Bay Area musician David James' newest piece tells a story that's drawn from historical TV news reports and newspapers, but that also has a personal connection. The work, called "Mission Rebel No. 1," looks back to San Francisco's Mission District in the mid-1960s and the community activism of Rev. Jesse James, who was David James' father.
"Mission Rebel No. 1" debuts this weekend, with a local performance Sept. 24 at Mitchell Park Community Center, presented by Earthwise Productions. The work will also be presented Sept. 22 in San Francisco.
Composer, guitarist and vocalist David James, who grew up in the Bay Area, said he was drawn to music at a very young age and taught himself to play on an acoustic guitar that a family friend had given him and his sister.
"It's just been a love affair, with playing guitar and singing," he said.
He has toured and recorded with Spearhead, The Coup and the Beth Custer Ensemble. James' sound channels an array of styles, including jazz, Afrobeat, funk, rock and new music, a wide range that's reflected in Afrofunk Experience and Russian Telegraph, two groups for which he has served as co-leader. With his own sextet, David James' GPS, he recorded and released the album "Billionaire Blues" in 2016, which garnered a rave as one of the best debut CDs of the year from jazz critic Francis Davis.
"I was born in San Francisco and grew up mostly in Oakland with my mom, I didn't grow up with my father. This whole piece, which is inspired by my father, is really the culmination of a lot of research and a lot of discovery," James said.
"It's not linear, it's not a biographical tale or anything, but it's a bunch of snapshots — music inspired by a series of snapshots of this person's life," he said of "Mission Rebel No. 1."
Reverend was an honorary title for Jesse James, who was not ordained, but seems to have had a calling to help local young people. In 1965, he founded an organization that sought to improve opportunities for Black and Latino youth. The Mission Rebels was made up of "mostly high school and college-aged young people from the Mission, working with James and a host of adults to advocate for and provide job placement and educational programs, as well as to do general community work," according to an essay from digital history archive FoundSF.
Rev. James not only built a group for local youth, but he had also traveled a tough road himself. As a teen, he became addicted to heroin, which led him to crime and, eventually, 15 years in prison. Taking part in an evangelical youth group helped Rev. James take a different path, according to an obituary from SFGATE.
"He had a pretty rough childhood and young adulthood, with addiction and being incarcerated. Yet somehow he was able to start this organization that wound up doing amazing things and affecting people's lives in a very positive way, particularly at-risk youth who then went on to start their own organizations. It has this ripple effect that emerged from his work," James said.
The Mission Rebels were active from 1965 through the early '70s, and the group's work was well-documented in newspapers and TV reports — a large number of which James found through the San Francisco Public Library.
James said "Mission Rebel No. 1" came about in part because he was inspired to compose a longer piece of music by longtime collaborators Beth Custer and Lisa Mezzacappa, whose work includes soundtracks and large-scale performances. Both musicians are part of his GPS ensemble and will be featured in the "Mission Rebel No 1" performance, with Custer on clarinet and Mezzacappa on double bass. The performance also features trombonist Alan Williams, Keith Lawrence on viola, drummer John Hanes and James on electric guitar.
Basing a longer composition on his father's story slowly crystallized as James considered what he had learned about his father. "Especially once he passed, which was in 2005, I started doing a little digging into his life. It occurred to me at some point that this man's life is pretty amazing. It had a lot of texture to it," James said.
James went on to receive grants in 2020 and 2022 from the San Francisco Arts Commission to develop and perform a suite of music about his father and his work.
In some cases, the music draws from the headlines and stories he found, with Rev. James' words and the news coverage brought together in James' composition.
"I actually took a whole story from an interview that my father gave about the formation — how the Mission Rebels began. I transcribed that interview, and I recorded myself improvising, singing those words, and then I wrote a piece around that. And that might be kind of the centerpiece of the work," he said.
He took a similar approach with his ensemble, whom he invited to bring their own takes to the piece. He sent each musician a historical headline and asked them to improvise a melody to the words, record themselves singing the melody, and James composed music based on each melody. Some opportunities for improvisation are also built into the piece.
"Everybody gets a little feature moment to improvise within the context," he said.
James' research drew him to take a multimedia approach to the performance, which uses projections to weave in historical footage and photographs.
"It was amazing how many news accounts I was able to find, discover and uncover. And I just thought this is pretty fertile ground for us. I used some of the headlines as lyrics, but I did also think it might be interesting to show some of these headlines or a series of photos of the time," James said.
All humans are complex, and Rev. James was no different. While he stepped back from the Mission Rebels in the late '60s due to issues with drinking, the influence of his work remained. Delving into a complicated legacy can bring a variety of emotions.
"We're just working on the music and then when I take a moment to breathe, and step back and think about it, it can be emotional. There are some heavy, intense facts about this person's life.
There's trauma that he lived through, there's trauma that he inflicted," James said.
"He was still able to build this very positive, beautiful thing. And if there is a message — I don't know that there is a message — but if there is a message, it's probably something about that: having spent years in addiction, years of incarceration and there's still a capacity for beauty."
"Mission Rebel No. 1" will be performed Sept. 24, 2 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Library & Community Center, 3700 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. The work's premiere is Sept. 22, 8 p.m. at the Brava Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are $20. eventbrite.com or heydavidjames.com.