by Geno Thackara
It’s been a long time since Frank Zappa asserted that jazz wasn’t dead, a thought which is thankfully still as true as it was then. Music is all about accepting and bringing all kinds of people together, and if there’s one milieu that arguably embodies the idea more than most, jazz is it. No doubt this is why it’s only grown during (and often because of) hard and uncertain times, from the last depression era through… whatever you want to call our bizarre state of affairs today. This sharing and community is just what we all need in a decade as strange as ever – and in a city with such deep ties to that most essentially American art form, our collective mug is always running over.
Of course the scene is vibrant all year long, but we’ve had a special excuse to celebrate ever since the National Museum of American History dedicated April as Jazz Appreciation Month, leading to all kinds of well-funded educational programs, performance series and public outreach activities to keep the tradition strong. More recently, UNESCO named April 30th as International Jazz Day (or #jazzday if you like to do the hashtag thing). In the six years since it was Kickstarted by local-boy-done-good Ernest Stuart, the Center City Jazz Fest has been a smashing and often sold-out success to mark the occasion each time around. The 2017 edition again offers one-ticket access to twenty acts spread among five downtown venues on Saturday the 29th.
If the genre makes you think of easy-swinging or hard-hitting horn sounds, the chance to catch well-honored figures (and hometown icons) Larry McKenna and Odean Pope might be worthwhile by itself. The younger R&B crowd may dig the soulful grooves of George “Spanky” McCurdy, pianist Eric Wortham II or crooner Shakera Jones instead – or they may have already unknowingly heard Matt Cappy’s trumpet (behind Lauryn Hill/Alicia Keys/the Roots) or Adison Evans’s sax (with Demi Lovato/Beyoncé) and enjoy hearing a little more. If you don’t want anything too easy to pigeonhole, there’s the eclectic post-bop of Josh Lawrence, the Brazilian six-piece Ensemble Novo or the unashamedly weird Puzzle Box to broaden those musical horizons a bit more.
The inevitable drawback is that it’s a lot to take in over one day. That’s why we’re also fortunate that the newly-formed Philadelphia Jazz Experience is instituting its first annual Philadelphia Jazz Festival to run over the preceding week from April 23rd onward. The PJE was created by Robert and Ben Bynum as “a new non-profit organization whose mission is to support local, national, and internationally recognized artists.” The first year’s run will benefit outfits like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the North Broad Street Renaissance or Jazz Bridge (a non-profit that supports struggling musicians) as part of its charity element, in addition to including a range of community events, panels and meet-and-greets.
And that’s not even getting to the music. The schedule makes another smorgasbord of great performances with even more well-known local names – Randy Brecker, Joey DeFrancesco, Orrin Evans, Gerald Veasley or Lil John Roberts and many more – along with several open jams and tribute sets, ranging from Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald (who would have turned 100 this month). The festival’s shows throughout the week are individual events not covered by a single general pass, but each one means a great chance to get out of the house, meet some fellow members of the tribe and just try something fun and new for a night or two. It takes a special effort to outdo the wealth of music that’s always on offer every week here in Philly, but this festival promises to be Somethin’ Else.
What: Philadelphia Jazz Festival and Center City Jazz Fest
When: April 23-30
Where: Center City covers Franky Bradley’s (1320 Chancellor St), Chris’ Jazz Cafe (1421 Sansom St), Fergie’s Pub (1214 Sansom St), Milkboy (1100 Chestnut St) and Time (1315 Sansom St). The week’s other shows are, well, all over the place.
How much: Jazz Fest varies by show; Center City Fest is $20 in advance, $25 the day of.