Through Time

Jazz is a uniquely American art form, as fearlessly innovative as the nation itself, and Philadelphia has been fertile soil for jazz for over 100 years. Discover our past and present on our jazz timeline.

Early Jazz

Foundations to the 1930s

The style was known as “ragtime” or “playing hot” and really took off in New Orleans at the turn of the century.

Introduction: Early Jazz in Philadelphia

Early Jazz in Philadelphia

While historians generally cite New Orleans, Chicago, and New York as key cities in the emergence of jazz in the early twentieth century, Philadelphia was an important center in the early years of jazz as well. Philadelphia was the nation’s third largest city in 1900, behind New York and Chicago, with a large and rapidly growing African American population. The city had a long and especially rich history of Black popular music dating to the early nineteenth century, a period when it was also the nation’s cultural capital and a vibrant center of music in the European tradition. The merging of African and European musical practices and styles in America that gave birth to jazz in the early 1900s had been unfolding for hundreds of years in Philadelphia, making the city a particularly fertile musical environment as jazz was taking shape. 

Almost a century before jazz emerged, Philadelphia bandleader and composer Francis Johnson (1792-1844) was reinventing popular songs and dance tunes of the 1820s and 1830s with new rhythmic and melodic elements, a practice that would later become a hallmark of jazz. Nationally renowned in his day, Johnson was the first African American to have his music published and the first American, Black or white, to lead a musical ensemble on a tour of Europe (in 1837). Johnson was an important early figure in the long tradition of African Americans playing a prominent role in musical arts and entertainment in Philadelphia.

Jazz began to emerge as a distinct musical style around the turn of the twentieth century, a blending of two vernacular African American musical styles—ragtime and blues—with elements of popular music. New Orleans, the “cradle of jazz,” was the most important city in this process, but as jazz was gaining popularity in the late 1910s, many of its early practitioners began leaving New Orleans for the cities of the North. Chicago and New York were primary destinations, but Philadelphia also welcomed some of these early jazzmen. New Orleans trumpeter Freddie Keppard (1889–1933), a key figure in early jazz, had an extended engagement in Philadelphia in 1917 at the Standard Theatre on South Street, the city’s premier Black entertainment venue. Keppard’s former New Orleans bandmate, clarinetist George Baquet (1881–1949), moved to Philadelphia in 1923 and remained active in the city’s jazz scene for the rest of his life.

1917 was the year that the word “jazz”—or its variant, “jass”—began appearing in Philadelphia newspapers for the first time. The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s African American newspaper, noted appearances by “Charley Taylor’s Jass Band” and “Rickett’s World Renown Jazz Band,” in May and June 1917, respectively, at the Dream Waltz Academy on North 13th Street in North Philadelphia. In September 1917, The Philadelphia Inquirer advertised an engagement by the “Original Georgia Jazz Band” at the Arcadia Café on Chestnut street in Center City. Charlie Taylor and Bob Ricketts were Philadelphia-based musicians; presumably, the Original Georgia Jazz Band was a visiting group from out of town. Ricketts was only in Philadelphia for two years, 1917-1918, but was very active during that time, serving as bandleader at the Standard Theatre and other local venues. Charlie Taylor had a long career as a Philadelphia violinist and bandleader.

Other notable Philadelphia musicians in the early years of jazz include vocalist Ethel Waters (1896-1977), born in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania, who was singing in Philadelphia clubs in the 1910s before going on the road and becoming one the most successful early jazz singers; trumpeter and bandleader Charlie Gaines (1900-1986), who was born in Philadelphia and started playing with local bands in the 1910s before moving to New York City, then returning in the 1930s and forging a long career in the city; and pianist/bandleader/composer Charles Luckyth “Luckey” Roberts (1887-1968), born and raised in a Philadelphia Quaker family,  who in his youth was a minstrel performer and ragtime pianist in the city before moving to New York and becoming a pioneer of the “Harlem Stride” style of jazz piano. A more obscure Philadelphia ragtime pianist of the time was Harvey Brooks. Duke Ellington, in his autobiography, remembers stopping in Philadelphia in 1913 to hear Brooks, who inspired him musically. “He was swinging and he had a tremendous left hand,” Duke recalled. Singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937), the “Empress of the Blues,” moved to Philadelphia in 1923 at the beginning of her very successful recording career. One of the great blues singers of all time, Smith toured constantly but maintained a home in South Philadelphia and performed in the city often.

All of the foregoing musicians were African American. Jazz was created primarily by Black musicians in its early years, but white musicians adopted the style early on and made important contributions to its development. Two South Philadelphia childhood friends from Italian immigrant families—guitarist Eddie Lang (1902 – 1933; real name Salvatore Massaro) and violinist Joe (Giuseppe) Venuti (1903 – 1978)—played with some of the nation’s top white jazz bands in the 1920s and 1930s and made a series of duo recordings in 1926 that were very influential. Another South Philadelphia musician, Howard Lanin (1897 – 1991), the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, began his career in the 1910s and became a very successful bandleader, specializing in dance music and “sweet jazz” for Philadelphia high society. 

Jazz was featured in clubs, theaters, and dance halls throughout the city in the 1920s and 1930s, but the main venue was the Earle Theatre, which opened in 1924 at 11th and Market Streets in Center City. An ornate showplace, The Earle drew the biggest names in jazz and popular entertainment. By the mid-1930s, jazz had “matured” from its early period of development and become American’s popular music, with radio, recordings, and live shows bringing the music to millions on a regular basis.

By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian. Parts of this article were first published by the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden

Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti

Brothers in Swing

Violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang were early jazz virtuosos and childhood friends who made an important mark on jazz in the 1920s and 1930s. Venuti (1903-1978, real name Giuseppe Venuti) and Lang (1902-1933, real name Salvatore Massaro) were born into South Philadelphia Italian immigrant families and grew up together. They pursued separate careers early on, but teamed up in the mid-1920s, forming one of the great duos in early jazz. 

While close friends, they were polar opposites: Venuti was brash, impulsive, a notorious practical joker; Lang was quiet, modest, and thoughtful. Musically, however, they were a great match. By the mid-1920s Venuti and Lang had both settled in New York City and were playing and recording with some of the top bandleaders in white jazz (interracial bands were rare in this period): Jean Goldkette, Red Nichols, Paul Whiteman, and others were among the acts they collaborated with. Beginning in 1926, they made a series of duo violin-guitar recordings that were highly acclaimed. Their first two recordings, “Stringin’ the Blues” and “Black and Blue Bottom,” reveal the two musicians’ great sense of swing, endless melodic and harmonic inventiveness, and amazing technical facility. 

Venuti and Lang also made great records with other musicians in various small and medium-size groups in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Their 1931 recordings as Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang and Their All-Star Orchestra featured such luminaries as clarinetist Benny Goodman (prior to his rise to fame) and trombonist Jack Teagarden.

In the early 1930s, singer Bing Crosby, then a big star, tapped Lang as his regular accompanist. This was the big time for Lang, providing him with a $1,000/week salary and major national exposure. Tragically, he did not live long to enjoy it. Lang died suddenly on March 26, 1933, from complications during a tonsillectomy. He was thirty years old. A month earlier, he and Venuti had made their final recordings together, billed as the “Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang’s Blue Five.” One of these recordings, “Raggin’ the Scale,” is a classic, revealing for one final time the virtuosity, inventiveness, and infectious swing that characterized their work.

Joe Venuti enjoyed a long, varied career thereafter, but is still best remembered for his groundbreaking work with his childhood South Philadelphia friend, Eddie Lang.


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Popular Bands and Orchestras in Philadelphia in the Early Twentieth Century

After the American Revolution, one of the most significant Free Black communities to emerge was in Philadelphia, PA. As early as l8l8, there was a noted all-Negro marching band led by Matt Black. Francis “Frank” Johnson (l792-l884), one of its members, rose to prominence around l8l5 as a band leader and composer. His band, primarily woodwinds, became renowned in upper-class circles during the l820’s and l830’s. 

Frank Johnson is accredited with being the first major bandmaster in the United States to tour Europe in 1837. He performed for all occasions including weddings, funerals, teas, banquets, concerts, fancy balls, parades, marches, and theatre events. His musical organizations and other Black musical organizations in the nineteenth century were the foundations for the establishment of jazz orchestras and bands in the early twentieth century.  

By the early twentieth century, historical events such as World War I and the Great Migration, in which large numbers of African Americans traveled north in search of work and places to settle away from the Jim Crow south.

The migration was part of the reason behind the increase in the number of Philadelphia’s bands and orchestras. During 1915, Mme. Keene’s Orchestra performed music at the Annual Picnic of the Citizens Republican Club. Charles Taylor Jazz Band was performing at Waltz Dream Hall in 1917. These forgotten bands and orchestras were part of Black social and cultural life in the city. 

By the 1920’s and 1930s’s, there were bands such as Gertie Monk and Chas. Many of the names of the bands give a flavor of who and what their influences and audience were, as well as the context of the time, which was still squarely in the middle of a culture beginning to wrestle with its history of slavery. Names such as Bobby Lee and His Cotton Pickers, or Bert Hall and His Jungle Band give a flavor of what was then still socially acceptable. 

Other bands playing in Philadelphia were clearly trying to signal their Southern bonafides to audiences. Among them were P.R. Terry and His Jazz Creoles, Doc Hyder and His Twelve Famous Southernaires, Jimmy Adams and His Southern Swingsters, Henry Lowe’s Carolinians, Jimmy Gorham and His Royal Kentuckians Orchestra, and midwest entry Clarence McCrary’s Orchestra with His Eleven Missourians. 

The fancy balls and parades were matched in style by any number of jazz ensembles that used the word “orchestra” in their names in order to align the music with classical traditions that may or may not have been pleased with their new neighbors. H. Cole’s Orchestra, Rickett’s 15-Piece Jazz Band, A.C. Cropper’s Orchestra, and L. Johnson’s Jazz Orchestra are some of the popular bands of the time. 

But Philadelphia was bursting at the seams with others: Taylor’s Jazz Orchestra, Johnny Bowden’s Orchestra, Josh Saddler and His Fourteen Swing Masters, Edwards’ Collegians Orchestra, Frankie T. Fairfax’s Orchestra, Harry Marsh’s Orchestra, Raymond Smith’s Orchestra, Bill Doggett and His Nixon-Grand Orchestra, Doc Hyder’s Fourteen-Piece Big Band, and not to be outdone, the magisterial connotations of Charlie Gaines and His Golden Dawn Orchestra.

Harry Monroe and His Duskey Aces and Morris Mosley and His Six Happy Crooners are also among the ensembles named for a band leader and the musicians that followed them. All of the above bands were popular musical organizations in Philadelphia at the time; a testament to the sheer volume of jazz and jazz players in the city at an early period of development of jazz music.  


Research By Diane D. Turner, PhD, Curator, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection

Bessie Smith

Empress of the Blues

Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” one of the most influential blues singers of all time, moved to Philadelphia in 1922 just as her very successful recording career was about to take off. Although she toured often, South Philadelphia would remain her home until her death in 1937. 

Smith was born in 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and grew up in extreme poverty. She sang and danced on street corners as a child and in 1912 joined a traveling African American troupe that included blues singer Ma Rainey, later dubbed “Mother of the Blues.” By 1913, Smith was based in Atlanta, Georgia, where she developed her own singing and dancing act and began to gain some notoriety. With her powerful, expressive voice and dynamic stage presence, she soon became a star attraction. She toured throughout the South and by the early 1920s was appearing in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

In 1922, at the age of twenty-eight, Smith moved to Philadelphia, one of the hundreds of thousands of southern Blacks pouring into the city in the early twentieth century as part of the “Great Migration.” She and her husband eventually settled in a row house on the 1300 block of Christian Street in South Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the bustling Black entertainment corridor along South Street. The area was home to numerous African American clubs and theaters, the latter including the Standard at 11th and South Streets, the Royal in the 1500 block of South Street, and the Dunbar at Broad and Lombard Streets. Smith played them all.

In early 1923 Smith began recording for Columbia Records in New York. Her first record, “Downhearted Blues,” sold very well and marked the beginning of a remarkable six-year run of hit records (for the African American market) and top billing at theaters and clubs up and down the East Coast, as well as the South and Midwest. She was the highest-paid African American entertainer of the 1920s, headlining her own lavish productions that included dozens of performers, and traveling in her own private railroad car. In 1929 she had the starring role in the short African American film, St. Louis Blues, produced by W. C. Handy and featuring Smith’s dramatic performance of the title song. 

The 1930s were much less successful for Smith, as the Great Depression severely impacted the entertainment industry and her style of blues began to fall out of favor. Nevertheless, she continued to perform, particularly in Philadelphia, where she remained popular. In 1936 and 1937 she had extended engagements at two African American nightclubs: Art’s Café at 22nd and Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia and the Wander Inn at 18th and Federal Streets in South Philadelphia. In September of 1937 she embarked on a southern tour, in the course of which she died from injuries sustained in an auto accident outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. (Reports that she was denied treatment in the nearest white hospital because of her race are untrue.) Bessies’ funeral at the O. V. Catto Elks Lodge in South Philadelphia drew tens of thousands of mourners, after which the funeral procession wound through her neighborhood, passing the entertainment venues where she had thrilled audiences since the early 1920s.


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Billy Krechmer’s

Bastion of Dixieland in Philadelphia

In  November 1938, two Philadelphia musicians—clarinetist Billy Krechmer and saxophonist Nat Segal—opened a jazz club in the 1600 block of Ranstead Street, just a few blocks west of City Hall. A small, crowded club, Billy Krechmer’s was a place where big name jazz stars would come to jam between sets or after their gigs at major venues in town. At first, the club featured mainly small-group swing, but over time it became the main home for Dixieland in Philadelphia.

Originally called the “Jam Session,” the club was known for most of its history as “Billy Krechmer’s.” Segal left soon after its opening to establish his own club, the Downbeat, leaving Krechmer as sole proprietor of his namesake venue. Born in 1910 in Millville, New Jersey, Wilhelm “Billy” Krechmer, was a classically trained clarinetist who studied at Philadelphia’s renowned Curtis Institute of Music, but chose jazz over a classical career. 

Prior to opening the club, Krechmer toured with popular small jazz bands of the early 1930s before settling in Philadelphia and getting work gigging around town. He was in the house band at the Earle Theatre at 11th and Market Streets when a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome forced him to stop playing in 1938 and open the Jam Session with Segal. Krechmer’s ailment eventually improved enough that he could resume playing, and from the late 1930s until he closed the club in 1966 he served as both proprietor and leader of the house band, one of the city’s premier Dixieland ensembles.

Dixieland was one of the first distinctive jazz styles to emerge around the turn of the twentieth century. It was popular through the 1920s, but fell out of favor in the 1930s with the advent of big band swing. Then, beginning in the late 1940s, as jazz was moving in directions that were less appealing to mainstream audiences, there was a Dixieland revival and the style became popular with those who preferred more traditional jazz, also known as “trad jazz.” 

While bebop, hard bop, and cool jazz represented the vanguard of the music in the 1950s and early 1960s, Dixieland had a loyal audience and Billy Krechmer’s was often filled to capacity, attracting well-known players and fans of the style. By the mid-1960s, however, a combination of changes in the music business and recurring problems with his hands led Krechmer to close the club in 1966.

At the time, the club was hailed as the nation’s longest continuously running jazz club.

In 1985 the entire city block surrounding Ranstead Street was demolished to make way for a skyscraper, leaving no physical trace of Billy Krechmer’s twenty-seven-year Philadelphia jazz legacy, but his contribution remains an important part of the rich tradition of Philadelphia jazz.


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Philadelphia’s Early Black Theaters

Black theaters played a key role in the early development of jazz in Philadelphia, hosting some of the music’s biggest national artists while providing work opportunities for local musicians. The earliest African American theaters were in the area around Broad and South Streets in South Philadelphia, the center of Black entertainment in the city in the early twentieth century. Later, Black theaters sprang up in North and West Philadelphia, as sizable Black communities formed in those sections of the city.

The first major Black entertainment venue in Philadelphia was the Standard Theatre on South Street near 11th Street. Originally a white-owned vaudeville house, in 1914 the Standard was purchased by African American entrepreneur John T. Gibson, who made it Philadelphia’s premier showcase for Black entertainment. Bob Ricketts, one of Philadelphia’s earliest jazzmen, occasionally served as bandleader at the Standard in 1917 and 1918. In the 1920s, major jazz and blues stars such as Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith performed there.

In 1919, two African American bankers built the Dunbar Theatre at Broad and Lombard Streets. In 1921 the Dunbar hosted an initial run of the groundbreaking African American musical “Shuffle Along” before it debuted on Broadway. (The great ragtime pianist Eubie Blake wrote the music and played piano for the production.) Later that year, John Gibson purchased the Dunbar and renamed it Gibson’s Theatre. Despite initial success with his two theaters, Gibson went bankrupt in the Great Depression and sold the Gibson to white owners, who renamed it the Lincoln Theatre. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were among the jazz stars who appeared at the Lincoln in the 1930s and early 1940s.

The third important Black theater in South Philadelphia was the Royal, which opened in 1920 on South Street, west of 15th Street. Billed as “American’s Finest Colored Photo Playhouse,” the Royal offered both movies and live entertainment, the latter including such high-profile artists as Fats Waller and Bessie Smith. In the 1930s and 1940s, a local business sponsored a talent show called the Colored Kiddies Radio Hour, which started at the Lincoln theater and later moved to the Royal. The show was broadcast on local radio, giving exposure to such young Philadelphia-area musicians as Joe Wilder, Percy Heath, Jimmy Smith, Sam Reed, Tootie Heath, and Ted Curson.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, North and West Philadelphia had developed large African American populations, giving rise to the Pearl Theatre, which opened in 1927 on Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia, and Fay’s Theatre at 40th and Market in West Philadelphia. In the 1930s the Pearl hosted Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and an early incarnation of the Count Basie Orchestra, as well as the debut of fifteen-year-old Pearl Bailey. Fay’s began as a white-oriented theater in 1914, but switched to catering to Black audiences in the 1930s, hosting Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie.
Of these early Black theaters, only the façade of the Royal survives; all the others were demolished over the years, leaving little trace of this important aspect of Philadelphia jazz history.

By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Big Band

1930s and '40s

Big Band music and swing became popular in the 30s and dominated throughout the 1940s.

Introduction: Big Bands of Philadelphia

Big Band Swing

Philadelphia was a hotbed of big band jazz during the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s, with nationally known bands performing regularly at the city’s high-profile venues while local ensembles held forth at area dance halls, clubs, and theaters. 

The big band swing style began to emerge in the late 1920s as dance bands expanded in size to twelve or more pieces, and their instrumentation became standardized into separate reed, brass, and rhythm sections. It was a dance-based style, geared to entertaining the “jitterbugs” who flocked to dance halls throughout the nation in this period. The heyday of the big bands was the mid-1930s to mid-1940s, a period when swing jazz was American’s popular music and millions listened and danced to their favorite bands via radio, records, and live shows. Many bandleaders became major stars in this era, as did their featured soloists, while behind the scenes, arrangers assumed an important role in creating unique, identifiable sounds for different big bands. 

Like most cities, Philadelphia’s music world was largely segregated in the Swing Era, with separate Black and white big bands playing mostly (although not always) to their own audiences. Among the city’s popular African American big bands of the 1930s and 1940s were those of Frankie Fairfax, Charlie Gaines, George “Doc” Hyder, and Jimmy Shorter. Several of these bandleaders helped to establish Philadelphia’s Black musicians’ union, Local #274 of the American Federation of Musicians, in 1935. Their ensembles also served as training grounds for young jazz musicians of the time: Eighteen-year-old John Birks Gillespie began his professional career in 1935 in Frankie Fairfax’s band (where he got the nickname “Dizzy”), while Charlie Gaines had future rhythm and blues star Louis Jordan in his band in the mid-1930s. 

Popular white Philadelphia big bands of the Swing Era include those of Howard Lanin, the “King of Society Music,” who specialized in dance music and “sweet jazz” for Philadelphia high society, and Charlie Kerr, whose band performed regularly at downtown dance halls and supper clubs, from where his shows were often broadcast on local radio. The most successful white Philadelphia bandleader of the period was Jan Savitt (real name Jacob Savetnick), a Russian immigrant violin virtuoso who gave up a promising career in classical music to lead a nationally popular big band, Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters. Savitt was one of the first major white bandleaders to hire an African American singer when he began featuring local singer George “Bon Bon” Tunnel in 1937. 

The biggest-name bands of the Swing Era, Black and white, played the Earle Theatre, an ornate showplace at 11th and Market Streets in Center City, but there were numerous venues throughout the city that featured big band jazz in this period, from high-end hotels and supper clubs that featured dance bands for white audiences, to popular Black theaters that featured nationally-known African American big bands, to the many neighborhood private clubs and dance halls that employed local ensembles.

Economic factors and changes in public musical tastes led to the decline of the big bands in the late 1940s, bringing to a close a particularly vibrant era in Philadelphia jazz history. 


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

The Earle Theatre

Splendor from Morning to Night

The Earle Theatre at 11th and Market Streets in Center City was the showplace for big band jazz in Philadelphia during the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s, a period when jazz was America’s popular music and big bands reigned supreme. Opened in 1924, the 2,768-seat venue was the city’s most ornate entertainment palace, with a huge stage, marble and gold leaf throughout, and murals and tapestries on the walls. The biggest names in jazz headlined the Earle Theatre in its heyday.

The Earle was originally built as a vaudeville house, but that form of entertainment died out soon after the theater opened, just as big band swing was gaining widespread popularity. While the Earle also featured movies and other types of live entertainment, it became known primarily as a big band venue. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Glen Miller were among the many famous big bands that played to packed houses at the Earle. Some of the excitement of this period is captured on the album, “Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra Live 1939 at the Earle Theatre, Philadelphia,” which, while recorded in 1939, was issued many years later.

There were generally multiple shows a day at the Earle, from late morning to evening, each show featuring a number of different acts, with the big band usually the headliner at the end. Many Philadelphia jazzmen who came up during the Swing Era recall cutting school to hear their favorite bands at the Earle. Benny Golson notes in his autobiography that he took up the  saxophone after playing hooky one day in 1945 to see Lionel Hampton’s band at the Earle, where he was inspired by saxophonist Arnett Cobb’s take on the high-energy swing tune “Flying Home.” 

The Earle also had a pit band to accompany the other acts on the show. Some notable local musicians played in this ensemble, including clarinetist George Baquet, who settled in Philadelphia in 1923 after leaving his native New Orleans, where he had played in the seminal Original Creole Orchestra and later with Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, and clarinetist Billy Krechmer who, after leaving the Earle in 1938 when a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome forced him to stop playing, opened a jazz club that was a mainstay on the Philadelphia scene for thirty-eight years.

It was during an engagement at the Earle in 1942 as a sideman with Lucky Millinder’s big band that Dizzy Gillespie quit (or was fired) and took a gig as leader of a small group at the nearby Downbeat club, a key moment in Dizzy’s development as a pioneer of bebop. And five years later, Billie Holiday, while performing at the Earle on a bill with Louie Armstrong and his Orchestra in 1947, was arrested for drug possession after federal agents raided the Philadelphia hotel room where she was staying during the engagement.

By the early 1950s, big band swing had largely fallen out of favor, while the new medium of TV seriously cut into the popularity of live entertainment. The Earle Theatre, once Philadelphia’s premiere music venue, went into decline and was demolished in 1953.


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Frankie Fairfax

Artist, Composer, and Founder of the Philadelphia Black Musicians Union

Frank “Frankie” Thurmond Fairfax, Sr. (b.11/25/1899 – d. 1/25/1972) bass horn and trumpet, composer, arranger, bandleader, first came to Philadelphia playing with (native Philadelphian) Frances “Chappie” Willet’s Edwards’ Collegians, a West Virginia territory band Fairfax also managed. 

Born in Bessemer, Virginia, Fairfax attended public schools in West Virginia and graduated from West Virginia State College with a business degree while also studying with composer Clarence Cameron White. The Collegians migration to the city had a lasting impact on Philadelphia as Fairfax became instrumental in the formation of the Black musicians’ union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 274. 

Edwards’ Collegians broke up during the Great Depression in Philadelphia in the summer of 1933, but Fairfax stayed; he formed his own 12-piece orchestra in December 1934. The Philadelphia Tribune ran an article about Fairfax’s appearance at the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge Hall that month, saying “Frankie Fairfax’s aggregation is said to be creating a new sensation among the younger club set.” At the time, the favorite Philadelphia dance bands were Charlie Gaines, Jimmy Gorham, Bert Hall, and Violet McCoy playing venues like the Checker Café, Dixie Inn, Dreamland Café, Lincoln Inn, Roseland Café, and the Rittenhouse Club. 

Fairfax had taken a year to raise funds and secure a charter for AFM local 274, which had its first meeting on January 6, 1935 in a second-floor room over the Little Harlem Bar on South 16th Street. Frank Fairfax would be elected secretary and would hold that position for many years. Notable members of the Frankie Fairfax band included trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Shavers, and Carl (Bama) Warwick, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, drummer Shadow Wilson, and pianist Bill Doggett. Fairfax gave many star jazz musicians of the 40s and 50s their start—to be hired for the Fairfax orchestra was considered a mark of excellent musicianship.  

Sixty-eight-year-old Frankie Fairfax played his last gig in December 1971 at a Model Cities Christmas party at Girard College and died the next month of pneumonia and heart failure. Even though he wasn’t born in Philadelphia, his life here totally changed the face of jazz in the city and the world. 

By Suzanne Cloud, PH.D, Writer/Historian/Jazz Musician


1940s and '50s

Fast tempos, complex chord progressions, key changes, and improvisation characterized bebop.

Introduction: The Bebop Era

Bebop is Born

Bebop emerged in the mid-1940s as a virtuoso small-group-jazz style that was a major departure from the big band swing that had dominated jazz and popular music since the 1930s. Featuring angular melodies, chromatic harmonies, and complex rhythms, all usually played at very fast tempos, bebop was an exciting, technically challenging style that required considerable skill to play. 

For many jazz fans, bebop seemed to come out of nowhere in 1945, when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other innovators of the style burst onto the scene in New York City. In fact, bebop had been evolving since the early 1940s, but its development took place mostly under the radar due to a national recording ban enacted by the American Federation of Musicians from 1942 to 1944. The ban meant that bebop was not recorded in its formative years; only the musicians themselves and patrons of the small jazz clubs where the music was born actually heard it.

While New York was the main incubator for bebop, the Downbeat club in Philadelphia played a key early role as well. In late 1942, twenty-four-year-old trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, then relatively unknown, started a multi-week engagement as leader of the small-group house band at the Downbeat club, located on 11th Street just below Market Street in Center City, Philadelphia. With the freedom to hire the musicians and play the type of music he wanted, the gig allowed Dizzy to develop his emerging musical concepts, which eventually crystallized into bebop. Later in the 1940s, the Downbeat hosted all the major figures in bebop, from out-of-town artists like Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, to Philadelphia-based musicians such as Jimmy Oliver, Charlie Rice, Butch Ballard, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland, Jimmy Golden, Red Rodney, Stan Levey, and others.  

By 1945 Dizzy Gillespie was an emerging jazz star and the headliner at a June 5, 1945, concert at Philadelphia’s venerable Academy of Music. Playing with Dizzy was his fellow bebop pioneer, the great alto saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. This was the first time many Philadelphia musicians heard bebop. Among them were two teenage saxophonists, John Coltrane and Benny Golson, who were so blown away by the new music that they waited for “Bird” after the concert and walked with him to the Downbeat, where Parker was going for a jam session. Too young to get into the club, they listened from the sidewalk outside, transformed by the new bebop sounds.

Another Philadelphia saxophonist who attended Gillespie’s 1945 Academy of Music concert was Jimmy Heath, who would be a pivotal figure in the development of bebop in the city. Heath was friends with the major bebop pioneers—his nickname was “Little Bird,” a reference to both Heath’s short stature and his admiration for Charlie Parker—and served as a conduit for bringing their new bebop ideas from New York to Philadelphia. In the late 1940s, Heath formed a Philadelphia-based big band that played in the bebop style and served as a training ground for many of the city’s emerging beboppers, including Coltrane and Golson who were just entering the ranks of professional musicians at that time.

The Downbeat closed in 1948, but by this time a thriving jazz scene had developed along Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore) Avenue in North Philadelphia, a lively thoroughfare that was lined with jazz clubs from about 8th to 22nd Streets. Watts Zanzibar in the 1800 block of Columbia Avenue was a noted bebop club in this period, but there were many others. By the 1950s, there were bebop clubs all over the city. Among the more prominent were the Blue Note at 15th Street and Ridge Avenue on the northern edge of Center City, the Woodbine at 12th and Thompson Streets in North Philadelphia, and in West Philadelphia the 421 Club at 56th and Wyalusing Avenue and Club Harlem in 5500 block of Haverford Avenue. 

In addition to the local musicians outlined above, Philadelphia nurtured the careers of Buddy DeFranco, who grew up in South Philadelphia and was one of the few significant bebop clarinetists, and trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was born and raised in nearby Wilmington, Delaware, but who moved to Philadelphia in the mid-1950s to be in the middle of the city’s vibrant jazz scene.

By this time, new styles such as hardbop and cool jazz began to emerge, and bebop was no longer on the cutting edge of jazz. While its heyday was 1945 to about 1955, bebop has continued as a viable, popular jazz style ever since. 


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Dizzy Gillespie

“Dizzy” at the Downbeat: Bebop Comes Home

In 1942, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie brought his small bebop band to Nat Segal’s Downbeat Club at 23 South 11th Street, just below Market Street and behind the Earle Theater, in Philadelphia. The bar on the second floor was the only racially-integrated club in Center City. Musicians came to hang, and the Philadelphia police would regularly raid the place to push people around. But all anyone really wanted to do in this tiny venue around the corner from the Horn and Hardart was hear the music. Bebop tempo was fast and edgy. The rapid chord progressions played behind the soloists were complex, urging on extended harmonizations and melodic improvisations that spun every listener’s head around. Only the very best musicians could keep up with the frenetic pace.

Playing at the club was a homecoming of sorts to Philadelphia, the city that shaped him as a player and gave him the now-famous “Dizzy” moniker. Gillespie was a jazz trumpeter, composer, arranger, and bandleader who moved with his family to South Philadelphia from Cheraw, South Carolina in 1935. Within days of his arrival, the 18-year-old had a gig at the Green Gate Inn at 12th and Bainbridge, and soon he auditioned for the Frankie Fairfax Band and pianist Bill Doggett, who was the musical director – Doggett is the one who dubbed him “Dizzy.” 

In 1937, Lucky Millinder hired him for his big band and he moved to New York City. But like most musicians at the time, Gillespie bounced between the two cities to play whatever gig was offered, and while back in Philadelphia one night, Teddy Hill heard Gillespie play and hired him for a European tour. Eventually, Hill became the manager of Minton’s Playhouse, that famous spot at 206 W. 118th Street in Harlem where Gillespie played in 1939 with, most notably, pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke. From there, the musical threads of Bebop would come together from the many jam sessions in New York City and Philadelphia, growing with Dizzy and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker leading the way.


By Suzanne Cloud, PH.D, Writer/Historian/Jazz Musician

Photo credit: JPRoche, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Heath House

The Heath House: A Musical Haven and Creative Hotbed

In the mid- to late 1940s, a group of young Philadelphia jazz musicians began to come of age and embark on professional careers that would ultimately change the course of the music. John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and others came out of the city’s rich mid-twentieth century music scene and went on to make major contributions to the direction of jazz. For several years in the late 1940s, one of the key training grounds for these and other local jazzmen of their generation was the Heath family home, a modest two-story row house at 1927 Federal Street in South Philadelphia. 

Percy Heath Senior and his wife Arlethia were jazz lovers and amateur musicians who created a welcoming environment in their home for the musical activities of their children and their friends. Their three sons would come out of this environment to have stellar careers in jazz: bassist Percy Junior, saxophonist Jimmy, and drummer Albert “Tootie” (born, 1923, 1926, and 1935, respectively). Separately, the brothers played with virtually every major jazz artist of the mid-to-late-twentieth century; together, they formed the renowned Heath Brothers Quartet, which was active on and off from 1975 until Percy’s death in 2005. 

With such a dynamic musical family, the Heath house was a popular gathering place for local musicians in the late 1940s, as well as a home away from home for out-of-town jazz artists who were playing in Philadelphia. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and others would come to the Heath house when they were in town to enjoy Arlethia’s cooking and the musical camaraderie. While Percy and Jimmy were contemporaries and friends with these jazz stars, Tootie was then barely in his teens. He and his friends, including saxophonist Sam Reed and trumpeter Ted Curson, would hang around, wide-eyed and excited at meeting their jazz heroes. A few years later, the three would form the Bebop Trio and begin playing neighborhood gigs, becoming the next generation of Philly jazz artists to be influenced by the musical atmosphere at the Heath house. 

Jimmy Heath was one of the main figures in bringing the emerging musical concepts of bebop innovators Parker, Gillespie, Davis, and others—then mostly based in New York City—to Philadelphia in the mid-1940s. In 1946 Jimmy put together an adventurous Philadelphia-based big band that played modern bebop arrangements. The ensemble was a who’s who of Philly jazz at the time, including at various times saxophonists John Coltrane and Benny Golson; trumpeters Johnny Lynch, Johnny Coles, Bill Massey, and Cal Massey (Bill Massey’s cousin); pianist Ray Bryant; bassist Nelson Boyd; and drummer Specs Wright. They rehearsed at the Heath house, which was quite a challenge space-wise, as Golson describes in his autobiography:

We rehearsed at the Heath house. [Jimmy’s] parents were our champions. Their house wasn’t large, and in order to fit the band into the limited space, we had to move furniture around drastically … Enough cannot be said about Mr. and Mrs. Heath … who continuously put up with all of us who used to come to their home in South Philadelphia, remove all the furniture in the living and dining room, then begin our rehearsal … they were always our champions. 

By 1949, the scene was mostly over. Jimmy Heath dissolved the band to join Dizzy Gillespie’s group and he and Percy moved to New York. They still brought their musical colleagues home to visit from time to time, and Tootie and his friends were now making music in the house, but the activity was not as intense or star-studded as before. For a few years in the late 1940s, however, the modest Heath family row home in South Philadelphia was a hotbed for musical development and collaboration felt the world over .


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

The Downbeat

The Downbeat: Bebop Baptism

The Downbeat was an important jazz club in Philadelphia in the 1940s, an incubator for the development of bebop in the city. The Downbeat was run by music promoter Nat Segal, who opened it in the late 1930s in a second-floor space above a bar at 23 South 11th Street. Located just a few steps from the Earle Theatre, the city’s premiere music showplace at 11th and Market Streets, the Downbeat was a favorite spot for jazz stars and their sidemen to jam between shows at the Earle.

In late 1942, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, then relatively unknown, was playing the Earle as a sideman in Lucky Millinder’s band when he either quit or was fired. Having started his professional career in Philadelphia several years earlier, Dizzy knew the city’s jazz scene and quickly lined up a gig at the Downbeat. It was an extended engagement in which Dizzy had the freedom to hire the musicians he wanted and work out new musical ideas. 

These ideas eventually crystallized into bebop, with Dizzy widely recognized as one of its pioneers. By 1945, Dizzy was a star, and Nat Segal booked him to play the venerable Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Playing with Dizzy that evening was the other great bebop innovator, saxophonist Charlie Parker. Parker’s playing amazed the two young saxophonists in attendance, John Coltrane and Benny Golson, who waited for Parker after the show and walked with him to the Downbeat, where Parker was headed for a jam session. As Golson relates in his autobiography, he and Coltrane stood outside on the sidewalk listening for hours to the bebop sounds pouring from the second-floor window. “John and I underwent a slow baptism that night,” wrote Golson in his autobiography. Coltrane and Golson eventually played the Downbeat themselves, joining the ranks of the many great local and out-of-town musicians who made the club a key jazz venue.

The Downbeat was one of Philadelphia’s few downtown venues that catered to an interracial audience, a fact that did not sit well with the city’s conservative authorities. Police regularly raided the club on the pretext of underage drinking, but it was well known that the real reason was interracial fraternizing. Nat Segall eventually gave in to the harassment and closed the Downbeat in 1948, ending the run of one of Philadelphia’s legendary jazz clubs.


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Hard Bop

1950s and ’60s

A new current in jazz incorporates influences from rhythym and blues, gospel, and blues— especially in saxophone and piano playing.

Introduction: Hard Bop

Philadelphia played a key role in the development of many jazz styles, but its influence was especially profound on the evolution of hard bop. Hard bop emerged in the mid-1950s, a blending of gospel, rhythm, and blues elements with jazz. With its rich, longstanding gospel and R&B traditions of African American music, Philadelphia was a hotbed of the new style and nurtured the careers of many of hard bop’s most important musicians.

Hard bop was a simpler, more roots-based jazz style than the prevailing bebop style of the 1950s. Whereas bebop was highly technical, hard bop was more elemental, with more blues- and gospel-based melodies and harmonies and less complex rhythms. Philadelphia bebop musicians were quick to embrace hard bop—many of them actually helped to create the new sound—and moved freely between the two related styles. Local musicians such as Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Philly Joe Jones, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, and others became key hard bop practitioners.

Philadelphia had long been a key center of gospel music and by the mid-twentieth century was home to world-famous gospel groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, Clara Ward & the Ward Sisters, and others. Likewise, the city was a hotbed of Black R&B, with groups like Jimmy Preston & His Prestonaires and Chris Powell & His Five Blue Flames ripping it up at local clubs and dancehalls. Many Philadelphia hard boppers cut their teeth with these R&B groups early in their careers: Clifford Brown played with Chris Powell, while Benny Golson played with Jimmy Preston. John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones played with Bull Moose Jackson, an R&B bandleader who was not based in Philadelphia but played in the city often and used local musicians. Philadelphia’s rich melting pot of R&B, gospel, and jazz fostered an especially dynamic hard bop scene.

The premier hard bop group of the period was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, led by drummer and Pittsburgh native Blakey. The group’s 1957 album Hard bop featured two Philadelphians: pianist Sam Dockery and drummer Jimmy “Spanky” DeBrest. In 1958, Blakely hired Benny Golson, who soon became the Jazz Messengers’ musical director and proceeded to bring his hometown colleagues into the group: Trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons, and bassist Jymie Merritt joined the group. The album they recorded in late 1958, “Moanin,” was named for the Timmons’ tune that has since become a quintessential hard bop standard. Two other tunes Timmons wrote in this period have also become hard bop standards: “Dat Dere” and “This Here.” The latter was featured by the other major hard bop group of the late 1950s that Timmons played with, the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.

Around the same time he recorded the Moanin album with Art Blakely & the Jazz Messengers in late 1958, Golson, as leader, recorded the classic hard bop album, Benny Golson & the Philadelphians, featuring Lee Morgan, pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The album included the ballad, “I Remember Clifford,” which Golson wrote in honor of his friend and fellow hard bop pioneer Clifford Brown, who died in 1956 in a car crash. 

While its heyday was the late 1950s and 1960s, hard bop never really went out of style. It remains a popular form of jazz to this day, one which Philadelphia had a major role in creating.  


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

John Coltrane

John Coltrane changed the world

John Coltrane changed the world through music because he came to understand that music is what the world is made of. What we are made of. 

Though it was not his original goal, his pursuit of music allowed him to see the best in humankind, and to feel a connection to all that is in our vast universe. His saxophone was a musical telescope that showed us we’re all made of stardust.  

When young John moved to North Philadelphia from North Carolina at age 16, he stepped into a world of amazing musicians who became his friends, partners, and mentors. He met Hasaan Ibn Ali – one of our great geniuses of advanced music theory. He met Jimmy Heath, Odean Pope, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Stewart, and so many young Black musicians who were diving into music as a group, and who were advancing music together in amazing ways. 

New chord progressions. New harmonies. New ways to improvise and new colors and textures and ideas emanated from the rowhomes they threaded in and out of during their mutual explorations.

John Coltrane, sometimes just called Trane, loved the way music made him feel and he became one of jazz music’s most soulful players of ballads—when he played melodies on his saxophone, you could almost hear him singing the words. If you close your eyes, and listen carefully, you might have to wipe away a tear or two. 

Trane loved math. He loved the way that music is actually an expression of math. All of the notes, chords, and scales relate to each other in numbers. He loved that you could write a series of notes that was like a math equation, but then you could hear it come to life and become a melody or a fast-paced solo improvisation.

He found the math part of music theory beautiful and interesting, just like our neighborhoods and fascinating city streets; Coltrane learned and absorbed so much in Philadelphia—from his friend Hasaan, from his teacher Dennis Sandole, and from a child prodigy pianist who is now almost forgotten, Roland Wiggins. These brilliant people changed music and music theory forever. Right here in Philadelphia. 

And as wonderful as Trane was at playing slow melodies with big fat notes that were tinged with personal expression, he also played fast solos that would run past you like a freight-train or the Frankford El. He was on fire!  We were on fire! His mind and fingers worked at astonishing speeds.

In the 1960s John Coltrane’s musical journey led him to a place where he could see and feel and understand that all things are connected. That science says, How vast the universe! And that our great religions say, Let us celebrate our very existence! and that music says, These are all one! We are all one!

John’s music changed and became deeply spiritual. 

When you listen to his late music, you are bearing witness to one of the world’s greatest artists—greatest humans—having a conversation with God. 

John is still here. 

He is talking to us now. 

He is asking, what child in Philadelphia now yearns for the stars, and will change the world through music? 

Who wants to come out and play?


By Steve Rowland, Historian/Producer/Documentarian

Photo credit: Dave Brinkman (ANEFO), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Music City

Music City: Incubator of Philly Jazz

Music City, a music store on Chestnut Street near 11th Street in Center City Philadelphia, was a key training ground for young Philadelphia jazz musicians in the mid-1950s. The store sold instruments and offered lessons, but its importance to jazz history lies in the weekly jam sessions it hosted on Tuesday afternoons. Aspiring musicians who were too young to get into clubs would gather to enjoy intimate performances by top-name jazz artists and in some cases get a chance to sit in and play with their musical heroes. 

Jazz drummer Ellis Tollin, who co-owned Music City, ran the sessions, which were held in an auditorium above the store. Tollin knew the major jazz artists of the time and when they were playing in town he would invite them to the sessions. In those days, jazz clubs generally booked artists for week-long engagements, so the musicians were available on Tuesday afternoons before their evening shows. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Stan Getz, and other jazz stars would climb the three flights of stairs at Music City to play for 200 – 300 young Philadelphia jazz lovers. 

Many emerging Philly jazz musicians of the time cut their teeth at Music City. The audience often included such future stars as Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Tootie Heath, and Archie Shepp. They and other aspiring musicians in attendance would also be invited to jam with and receive advice or words of encouragement from their idols.

A particularly poignant Music City session—one that has been the subject of much debate in the annals of jazz history—was a performance by the great trumpeter Clifford Brown on June 26, 1956. 

Brown was living in Philadelphia at the time and was a frequent guest at Music City. On this occasion, Brown and pianist Richie Powell (brother of Bud Powell) played the session, then left by car for a gig in Chicago, with Powell’s wife Nancy driving. Several hours later they crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; all three were tragically killed. 

For many years, a recording of Clifford Brown at Music City was believed to be from the day Brown died. In 1973 Columbia Records released a Clifford Brown album, ”The Beginning and the End,” featuring selections from Brown’s first recording in 1952, and what was believed to be his final recording on June 26, 1956 at Music City. 

However, subsequent research revealed that while Clifford Brown did play at Music City on the day of his death, the recording in question was actually made during an appearance at the store a year earlier, on May 31, 1955. The recording is still commercially available, now entitled Clifford Brown: Live At Music City 1955 & More

Many Philadelphia jazz musicians who came of age in the city’s jazz heyday of the 1950s recall with fondness and appreciation their participation in the sessions at Music City, a key incubator of jazz talent in the city.


By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian

Lee Morgan

From North Philly to New York City

Lee Morgan (b. July 10, 1938 – d. February 19, 1972) grew up as the youngest of four siblings on West Madison Street in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia. His parents, Otto and Nettie Morgan, had migrated to the city from the south in the 1920s during the early part of the Great Migration, which brought over six million African Americans to northern environs as they left the South in a period of time between 1919 and 1970.

The entire Morgan family was musical, but Morgan’s older sister Ernestine was by far the biggest influence on her brother, who came to be known as a trumpeter, composer, and arranger. Writer Jeffery McMillian wrote in Current Musicology that according to his older brother Jimmy, “Ernestine was an accomplished piano player and also an organist . . . she had been playing since she was about eight years old.” Ernestine also sang and led the choir at the Second Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. Even more important, when Jimmy and Lee were in junior high school, Ernestine frequently took them to the Earle Theater to see the giants of jazz: Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra were among the acts the budding young jazz musician experienced. 

Ernestine gave him his first trumpet at age 14, and he developed rapidly during a time taking private lessons. He continued his studies at Mastbaum Vocational Technical High School in 1953. Fifteen-year-old Morgan auditioned for the Mastbaum music program (one of the best in the area from the 1930s through the 1960s) and was instantly accepted. Alumni from the music program included Buddy DeFranco, Johnny Coles, and Red Rodney, and Morgan’s classmates were Ted Curson, Henry Grimes, Sam Reed, and Kenny Rodgers. In addition to his early training and most formal schooling, Morgan availed himself of the opportunities provided by the city’s rehearsal bands of Tommy Monroe, Owen Marshall, Cal Massey, and Bill Carney. 

Three years later, Lee Morgan was in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra drawing a lot of attention from the New York audiences. In a remembrance of this prodigy, jazz writer Nels Nelson reflected in the Philadelphia Daily News on a night at Ellis Tollin’s Music City, 10th and Chestnut Streets, in Philadelphia when “A spindly unsmiling man of 17 stepped forward one night in 1955 to spar with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. The young man—Lee Morgan—cut Adderley to shreds.” 

The trumpeter began his recording career as a leader with Lee Morgan, Indeed! for Blue Note Records on November 14, 1956, followed by Introducing Lee Morgan on Savoy the next day. He continued to record, primarily with Blue Note, including The Cooker, and Blue Train for John Coltrane. After his stint with Dizzy, Morgan went with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, appearing on classics as Moanin’, Africaine, and A Night in Tunisia. After Blakey, Morgan led his own bands maintaining an impressive output of compositions and recordings. His Blue Note album and tune, The Sidewinder, became a runaway hit, easily making the pop charts. 

Tragically Morgan’s life and career were cut short in 1972 at age 33, when he was fatally shot by a girlfriend at Slug’s Saloon during a snowy night in New York City. 


By Suzanne Cloud, PH.D, Writer/Historian/Jazz Musician



McMillan, Jeffery S. “A Musical Education: Lee Morgan and the Philadelphia Jazz Scene of the 1950s” Current Musicology. (Spring 2001) 

Nelson, Nels. “Morgan’s Millstone: Too Far, Too Fast” Philadelphia Daily News. 3 March 1972. Pg. 55.

Photo credit: Herbert Behrens / Anefo – Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30678307

Nina Simone

No Apologies

Nina Simone evolved throughout her illustrious career from an aspiring classical pianist to a beloved singer to the voice of collective outrage. She was on the path to jazz singer stardom until the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The tragic event, which killed four little girls, inspired her song “Mississippi Goddam” and unleashed a new calling. Nina Simone and her music would never be the same.

Nina Simone’s time in Philadelphia was a pivotal period in her early development as an artist. Born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, she moved to Philadelphia in 1950 to study at the fabled Curtis Institute. Her time in the city was designed to be her launchpad to a classical career as a pianist. Simone was devastated when she was denied a scholarship to Curtis (for reasons that have been debated), but she soon discovered she could earn good money as a pianist playing bars in Atlantic City. Though well-received by the young patrons who marveled at her piano playing, her transformation into a singer was the result of an ultimatum from the club owner who requested vocals. To the young woman who had grown up in poverty in the deep South, the allure of making money as an entertainer outweighed her dream of the classical concert stage. Her reputation grew quickly as new fans clamored to hear this young phenom who fluidly mixed Bach with jazz and pop standards.

She recorded her first hit record, the Gershwin classic “I Loves You Porgy,” in 1957 while still living in Philadelphia. Her vocal delivery was haunting, more of an understated recitation than a Broadway showstopper. The legendary local disc jockey Sid Mark recognized Simone’s talent and was the first to play the song on-air. The response from the listeners forced the reluctant record label’s hand, spurring them to release it as a single. With the success of the album “Little Girl Blue” (topping the charts in 1959), Simone became an in-demand artist.

Simone was embraced at notable venues in Philadelphia, including The Showboat, and became the toast of the New York jazz scene, playing the Village Gate and The Copacabana. By 1963, the pianist who had dreamed of playing Carnegie Hall would attain her dream, but not as a classical pianist. She would conquer that fabled stage with her commanding voice and undeniable presence. The recording of that date, “Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall,” would become her landmark recording.

A stream of successful albums would follow, creating a songbook that was a mix of blues, broadway, and love ballads, yielding fan favorites such as “I Put A Spell On You,” “Feeling Good,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” However, it was her protest song, “Mississippi Goddam,” that would come to define her as the voice of a generation.

Civil rights icon Andrew Young described Simone’s impact on the movement. “More than any other artist, I think that her music depicted and reflected the time. It just seemed to be so very current, so very fluid, and expressed so completely the aspirations, the anxiety, the fear, the love, the rejection, the hurt, the horror, the anger of what we were feeling at the time.”

Being a chronicler of those times was difficult for Simone. Her increasingly socially-conscious song material, which included, “Four Women,” “Strange Fruit,” “Mississippi Goddam,” “I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free,” and “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” though revered today were controversial when they were released. Unlike her love songs, some of her confrontational music was banned from the radio airwaves because it made some promoters nervous.

Nonetheless, Simone was unbowed and rather energized by creating protest music. “Now I can change my direction from love songs and things that are not related to what’s happening, to something that is happening for my people,” Simone said. “I can use my music as an instrument, a voice to be heard all over the world for what my people need and what we really are about.”

Nina Simone, ever the uncompromising artist, lived her life and made music her way, without apology.

By Gerald Veasely, President of Jazz Philadelphia

Photo credit: Ron Kroon / Anefo Restored by Bammesk, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Organ Jazz

1950s and ’60s

An organ trio is a jazz ensemble consisting of three musicians; a Hammond organ player, a drummer, and either a jazz guitarist or a saxophone player.

Introduction: Organ Jazz

Organ Trios: An Alchemical Sound’s Philadelphia Home

Most sub-genres of jazz exist as an approach or a sound, a movement adaptable to a variety of settings. Though it can exist within broader styles, from soul jazz to the avant-garde, the organ trio is unique in having a definitive sound specific to the alchemical combination of organ (typically the Hammond B3), guitar, and drums.

“There’s something in that instrumentation that remains within it alone,” insisted guitarist Pat Martino, who has revisited the organ trio throughout his career and worked with many of the giants of the jazz organ during his formative years. “It’s like a specific flavor of ice cream or a specific color; it cannot be achieved in any other way.”

The invention of the Hammond electric organ in 1934 allowed the instrument to break free of the concert halls, theaters, and churches where the pipe organ had long taken up residence. Portable and far less expensive, the Hammond brought the organ sound to countless churches, which is where Wild Bill Davis heard it and determined to replace the piano as his primary instrument.

Davis is almost single-handedly responsible for introducing the Hammond organ to jazz and coupling it with the guitar. But it was in Philadelphia where the concept would find its spiritual home, its grit, and its soul. In large part that can be credited to Norristown native Jimmy Smith, still the most iconic figure in the jazz organ pantheon. He took up the B3 in 1954, as soon as the model went into production, and blazed the trail for a new style influenced by the innovations of bebop.

Soon it seemed like there was an organ in every corner bar across Philadelphia, and those neighborhood venues birthed countless innovators: Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Shirley Scott, and Trudy Pitts all hailed from the region. The vestiges of that scene still existed when Joey DeFrancesco started performing at the age of 10. The prodigy would go on to carry the torch for the Philly jazz organ tradition, redefining the instrument for the current generation.


By Shaun Brady, Writer (Philadelphia Inquirer & JazzTimes)

Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott: The Queen of the Organ

Phenom Shirley Scott (March 14, 1934 – March 10, 2002) was a Hammond B-3 organist, composer, arranger, and educator. Called “The Queen of the Organ,” this native of North Philadelphia claimed she didn’t remember when she started playing piano, but her mother taught her formal lessons starting at age 6. Shirley Scott’s house was filled with music, with her grandfather playing tuba, her older brother T.I. playing the tenor saxophone. Also in the mix was her father’s informal political club, hosted in their basement, which was attended by many Philadelphia jazz musicians of the day. 

After being mentored by her older brother T.I, Scott had the chops to be offered a college scholarship while at Girls High, but dropped out senior year to tour with drummer Coatsville Harris’ band. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, with Harris, spied her at Spider Kelly’s, an important Philly jazz club, and snatched her up to play in his band. Jazz writer Al Hunter wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News that Scott played a “bluesy-gospel funk,” which she would popularize as “soul jazz.” 

Tenor player Ed Wiley Jr. gave her one of her first organ gigs on a rented Wurlitzer in 1956, and over the years, she would record with many tenor saxophonists including Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins. In 1960, Scott married a tenor saxophonist, Stanley Turrentine, and they formed a musical partnership that defined the hard bop era of jazz, recording for Blue Note Records through 1968. Scott also recorded many albums on her own, mostly on the Prestige label. 

In the 1990s, Scott was living a busy life in the city rather than touring when she became musical director of Bill Cosby’s television show “You Bet Your Life.” She began teaching piano at Cheyney State University, and was appearing on the weekends at Ortlieb’s JazzHaus with her trio. The Mellon Jazz Festival was dedicated to her in 1993. 

Shirley Scott’s life was tragically cut short after discovery that the drug Fen-Phen, which she was taking for weight loss, had damaged her heart. She sued and won an 8-million-dollar judgement against the company, American Home Products, but died at age 67, leaving a grieving city. Drummer Mickey Roker said of her, “She was beautiful, man. If she was your friend, she was really your friend. If a fight breaks out and I want somebody to have my back, I want it to be her.”


By Suzanne Cloud, PH.D, Writer/Historian/Jazz Musician

Trudy Pitts

Trudy Pitts: The Shape and Soul of Music

Gertrude E. “Trudy” Pitts (b.8/10/1932 – d. 12/19/2010), Hammond B organist, pianist, composer, arranger, vocalist, and educator, was born in South Philadelphia. Her mother, a pianist, introduced her daughter to music at age four. Later, with lessons from Blanche Burton, Trudy Pitts made her debut on the organ at age 7 in church. Later, Pitts would study at Philadelphia Music Academy, Temple University, and Julliard. In 1967, the Boston Globe praised this up-and-coming jazz artist, newly signed by Prestige, as a “master of the Hammond organ, employing drawbar variations and vibrato shadings in almost every measure … [she] plays a superb bass pedal line and explores the full potential of that challenging instrument.” 

Drummer Bill Carney, also known as “Mr. C.,” hired Trudy Pitts (on a recommendation from AFM local 274) after organist Shirley Scott left his group, the Hi-Tones, in 1955. Reminiscing with jazz writer Nels Nelson, Carney said, “Trane was playing saxophone with me then, and Trane and myself carried the organ we had down to her house in South Philadelphia so we could hear how she played…Trane said, ‘There’s no doubt about her musicianship,’ adding, ‘She’s an extraordinary musician.’” 

Trudy Pitts’ career soared as she turned out album after album with Prestige. They included  “Introducing the Fabulous Trudy Pitts,” “These Blues of Mine,” “A Bucketful of Soul,” “El Hombre,” (with Philadelphia guitarist Pat Martino on his debut). She played with giants in jazz, and on albums with Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Atlantic and Warner Bros. Fellow Philadelphian Pat Martino said of Pitts, “She was completely fluent in the language of music in every way. She had the ability to take the shape of whatever she was poured into—she was so good under any circumstance.” In 1993, Trudy Pitts premiered her work “A Joyful Noise,” a suite of sacred music, at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. A commissioned work supported by grants from Lila Wallace, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, Pitts surrounded herself with a full orchestra and forty voices. Pitts told Jack Lloyd of The Philadelphia Inquirer, “…this has been one of the challenges of my career. I had to bring in so many components to make it whole…I meditated on it, prayed on it, and the music began to flow quite nicely.” 

Pitts’ spirit remains a large presence in Philadelphia—her legacy lives on.


By Suzanne Cloud, PH.D, Writer/Historian/Jazz Musician

Avant Garde

1960s and ’70s

Avant-garde jazz is a style of music and improvisation that combines avant-garde art music and composition with jazz.

Introduction: Avant Garde

New Horizons: The Dawn of the Philadelphia Avant-Garde

As jazz veered into myriad radical new directions in the late 1960s, innovations seemed to be coupled with a distinct sense of place—the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) rooted its ancient-to-future aesthetic in Chicago; the Black Artists Group merged disciplines in St. Louis, Missouri; Strata convened a short-lived DIY collective in Detroit. New York City’s loft jazz scene gave the New Thing a makeshift home apart from the city’s more established, conservative venues.

Some of the avant-garde’s most outside thinkers even claimed origins on other worlds. But while the cosmic bandleader/keyboardist/philosopher Sun Ra traced his roots to the planet Saturn and first assembled his raucous Arkestra in Chicago, he would call Philadelphia home for the last 25 years of his life, taking up residence in the Germantown rowhome from which saxophonist Marshall Allen continues to lead the band nearly three decades later.

Sun Ra combined his deconstructionist take on the big band with a far-reaching sci-fi aesthetic and a subversive concept of Civil Rights radicalism in a strange mélange that only much later would come to be defined as Afrofuturism. 

But his singular approach to tradition and experimentation exemplifies the way that the social movements of the day led to envelope-pushing upheavals in jazz. That was true of John Coltrane, whose most extreme evolutions were accompanied by spiritual and political awakenings, as it was of any of the collectives that carried his innovations forward.

Philadelphia never generated the kind of deep-seated movement that sprung up in those other metropolises. But it did spawn many of the music’s most audacious voices, including saxophonist Archie Shepp, drummer Sunny Murray, and drummer Rashied Ali. 

In 1971, Sounds of Liberation brought together an ensemble of the city’s young musicians, equally enamored by bleeding-edge jazz and politically conscious funk. Vibraphonist Khan Jamal assembled the group, many of whom would remain stalwarts of the city’s jazz scene for decades to come: guitarist Monnette Sudler, bassist Billy Mills, drummer Dwight James, and percussionists Omar Hill and Rashid Salim, joined by the restlessly exploratory saxophonist Byard Lancaster. 

Artists like these laid the foundation for an ongoing avant-garde movement in Philadelphia, one marked as much by grass roots organizing as by the ever-evolving music itself. 


By Shaun Brady, Writer (Philadelphia Inquirer & JazzTimes)

Photograph by Colin M. Lenton

Odean Pope

Odean Pope: No End to Discovery

Though South Carolina born, saxophonist and composer Odean Pope will always be Philadelphia’s own. He, like his eclectic sound, was raised and shaped through this city’s rich cultural diversity. That eclectic upbringing is what makes Pope’s art so gloriously difficult to wrestle down. 

Pope was schooled by members of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, learning African rhythm and modern harmony at the Paris Conservatory for Music under drummer Kenny Clarke. He played with Philly organist Jimmy McGriff, all before jamming with the two finest drummers on Planet Jazz: Max Roach and Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. 

Those grooves change a man; so much so that following his time with Roach, the roaring, rhythmic saxophonist finds himself in memories’ bliss as part of the quiet storming free-funk jazz ensemble, Catalyst, with fellow Philadelphians Eddie Green and Tyrone Brown. And witness his freshly assembled Saxophone Choir, which applies his orientation in rhythmic complexity to a heavenly chorale of nine saxophones and scintillating arrangements.  

All the while, Pope’s sound, haunted as it is by the spirit of Coltrane, applies all of these diverse elements into an intellectualized tone and an improvisational vision, something physical and emotionally resonant, something earthen and spacious, the sound of muscle memory and over-active brain waves.

He carries on into the 21St Century with wide-ranging commissions for large scale ensembles, as well as intimate duet opportunities—his Changes & Chances with pianist Dave Burrell is one to look out for. You can also find quartet-centered recordings with the likes of local playmate Bobby Zankel. And no sooner than he seems to be chilling and resting on his laurels, Odean Pope is off and running anew.

Pope lives by the letter and spirit of something he is famed for saying. “Every time I pick the horn up, there’s always something that I discover I can do differently if I really seek. If you were on planet Earth for, like, two billion years, I feel as though there’s always something new that you can find to do. There’s no end.” 

By A.D. Amorosi, Journalist 

Photo by G.J. Hild Photography

Sun Ra

Uncontained Multitudes from Saturn and Beyond

From Saturn where he was born, to Philadelphia’s Germantown section where he allowed his body to reside and preside over his multi-phonic, multi-sonic avant-garde Arkestra, Sun Ra has forever been a towering figure of Black Consciousness and Afrofuturism. Look at it this way: if James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, then Sun Ra is the Godfather of the Cosmic Mind and Spirit.

There are earthy roots upon which Herman Blount—Ra’s more locally commonplace title—was set, such as starting as a blues pianist, or playing with Wynonie Harris, Fletcher Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins in the 1940s. Having already been to Outer Space and back by that point, the blues as a color was not enough for Sun Ra, and by the 1950s, the bandleader, composer, arranger, poet, philosopher, and keyboardist hit upon his own, new rainbow—an intergalactic jazzy one. 

Along with fashioning labels such as his independent El Saturn Records and forming an Arkestra donning ancient-to-the-future costuming, Sun Ra (un) focused on a revolutionary glut of album projects and live events whose heft would not slow until his earthly passing in 1993. Even with death, not only has his music, image, and group-think carried on courtesy Ra’s second-in-command Marshall Allen, running things at the Germantown compound, the Sun Ra house. 

Everything from his avant-sci-fi cinematic epic Space Is the Place, to his wondrous writings, to what seems like countless previously unreleased albums, have found a worthy place in the currency of the forward-thinking Afrofuturist movement. Even more fascinating is how Ra’s zig-zagging sound and vision has come to inspire many a new musical style: he’s a forebear of the No Wave of Sonic Youth, the skronk cinematics of John Zorn, and the dirty filmic funk of George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic. Fellow ancient-to-the-future travelers in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and interplanetary rapper-producers such as Thundercat, Shabazz Palaces, and Flying Lotus are also his cosmic progeny. 

With all that, it turns out that even space as a place couldn’t contain the multitudes that is Sun Ra.

By A.D. Amorosi, Journalist

Photo credit: Pandelis karayorgis at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons


1980s and ’90s

Jazz fusion is a music genre that developed when musicians combined jazz harmony and improvisation with rock music, funk, and rhythm and blues

Introduction: Fusion and Contemporary Music

Smoky Sounds from the City of Brotherly Love

When you take into account the City of Brotherly Love’s roles in forging, then fueling, the Hammond organ jazz trio sound and its R&B leanings, it’s no surprise that we have forever been a loose-limbed leader in the Contemporary Jazz and Fusion Jazz scenes. 

Thank you to B3 men Wild Bill Davis and Jimmy Smith; all hail to Grover Washington Jr., and the formation of a smoky, soulful, smooth jazz sound; bring in Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell’s Sound of Philadelphia; look at the charge led by electric bassist Stanley Clarke in Philly’s contemporary-fusion stakes, who also co-founded the Latin-tinged Return to Forever with Miles Davis expatriate pianist Chick Corea In 1973. 

It’s also important to note the similarly timed contributions of Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records’ producer and arranger Dexter Wansel. Wansel—an electric keyboard-turned-ARP 2600-synthesizer-session whiz—not only played with the group of Sigma Sound Studio session men famously known as MFSB, but adorned his own epic, interplanetary solo albums. During the 1970s he released Life On Mars, What the World Is Coming To, Voyager, and Time Is Slipping Away with an electronically-induced sense of Saturn-esque space and soul.  

Also around the same prime time came the Venusian vibe of Catalyst, Philly’s underappreciated electro funk/jam/jazz quartet discovered by local producer Skip Drinkwater, and formed by forward-thinking Fender keyboardist Eddie Green, beloved reeds man Odean Pope, percussionist Sherman Ferguson and bassist Alphonso Johnson. 

If you had crossed Weather Report at its peak (Wayne) Shorter form with McFadden & Whitehead, Catalyst would’ve come out. And for every ensemble such as Pieces of a Dream who put their slippery, smooth soul sounds before their breezy jazz fusion funk sensibilities (see Curtis Harmon and James K. Lloyd’s co-penned “Mt. Airy Groove” as Dream’s defining moment), there was Reverie, multi-Midi-keyboardist Mark Knox, bassist Gerald Veasley, and percussionist Jim Miller’s melancholic, melodic electric jazz ensemble who placed vibrancy, high art conceptualism, and a mood one-step above its R&B heart every time they played live or on record.

While many of the above-mentioned musicians from Philadelphia’s fusion past are still a part of its present (see the local Dreambox Media label’s catalog for proof), the future of where electronic contemporary jazz is going is happily up for grabs.

By A.D. Amorosi, Journalist

Pat Martino

Pat Martino: Always Higher Ground

South Philadelphia guitarist Pat Martino has been through so many existences and so many psychological, physical, and spiritual planes—all fully developed, all with their own thought processes and distinct actions and six string stylings—it is as if he was the proverbial (jazz) cat with nine lives. Martino is based in solid hard bop with a blue(s) streak, but filled with enough emotional interplay, crisply unique tuning and Dada-ist frippery to make him the Marcel Duchamp of the guitar. 

Martino started his career as a Wes Montgomery acolyte (1967’s El Hombre is one stunning debut), and wound up as one of the instrument’s most smolderingly soulful romanticists and hot-wired avant-improvisationalists. 

Of course, he had to move through Philly’s organ trio jazz scene to get there (Trudy Pitts, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, “Groove” Holmes, and Jimmy McGriff take a bow), and forever wore his dedication to his hometown on his sleeve (Pat’s coolly dynamic East! features the writing and playing skills of bassist Tyrone Brown and pianist Eddie Green, as well as Benny Golson’s compositions). 

Yet, Martino had to go through purgatory to get to heaven, considering that after 1976’s Exit, Martino was famously felled by a brain aneurysm for over a decade that left him without the ability to play the guitar, or even process much of who he was—then relearn everything about his axe, his approach to thinking and executing, as well as all aspects of the intellectualized, the spiritualized, and the existential-ized. 

There are books and documentaries on all aspects of Martino’s recovery and Renaissance, all stellar; yet nothing speaks to his full recovery and its deconstructed aesthetics and reconfigured thinking, improv-ing and playing skills on albums such as The Return, All Sides Now and Formidable, as well as the live shows Martino played on a regular basis. 

Yes, again, he has been plagued with failing health in recent years—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and muscular issues in his left hand have rendered him unable to play. But Pat Martino is, even laid low, a man who is grounded while remaining on a higher plane of existence. 

By A.D. Amorosi, Journalist

Photo: © 2020 Mark Sheldon

Grover Washington Jr.

A Tale of Two Jazz Cats

There is one misnomer to be dealt with—and two radically different schools of thought to consider— before you peel through the many layers of the late great Philadelphia saxophonist and composer Grover Washington Jr. 

The misnomer is that the all-reeds cat wasn’t from Philly to start, an honor that went to the New York area. Washington did, however, make a hard landing in Philadelphia in psychedelic 1967. Here, he got deeply ensconced in our organ jazz scene through his session, stage, and sideman work with Johnny Hammond Smith and Charles Earland. 

Washington also released the rough, funky, Live at the Bijou at the now-defunct Philly nightclub of the same name. With that album, he became as forever-identified with this city as our thick cream cheese or twisted pretzels.  

The sound of Philadelphia soul drove Washington through his earliest leader albums such as the Creed Taylor-produced, Kud label All the King’s Men and Inner City Blues. Fender Rhodes-driven, funky epics both, these albums bled beautifully into his next recorded projects, the moody Motown-grooving, R&B-tinged Mister Magic and Feel so Good

By the time we get to the 1980s, comes his cushiony classic, Winelight, and its simmering, Bill Withers-vocalized hit “Just the Two of Us.” Here we find Washington on alto, soprano, and tenor sax, suddenly becoming an avatar of the smooth jazz movement. 

While this spacy, candle-scented brand of soul-jazz looked good on Washington, the mainstream smooth jazz tag was soul crushing; one that overlooked the saxophonist’s sensuality, craft, and command of atmosphere and tone. Besides, Washington’s raw silken funk brought him to this mellow groove in the first place. While he continued toying with smooth jazz for a time,Washington’s latter-day experiments in classical opera instrumentals with the posthumously released Aria allow a fuller rounder portrait of the saxophonist to emerge, one beyond the mainstream. Audiences would do well to consider all 360 degrees of Grover Washington Jr. It is a field of study worth learning.

by A.D. Amorosi, Journalist

Photo credit: Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael and Randy Brecker

Beloved Brothers 

Brothers are a funny thing. Each sibling states, unequivocally, that he wants to be treated as individuals with ideals and accomplishments apart from the other. Yet, whether it is Frasier and Niles Crane or Reggie and Ronald Cray, the brotherly lives and deeds of most are forever intertwined, and best appreciated as such. 

This is too true when it comes to beloved Cheltenham, PA-born siblings Michael Brecker (the saxophonist who sadly passed away in 2007) and Randy Brecker (the trumpeter and flugelhornist whose studio and live work is active and present). Each man has intricate, deep jazz chops and adventurous compositional skills, which carried the pair through their own diverse set of solo albums (Michael’s 1988 Don’t Try This at Home and Randy’s 1987 In the Idiom are two of their best). But in the field of contemporary post-bop, it is through soulful fusion, literal and figurative, that they are best regarded.

The Brecker Brothers, alone and together, on studio sessions and live gigs, made their bones in crossover jazz, fusion, and the horny mix of rock and R&B put forth by just some of their collaborators. Blood, Sweat & Tears, the CTI All Stars, Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren, Parliament’s Mothership Connection, Eric Clapton, Airto Moreira, George Duke, Steve Jordan, Don Alias, and Quincy Jones’ production of Frank Sinatra all benefited from the Brecker Brothers’ smoldering silvery sounds. When they weren’t busy with the blues for all-the-above, the Breckers were encouraged to start their own group on Arista. The result was a handful of gold albums filled with joy, fury, and funky jazz licks. 

There’s no telling how much more the B-Brothers could have achieved as a unit if Michael Brecker hadn’t been cut down early by leukemia. What we can say, and happily, is that Randy has blossomed forth as a poignant brass man and as a composer. Just in the two-year period starting in 2019 alone,  on albums such as Rocks and Brecker Plays Rovatti: Sacred Bond (both from 2019), along with Double Dealin’, People & Places, Dearborn Station, and the mesmerizingly complex Trumpet Summit Prague: The Mendoza Arrangements, all from 2020.

All hail the Brecker Brothers, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

by A.D. Amorosi, Journalist

Photo credit: Tore Sætre, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia CommonsTore Sætre, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons



Introduction: Today's Philly Jazz Scene

So Many To Claim, Too Many to Name

There are two main lenses through which to view the currency of the Philadelphia jazz scene. 

The first is the arc of its dedicated live venues (the hold of Chris’ Jazz Café, TIME, and now South); broader musical habitations and live landscapes (say, the Kimmel Center and the Annenberg multiplex); its educational, community playgrounds (such as the Philadelphia Clef Club and the University of the Arts); and its curatorial organizers and bookers (such as heavy hitter Ars Nova Workshop or the Painted Bride).

The second, and more important, lense is the prism of jazz artists who form Philly’s future-forward, imperfect union. 

The former is somewhat more nebulous and shaky in 2021 due to commerce and Covid. The latter is alive, kicking, focused, and gloriously unfocused. We’re blessed with a hearty handful of young, industrious, innovative traditionalists and independent-minded thinkers and practitioners dedicated to maintaining and stretching the boundaries of the jazz idiom. 

That means everything from still-young-but-longtime veterans of the Philly scene.Take organist Joey DeFrancesco, stretching into free jazz (with Pharoah Sanders on In the Key of the Universe) and rhythm & blues (with Van Morrison on several recent albums). Dig into new-fangled Coltrane acolyte, activist, and recent Blue Note label signee, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. You’ll find everyone from sauntering, Joni-Mitchell-in-waiting vocalist and pianist Melody Gardot to the inventively soul-stirring singers Lauren Talese and Lee Mo. Witness adventurous free-jazz guitarist Nick Millevoi and his varied band permutations (Many Arms) and publishing projects (The Streets of Philadelphia album and book of sheet music) and barely-out-of-high-school yet bold and promising saxophonist Olivia Hughart. 

You’ll get grounded old-school rhythm masters Mike Boone, Reggie Workman, and Christian McBride, as well as open-air new-school bassist Nicholas Krolak. The hardly describable (vibraphone advocate and Monk zealot Tony Miceli), the thoroughly indescribable (violinist Kendrah Butler-Waters) and the always anything-and-everything go-ers (saxophonist Bobby Zankel, bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma, pianist Uri Caine). They play in the same stately field as do torrid traditionalists such as the inventive Sumi Tonooka, Jimmy Bruno, and Wallace Roney. Ah, Philadelphia. 

So many to claim, there’s too many to name: You just have to be there to know its breadths and depths, old and sold, young and new. Philadelphia is where jazz lives. 

By A.D. Amorosi, Journalist

Monnette Sudler

Philadelphia’s First Lady of Jazz Guitar

The first lady of Philadelphia jazz guitar, Monnette Sudler, has forever been misunderstood and underappreciated. Witness her patented blend of blue, pastoral chord changes, groovy soulful licks, and her powerhouse ability to be anyone to everyone at every session that followed her time taking lessons at the Wharton Center at age 15. 

Yes, Sudler has played with the cream of the crop of jazz giants. From Sam Rivers to Kenny Barron; from Hamiet Bluiett, Hugh Maskela, and Arthur Blythe to Dave Holland and Dave Murray. It just so happened that her best sides and slides were made for fellow locals such as Sonny Fortune, Trudy Pitts, and Shirley Scott. 

While highlighted across the major label work of Philadelphia’s blue-cloud-pop-jazz-saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., Sudler, too, has forever been a part of the independent-minded, dark and shadowy saxophonist Odeon Pope’s sound. That Sudler sounded comfortable and challenging within each milieu is what makes her guitar tones and tales memorable and legendary. In the last decade, Sudler’s interplay with North Philadelphia friend and vibraphonist Khan Jamal in their avant-garde R&B-based Sounds of Liberation ensemble has come to the fore—especially as presumed-lost recordings of their home studio jam sessions and live college radio tapes have been released—and showed off this ensemble as a revolutionary sonic force.

Still, for all her session work and collaborative efforts, it is Sudler’s quiet litany of lovely, complicated jazz albums—from the back-to-back run of 1976 – 1978’s Time for a Change, Brighter Days for You and Live in Europe to 21st-century recordings such as Let the Rhythm Take You and Where Have All the Legends Gone? that show her mettle. All of this is to say nothing of her devotion to the jazz educational process, be it in private sessions or public, scholastic settings. 

Maybe then it isn’t as if Sudler has been underappreciated by the jazz public. More than likely, Ms. Monnette is more about making the music on the down low than talking it up on the high road at its loudest volume. That’s a lesson to be learned.

By A.D. Amorosi, Journalist

Orrin Evans

Always the Magic of Now

Beyond his longtime stature as Philadelphia’s most wildly inventive and prolific pianist-composer of the modern era, Orrin Evans is, greater still, one of jazz’s most independent thinkers—and do-ers—and he does it all while remaining devoted to his hometown.
Moving through multiple significant Philly music scenes of the mid-90s—from post-bop to neo-soul—Evans landed squarely on hard, lyrical bop by the time of his first albums (such as 1995’s The Trio), as well as crafting the first of his own homespun record labels (such as Black Entertainment), and booking his own live showcases. No sooner had he started to develop a reputation and focus for his smart, simmering, symmetrical tones (think Bud Powell meets Lennie Tristano), the restless Evans jumped into the fire of angular complexity and wide-ranging arrangements, with his octet (plus) the Captain Black Big Bang, as well as the avant-garde funk of Tarbaby.
Recording, composing, and playing live between the blurred lines of a solo bandleader, Tarbaby and his Captain Black outfit pushed Evans to create another of his own self-releasing labels—Imani Records in 2001. He was simultaneously working with other independent-minded record companies, such as Posi-Tone, on which the pianist dropped three albums in 2010 alone. Each was filled with radically diverse music, and equally fluctuating lineups.
One solid lineup that Evans chose to become a part of was the critically acclaimed math-jazz trio of The Bad Plus, with Evans replacing co-founding pianist Ethan Iverson for two tours and two albums (2018’s Never Stop II followed by 2019’s Activate Infinity).
By the time Evans reached 2020’s quarantine, he wasn’t about to let a pandemic slow his roll. Instead, Evans and his wife, Dawn, created an online series, Club Patio, where he and fellow Philadelphia jazz players shared his family’s porch for jam sessions geared toward his neighborhood, as well as the internet’s universality. By 2021, after leaving The Bad Plus, Evans was preparing for a string of live dates as a solo leader. And he’s done what he’s usually been busy with, namely self-releasing another record: Check out the dramatically mathematic and elegant The Magic of Now; an apt title considering who Orrin Evans is at all times.

by A.D. Amorosi, journalist | Photo courtesy of the artist

Jamaaladeen Tacuma

When Southwest Philly’s Jamaaladeen Tacuma called his first two solo albums of the 1980s Show Stopper and Renaissance Man, he knew exactly what he was doing. 

The free-funk bassist and avant-garde composer is never solely a jazz player and organizer: “Jam” is a raconteur; a theorist; a fashion designer and model; the multimedia conglomerate holder of Jam-All Productions; a world traveler and all-Earth enthusiast; an improvisational thinker and do-er. He’s a visionary whose full-band association with Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic Prime Time in the mid-’70s defined—without confining—Tacuma. So did his previous association with jazz organ god Charles Earland, as well as noise king James “Blood” Ulmer, and the post-Coleman collaboration with new no wave cats in Cosmetic. 

Along with all that, no matter what sizzle or sound Tacuma has chosen to execute, he’s done so with a unique style so far beyond the elegant or the eclectic that it is always mind blowing to behold.

Tacuma couldn’t and wouldn’t do all that if it wasn’t for his deep, abiding sense of—and dedication to—collaboration. With Coleman’s Prime Time as much of a  thought-bubbling collective as it was a Citizen Kane-like declaration of intent on its master’s part, Tacuma has maintained a belief in communal connectivity, by teaming up with everyone from Philly drummer Grant Calvin Weston and guitarist Vernon Reid (the free jazz power trio Free Form Funky Freqs), Gnawa musician Samir Langus and DJ King Britt (the Gnawa Sound Experience) and a handful of local R&B roots players in Philly Rhythm Kingz, his tribute to the session men at the heart of the Philly soul studio sound of 1965-1970. Bringing that all back to front, and live, is his curation and hosting of the annual, multi-artist Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival featuring the toast of the global improvisation scene, the international avant-garde, artists ranging from John Zorn to Herve Samb, and always with Tacuma himself, jamming loudly, in all his self-designed sartorial splendor. Jam on that.

by A.D. Amorosi, Journalist

Photo Credit: Manfred Werner – Tsui, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons