The series kicks with Billie Holiday From First to Last (May 7), a string of rare clips of Lady Day culled from featurettes and live TV that span 1935 to 1957. Holiday (who died two years later) holds her own with the best male jazz musicians of the day in the live broadcast The Sound of Jazz (1957). Her haunting vocals isolate that special space in which peerless players can exist outside a problematic world, in a perfect marriage of spirit and sound.
Equally rare, but rougher, is Herbert Danska's 1970 documentary Right On! The Original Last Poets (May 14). This trio of guerrilla poets (Gylan Kain, Felipe Luciano, and David Nelson) anticipated hip hop, using the raw power of their voices to attack racism, the Vietnam War, and other juicy targets from a rooftop in New York. The Poets' style is surprisingly undated; it's spare and stark, punctuated by relentless Afro-Cuban drumming.
Two films by noted documentarian Robert Mugge follow on May 21. Black Wax (1982) shows poet, musician, and activist Gil Scott-Heron doing stand-up, singing politically tinged R&B, and making hitherto unsuspected connections between the poetry taught in high school and the grunts and groans of winos. A highlight of the series is Sun Ra in A Joyful Noise (1980). The late avant-garde musician and self-styled citizen of the "omniverse" (he died in 1992) is seen in concert, modeling dramatically weird robes and headdresses, gently leading his band of devotees, and playfully skewering conventions whenever he speaks.
The final bill (May 28) is also a double feature. Ron Mann's Imagine the Sound (1981) sympathetically profiles '60s radical jazz players Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, and Paul Bley. Markus Gruber ends the series on a high note with My First Name Is Maceo (1996), an endearing look at James Brown's former sax player and seminal funkster -- with a visit from a literally wigged-out George Clinton -- in concert in Germany. The series opens at 8 and 9:45 p.m. Friday (and continues Fridays through May 28) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is $3-6; call 978-ARTS.
-- Gary Morris