A happy birthday to Omar

Big Mike Balma has Memphis BBQ sauce running through his veins; he’s got that long linguine noodle strand wound up tight in his head and his heart is as big as a Sacramento sunset. Balma and his devoted band of Sacramento Heritage Festival volunteers pulled off another sweet li’l event a week ago Tuesday at the Blue Lamp when they surprised this town’s exemplary jazz/blues piano wizard Omar Sharriff with a birthday bash, replete with down-home cooking and a jam session.

“Omar doesn’t know this is for him,” Balma whispered in the little optic-fibered Cosmos Room in the back of the club. “He thinks we’re all here to get behind this singer from Seattle.” Not that the blond, sexy Etheridge-ish singer Storm Large (from Storm and Her Dirty Mouth), wasn’t benefiting from the first-time exposure. She was gigging her way south, en route to the annual SXSW music gabfest in Austin, and Balma afforded her a showcase set and “traveling money.” She did just fine, and was later seen heading back into the secret side parking lot where Heritage Fest volunteers were grilling succulent hot links, stirring up a mess of that deee-licious Balma spicy-sweet BBQ sauce and dishing out perfect pasta al dente topped with fragrant rosy-red marinara sauce.

Sharriff was in fine spirits when he hit the stage, joined by legendary San Francisco guitarist Fillmore Slim, now a resident of this fine city. Balma gave Sharriff a very personal, folksy welcome in his surprise birthday salute, reflecting on their many years working together, both in the studio and onstage. “So let’s everybody wish Omar ‘old mutherfucker’ Sharriff a big happy birthday!!” Balma sang out. Sharriff, normally a quiet-spoken and serious man, offered touching and sincere thanks, then ripped off some exuberant Chicago shuffles, a Brother Ray medley and a lush Coltrane ballad. “Listen here now, blues and jazz,” he advised, “it’s all from the same family.”

Fillmore Slim, in a robin’s egg blue sharkskin suit, navy silk shirt and a dapper white lid set rakishly on his head, came off the stage, shaking hands through the crowd. Balma introduced him to me: “This is a real movie star—he was the American Pimp.” True enough, Slim is one of the men about town, old-school style, in the 1999 documentary American Pimp.

The 2002 Heritage Festival is June 1-2. Balma has booked a terrific blues lineup, including both Sharriff and Slim, Little Charlie & the Nightcats, Larry Garner, Gayiel Von, Phil Guy, Chris Cain, Joe “ Guitar” Hughes, Michael Burks and Coco Montoya.

Now for dessert. Did I mention the heavenly, melt-in-yo’-mouth sweet potato pie, topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and delicately toasted candied pecans on top?