arrival of an artistic grant award allowed James to get down to realizing his larger musical work which sways in movement, from atmospherics and jazz to R&B fused to found text and audio.
“I realize I’m really fortunate. I know plenty of musicians who aren’t in this situation,” said James, who had been volunteering at his local food bank until Suzanne, who works for The City, was called there for disaster service work and the couple agreed one of them should isolate.
“The idea of live-streaming solo from home appeals to me zero,” said James. “I’ve set up microphones and cameras and recorded these things and it felt just wrong. I’m in the band, I like being part of a team. I love touring and playing music in front of people,” he said.
Having recorded and toured with internationally-recognized groups like San Francisco’s Spearhead and Oakland’s The Coup, “At a certain point, I realized I wanted to cultivate my own creativity,” said James. He’s continued to play with the Afrofunk Experience, the Beth Custer Ensemble, and is leading his own six-piece, GPS, through ways to rehearse in small gatherings of two or three players while the pandemic rages. But the shutdown has also provided him with a certain amount of quiet, in contrast to the perpetual soundtrack on his job sites.
“I’ve probably put on a record five times since this started,” he said citing XTC, Gilberto Gil, Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear,” Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and ranchera singer, Chavela Vargas.
“Well, actually I watched a movie about Vargas and thought of putting on a record but never actually got to it,” he said, laughing at the way time, thought and action have become messed up right now.
James started playing recorder, trombone and singing in high school before discovering guitar.
“I taught myself, which I’m still doing,” he said. It was also when he began working in Oakland’s record stores, chiefly at Berrigan’s, increasing his exposure to a spectrum of sound beyond rock at school and the soul records spun at home.
“Though none of this project is about her, I have a great appreciation for my mom,” said James of his mother Dolores, who passed in 2007. “She had a lot to deal with, including Jesse’s absence. Near the end of her life, she began to open up a little more about the relationship between the two of them including the fact he had urged her to run for office here in San Francisco.”
If there’s a message to the music he’s making about Jesse, James hopes the piece will encourage listeners to consider a person’s whole being, beyond their perceived profile or prior convictions.
“There is so much more to a person if we allow them to be so much more of a person. They’re still a human, they still have complexity, they still have capability,” said James.
“There was so much certain people tried to make of George Floyd’s arrest record, or just the fact he had one, as if that could define someone and that it would excuse any sort of treatment that might’ve come his way, including death by the state.”
James said he participated “in a very limited way” in the recent protests following Floyd’s murder by police in Minnepolis (this interview took place before the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc. ), and he is encouraged by what he observed.
“It was amazing to see so many young people of color with masks, being loud and demanding change in such a way that I don’t think it’s going to let up. The younger generation, with or without the help, but hopefully with the help and backing of the older generations, are moving things forward,” he said.
Music has historically played its own role in providing sustenance and strength for people in times of necessary uprising.
“Certainly during the last civil rights era, songs inspired people to keep going,” said James, contrasting the period’s “We Shall Overcome” with today’s protest anthem, “Alright,” by Kendrick Lamar.
“Music doesn’t necessarily have to challenge, inspire, or move people, but when it does those things, it can be a valid and beautiful experience.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.