Jazz beyond jazz in Philly, for instance

A day in Philadelphia demonstrated hard-core support for music stretching genres thrives, and a young audience seems ripe for such attractions.

Having been invited to the City of BroLo to present Miles Ornette Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz and illustrative video clips by Ars Nova Workshop, the sort of heroic small organization that supports the arts with vision and energy, more or less independent of other institutions’ sanctions or support, I enjoyed a quick visit, though I heard no music there.
I was interviewed by J. Michael Harrison for his Friday evening radio show “The Bridge” on WRTI, and was impressed by the bustling Temple University student body. Then I made my way to University of Pennsylvania’s leafy campus and found another massive population of seemingly sophisticated young urbanites, the kind of people who might readily respond to music that defies conventions in favor of imaginative energies and cool/hot sounds for right now.
Philly has traditionally boasted a significant jazz community — think Coltrane, the Heath Brothers, Philly Joe Jones, Gary Bartz, Grover Washington Jr., Reggie Workman, Walt Dickerson, Sun Ra’s Arkestra! and Pat Martino, and know that harmolodic bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma (scheduled for my event but unable to make it), saxophonists Bobby Zankel and Tim Price, pianist Orrin Evans and singer Ruth Naomi Floyd are still around (among many more). That it’s only 90 minutes by Amtrak from 30th Street Station to Penn Station — less than the time it took me to get from Penn Station to my home in Brooklyn! — makes Philly a natural launching pad for players eager to get to New York City, if that’s where they want to be.
But Philly would also seem to have what it takes to sustain a local scene — history, mixed demographics, a future — and organizations such as Ars Nova (which presented Trio M — Myra Melford, Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson — the night after it had me), the Mt. Airy Cultural Center, and the website PhillyJazz.org to play significant roles. There are only two jazz-devoted venues currently, I’m told (Chris’ Jazz Cafe and Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus), plus a smooth jazz station (WJJZ) that competes with WRTI. Which is more than many cities can claim. So yes, of course, if invited I’ll come again, hoping to explore even more.
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  1. Gig Brown says

    Philly is still fertile ground even as venues become more scarce. John Swana is one of the most underrated trumpeters on a scene that boasts cats like Larry McKenna, Don Glanden and Odean Pope. I think Gary Bartz is from Baltimore, though. Gary’s father worked on the railroad with the uncle of Cannonball and Nat Adderley.
    HM: Thanks for this note — gotta catch up with Swana and these others I don’t know of (Odean Pope I know!). RE the Baltimore connection: Seems like there’s long been a link between those cities and WIlmington, DE and DC, too. Pinaist Marc Cary told me about Grover Washington finding his band members by looking outside PA. And it seems true that the dearth of venues is not squelching the rise of new musicians. A good thing.

  2. says

    Having grown up in philadelphia, lived a lot of places, then settled in southern California, I can honestly say that ortlieb’s is secretly the realest jazz venue in the world to the point of being quietly legendary – to those who know. If you care about jazz, or just good music, you must stop in. For a moment you can feel the excitement, exploration and grittiness of jazz’s glory days. When I’m on town I try always to stop in.
    HM: Sorry I didn’t get there — after my reading Mark Christman of Ars Nova Workshop, my compatriot/colleague Francis Davis and Shaun Brodie (also an arts journalist) had a quick supper near Penn campus, where we discussed such weighty matters as whether collections of past-published articles are commercially viable in today’s book market. Next time in Philly: Ortlieb’s.

  3. says

    Really enjoyed your blog on Jazz in Philly. We do a lot of Jazz and Classical live recordings for airing on WRTI, and am glad they’re so dedicated to the genre.
    If you haven’t seen it listed already, the Kimmel Center ( http://www.kimmelcenter.org ) does some nice things in an ongoing series of programs called: “Mellon Jazz”. They do bigger shows in the larger hall (Verizon) with big names, but they also do a smaller series with host/curator Danilo Perez in the Perelman theater, (Mellon Jazz Up-Close) which we record and air five times a season on WRTI. This is our fifth year doing it, and this year’s working title/concept is “Jazz Goes Global.” The next one coming up is music from Africa, on Saturday, March 1st.