Always a Party

Catch David Sturdevant’s Medicine Ball Band for a stellar show.


David Sturdevant sounds good and helps his collaborators sound even better.

Photo by Carl Posey

David Sturdevant is an authentic piece of the weird old San Francisco, when the city absorbed a steady flow of self-invented artists determined to find new avenues for bliss and communion. As the rhythmic spark and guiding spirit behind the constantly morphing Medicine Ball Band, the longtime Oakland resident is still a ubiquitous presence on Bay Area stages, where he delivers an infectiously buoyant blend of old-time jazz, soul, and old-school R&B. An accomplished rhythm guitarist, he’s the kind of player who concentrates on making his collaborators sound good, which is one reason why he’s consistently surrounded by a stellar cast of musicians (James Brown saxophone star Pee Wee Ellis often joins the band for December shows).

Sturdevant and clarinet ace John Stafford launched the Medicine Ball Band some 45 years ago, playing regularly on Union Square. The San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary three-dot columnist Herb Caen became an avid fan, and started championing the group, which landed a series of high-profile, long-running gigs in swanky hotels. But the MBB brought its musical ministrations anywhere and everywhere people gathered, a democratic sensibility that continues to guide Sturdevant, who expanded from vintage swing to R&B and gospel via his late-girlfriend Amanda Hughes, “an amazing vocalist who came out of the church in Hunters Point,” he said. “Our sound evolved into R&B, and back in those days, the best gigs were in gay nightclubs. Ultimately, I just wanted to play for as many different kinds of people and age ranges as possible.”

Among his regular gigs these days are the Lake Merritt Hotel Terrace Room with the MBB (Dec. 22); Tuesdays with clarinetist John Stafford at Caffe Trieste on Piedmont Avenue; and every other Thursday afternoon at Berkeley’s Cheeseboard Collective. He’s also the music director at Oakland’s Plymouth United Church of Christ Jazz & Justice, where he plays a Christmas Eve candlelight service with a talent-laden cast including Victoria Theodore (just back from the Formation World Tour with Beyoncé), Lady Bianca, Terrie Odabi, saxophonist/vibraphonist Roger Glenn, and Chelle Jacques directing the Plymouth Choir.

The MBB isn’t so much a set ensemble as a deep pool of talent, and Sturdevant assembles a different lineup for just about every gig, depending on the availability of players. With a sixth sense for tempos and grooves that lay just right, he possesses an easygoing charisma and unflappable temperament that puts musicians at ease. “You walk into a situation where there’s never the same combination of musicians, but there’s never any stress,” said Oakland blues and jazz vocalist Terrie Odabi. “We just know it’s going to work out. At his shows, people dance, and everyone’s smiling.”

The rotating personnel means that musicians have a chance to meet and play with new colleagues. Odabi cites the MMB as an essential vehicle for forging vital new relationships that lead to other gigs. “John always picks amazing musicians,” she said. “My first time working with saxophonist Nancy Wright was in the Medicine Ball Band, and since then, I’ve done a lot of stuff with her, and we’ve recorded on each other’s CDs.” 

Always on the lookout for young talent to nurture, Sturdevant mentors at Oakland’s MetWest High School. Lately he’s been hiring the 14-year-old Oakland drummer Genius Wiley for gigs. “Most of the people I played with, we’re all ancient,” Sturdevant said with a laugh. “There are so many amazing young people in the Bay Area. I’m always try to get them involved.”

That’s a musical prescription that never goes out of style.


Published online on Dec. 15, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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