Jazz Philadelphia

Hometown Hero: Arturo Stable

By Bobbi Booker | Photo via Creative Commons

Latin jazz master percussionist Arturo Stable has been in motion his whole life, and working and living all over the world has allowed him to seamlessly shift though a myriad of musical traditions. Whether he’s on stage with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra or lightening up a tight Latin jazz quartet, it’s just another border crossing that demonstrates Stable’s rich cultural knowledge. As a person and player, he’s open to the beauty of always being centered in exploration, especially during uncertain times. 

“There are many new pathways opening that we need to be constantly exploring, and finding the best way to utilize,” Stable said.

“There are many new pathways opening that we need to be constantly exploring, and finding the best way to utilize”

He calls making Philly his home a “major move” amid all his “travel experience as an artist just moving from city to city,” even though the moving started early in his life. 

“My family was an immigrant inside of my country before I became an immigrant myself,” he explained. The Cuban-born musician and educator grew up nurtured by his family of artists in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, beginning his formal study of music at four. During those formative years, he absorbed an international assortment of musical styles that included classical, Cuban pop music, jazz, rock, and R&B. 

Those influences, and the people and places he finds himself in proximity to, are evident in albums such as 2013’s Cuban Crosshatching, which also featured guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Seamus Blake, singer Magos Herrera, and bassist Edward Perez. In a video talking about the project, Stable said he wanted to find something that unified the Bach, the early ragtime—Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong—and the Cuban music that had of course seeped into his system. He leaned into “strong melodies, nice grooves, interaction, and an inviting sense of dance,” he said. Whether he’s playing a full drum kit or settling into an array of more traditional hand drums, he’s thinking about those bodies that will be in motion if the music is on point.

He’s still pondering his own motion, and what it means as both a musician and a community member. “[Philly] definitely has a place in my heart,” he said after a reflective pause. “When you put it in context of my life experience: I have moved 39 times, in 13 different cities, in three different countries.” Stable also ticked off the places he’s lived in the U.S. “I have been in Miami, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, so, yeah, I have moved a lot. But if you’re following your heart and you’re an artist, it’s where life takes you. Philadelphia is on the top of that list. My son was born there, and I feel like I learned immensely as an artist because of the people that I got to meet and know. I feel like I have family there.”

He’s made his career not only as a musician but by giving back as an educator. He attended Berklee College of music and then earned a master’s degree in 2006 from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, and he now teaches there and at other Delaware Valley area schools, including Temple University and West Chester University. 

Younger musicians can also learn from his example. Though his personal philosophy is centered on openness and motion, don’t mistake Stable’s peripatetic life for an aimless one. He made a plan, and he followed it. When he issued his first album as a leader he called it “3rd Step.” It was a reminder of his pledge to himself to go through a three-step process to attain success as a musician. First, he’d move to the U.S. to pursue his career goals; then, he’d dig into his musical education; finally, he’d produce a recording that applied all the skills he’d acquired. Now 45, he has released four albums as either a leader or collaborator, including 2007’s Notes On Canvas from Origen Records, which reviewer Mark Turner called, “vividly imagined, and filled with melodicism and space.” He was joined on the record by a large crew of musicians, including Aruan Ortiz on piano, Peter Slavov on bass, and Francisco Mela on drums.  

Stable’s looking forward to more music, both for himself and others.

“The hope I have for Philly’s jazz community is the same that I wish for any community. Light, growth, and beautiful experiences.” 

“The hope I have for Philly’s jazz community is the same that I wish for any community,” he said. “Light, growth, and beautiful experiences.” 

His contemplative nature and open spirit naturally draws in like-minded collaborators, which he welcomes, and he believes that together the city will find its rightful place as a jazz mecca.

“I think we all have to get together, listen to all the voices, and try to create an industry that supports us that is somehow sustainable. By finding the community and the support of the community, people who’re willing to go to certain places to listen to the value and the importance of preserving America’s gifts to the world, which is jazz and Philadelphia, one of the centers in the world.”

Hometown Hero: Michelle Lordi

by Shaun Brady | Photo Courtesy of the Artist

The best jazz singers have a knack for connecting with audiences. Few musicians of any stripe share Michelle Lordi’s gift for creating them.

While Lordi has graced the usual stages with her emotionally captivating, starkly expressive voice—South and Chris’ Jazz Café close to home, renowned venues like New York City’s Birdland and Mezzrow farther afield—she’s made a unique home for herself in far more unexpected places. 

For six years Lordi hosted a weekly Wednesday night session at Abington’s Vintage Bar and Grill, carving out a singularly inviting space for the music within the unlikely confines of a suburban sports bar. More recently she shifted her home base to Roberts Block, a rustic-chic restaurant adjoining the Glenside SEPTA station, while curating a series of summer concerts amid the greenery and sculptures of Abington Art Center. 

And rather than courting wholly new audiences on the road, she’ll bring one with her. Through her Bandwagon Excursions events, Lordi transported busloads of Philly jazz lovers to her gigs in New York and beyond. When the pandemic prevented audiences from gathering together throughout 2020, she quickly adapted to livestreaming with longtime bassist Matthew Parrish and Bump Jazz productions to bring the concert experience into listeners’ living rooms. 

It can be overwhelming just maintaining one’s own career, so why put forth so much effort to create spaces for not only herself but others to reach untapped jazz lovers? Lordi seemed taken aback that anyone would even ask.

“Oh my gosh, is that a trick question?” she replied after a brief, stunned silence. “It’s what I do. It gives us life. I feel like music is there to be shared. It’s a way to connect with family and community. No matter what you give out, you always get more back from the community.”

“It’s what I do. It gives us life. I feel like music is there to be shared. It’s a way to connect with family and community. No matter what you give out, you always get more back from the community.”

Lordi learned that lesson firsthand following the fire that consumed her home on the day after Christmas 2017. One day after losing nearly everything she owned – her family, thankfully, escaped the inferno intact—she was back on stage at Vintage wearing the only clothing she had left.

“I showed up and everyone I knew was [there],” Lordi recalled the following year. “I thought maybe I’d died and it was my wake. Someone had set up the sound, nobody was sitting where we were supposed to be playing, a whole crew of musicians came and played.”

Community has always been central to Lordi’s passion for music. She studied photography in college but sought refuge from her fellow art students. “Freshman year you had to take all the same classes as the fine art majors,” she said. “But I couldn’t draw, so I would hide in the hallway with what I realized later were the jazz students practicing their saxophones.”

The same sense of embracing all comers, whether they make a neat fit or not, applies increasingly to her take on singing jazz. While she has interpreted her fair share of standards, and can bring a lyric vividly to life with compelling directness, she grew up with rock, pop and country music and has allowed those influences to permeate her repertoire. 

Her daring 2019 album Break Up With the Sound features songs by Hank Williams and the Rolling Stones alongside Cole Porter and Billie Holiday classics, while her original music is graced by tinges of adventurous rock and forlorn Americana. The title track of her 2015 release Drive was the familiar 80s hit by The Cars, rendered in less familiar fashion. “I believe in a wider perspective of jazz,” she explained.

“I believe in a wider perspective of jazz.”

That’s led to a particularly expansive and ever-growing list of collaborators as well. She’s performed and recorded extensively with pianist Orrin Evans, most recently recording with his dauntless trio Tarbaby; and enjoys an ongoing collaboration with the genre-defiant artist Warren DeFever, best known for his shape-shifting project His Name Is Alive. She also calls on the talents and wisdom of an older generation, regularly working with legendary saxophonist Larry McKenna and, until his recent passing, guitarist Sonny Troy.

She’s also worked with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a veteran of the Maria Schneider Orchestra and bandleader for David Bowie’s final album Blackstar; drummer Rudy Royston, a frequent partner for iconic guitarist Bill Frisell; and experimental guitarist Tim Motzer, whose distorted atmospherics lend an ethereal haze to Break Up With the Sound.

“I enjoy bringing artists together that you wouldn’t usually see together,” Lordi said. That’s one reason why she continues to call the Philadelphia region home. 

“I’m here because of family,” she continued, in this case meaning the word literally. “New York makes a great suburb of Philadelphia for working artists. I can create music opportunities here while still pursuing music outside of here. But I love Philadelphia because a lot of the musicians I love are from here. Philadelphia has a rich resource of history and present in music, and I’m grateful to be part of it.”

Hometown Hero: Yesseh Furaha-Ali

by Shaun Brady | Photo by Richard Conde

When you grow up as the youngest of seven children, you quickly figure out how to set your ego aside. Saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali learned that lesson as a child in Upper Darby, and it’s guided him through a uniquely communal journey in music.

“Growing up, I was very tight-knit with all my siblings,” Furaha-Ali recalls. “There was a strong bond, and the sense of fellowship and community was instilled in my household. So I definitely carried that with me as I left the house and stepped into the scene.”

Where many of Furaha-Ali’s peers embark on jazz careers with the determination to establish themselves as leaders, the saxophonist has always felt more comfortable as part of a community. He found one at Philadelphia’s Clef Club of Jazz and the Performing Arts, where he studied and apprenticed alongside such now-rising stars as saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius, pianists Jordan Williams and Michael Wooten and drummer Nazir Ebo. (A 2015 college send-off concert at the Clef Club featuring several of the above titled “Philly’s Jazz Futures” feels all the more prophetic by the day.)

In 2014 Furaha-Ali enrolled at Berklee College of Music, again with a close group of friends; he arrived in Boston alongside Demetrius and Wooten. After two years at the renowned school and a short stint freelancing among Boston, New York and Philadelphia, Furaha-Ali returned home, joining forces with two bands where he’s one member of a collective rather than a frontman in the spotlight. 

Snacktime Brass Band is a New Orleans-style ensemble formed during the pandemic to bring music into the streets while clubs were shuttered. Omar’s Hat is a genre-blurring nine-piece band that recently released its debut EP, Selections From World Café Live, recorded during a livestream concert at the Philly institution.

Ceding leadership responsibilities to a group comes with its own challenges, of course, but Furaha-Ali’s upbringing left him uniquely qualified to handle such conflicts with empathy and diplomacy. “There’s a lot of butting heads most of the time,” he admits with a laugh. “But when we come together and play, it’s all love. Even when we fellowship off the instruments, it’s always love.”

Snacktime draws inspiration from the ever-evolving Crescent City brass band tradition, incorporating funk, pop, R&B and soul into a mix expressly designed to keep audiences—however impromptu—happy and dancing. Omar’s Hat is a similar hybrid, incorporating, as the saxophonist describes it, “funk, jazz, fusion, rock, new age, contemporary, indie. It’s a nine-piece band, so figure nine different personalities, nine different crazy musical minds coming together into one sound.”

That dizzying blend comes naturally to Furaha-Ali, again stemming from a crowded home filled with diverse tastes and personalities. Though he says that, “the foundation of my learning was jazz,” that’s far from the only genre he grew up hearing. “I was exposed to everything. My parents and my siblings used to play all kinds of different music around the house. Early on I gravitated to a wide variety of things – hip-hop and gospel, blues and reggae, jazz and classical. Thankfully the music programs that I went to instilled that into my mind and into my learning as well: be a multifaceted, well-rounded musician, don’t just stay in one lane.”

“I was exposed to everything. My parents and my siblings used to play all kinds of different music around the house. Early on I gravitated to a wide variety of things – hip-hop and gospel, blues and reggae, jazz and classical. Thankfully the music programs that I went to instilled that into my mind and into my learning as well: be a multifaceted, well-rounded musician, don’t just stay in one lane.”

While all of Furaha-Ali’s siblings briefly played instruments, he was the only one who pursued music beyond those early lessons. He fixated on the saxophone after seeing the 2004 Ray Charles biopic Ray, followed soon after by the opportunity to see Charles’ longtime saxophonist, David “Fathead” Newman, in the flesh at the now-defunct Center City club Zanzibar Blue.

“That was the double whammy for me,” he says. “That was it. ‘I’m playing the sax.’”

While at Upper Darby High School, Furaha-Ali received a scholarship to attend Berklee’s Summer Performance Program, where he studied with high-profile instructors such as  drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. So it seemed logical to continue at the school for his college studies, at which time the late drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. became a key mentor. “Ralph was another father figure for me,” he says. “It was always a tough love type of encouragement.”

Peterson became another in a long line of elders who passed on their wisdom to Furaha-Ali and his peers, a list that includes Clef Club educators Lovett Hines and Donald Gardner, Bootsie Barnes, John Blake Jr., Tony Williams, and Anthony Tidd. Seeing several of those personages die in recent years brought home to the younger saxophonist the importance of the Philly jazz tradition.

“There’s a different type of community here,” he says. “Especially with the bond between the older generation and the younger generation. It’s a heavy passing of the torch that my generation and generations coming up have a responsibility to uphold.” 

Not that Furaha-Ali has such a well-defined vision of the future. Finding himself home again, he’s enjoying his experiences reintegrating into the local community but is also open to whatever may come next. “I’ve always been a ‘where the wind blows’ type of person,” he says, shrugging. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But wherever the wind blows, I know there are many lessons to be learned. I’m just on the path and I’m ready to buckle down.”

Hometown Hero: Sonia Sanchez

By Bobbi I. Booker | Photo Courtesy of the Temple University Archives

Poetry. Motion. Sound. For most of the 85 years Sonia Sanchez has existed, she has known and embraced the power of words and music, eventually merging both aspects into her lyrical yet powerful poetry. To hear Sanchez recite poetry is to listen to her sing, all with a distinct musicality and cadence that belies the early challenges she faced as a motherless girl child who stuttered.

Sanchez, born in 1934 as Wilsonia Benita Driver—the namesake of her jazz musician father Wilson Driver. She was a toddler when her mother, Lena Jones Driver, died during the childbirth of twins. Her paternal grandmother then took charge of Sanchez and her sister, teaching her to read at age 4. Her father relocated the sisters to New York City after her supportive grandmother’s death, and Sanchez developed a stutter which honed her awareness of language dynamics at an early age. Her realization of the power and art of words, spoken or as literature, has fueled her Civil Rights endeavors as a poet, playwright, activist, scholar, and co-architect of the Black Arts Movement.

“You know, as a Black woman and as a writer, quite often there’s always this problem about us,” Sanchez explains. “There was a whole period during the time when Black women started to write in the Black Arts Movement, and the people we were involved with at that point were bringing truth to the people. There was nothing negative about us working together. I mean, we got on the stages, and we read poetry with the brothers, and the [audience] would go, ‘um hum’…There was equality on that stage.”

“There was a whole period during the time when Black women started to write in the Black Arts Movement, and the people we were involved with at that point were bringing truth to the people. There was nothing negative about us working together. I mean, we got on the stages, and we read poetry with the brothers, and the [audience] would go, ‘um hum’…There was equality on that stage.”

Sanchez, an emeritus professor at Temple University since her 1999 retirement as the Laura Carnell Professor of English and Women’s Studies, was appointed as Philadelphia’s first poet laureate from 2012 to 2014. The award-winning author—who has penned or co-edited over two dozen books, including Like the Singing Coming off the Drums, Does Your House Have Lions?, Wounded in the House of a Friend, Shake Loose My Skin, and Morning Haiku—remains an in-demand speaker and performer who continues to campaign tirelessly for peace, gender equity, and Black liberation. It seems fitting that during April 2021’s duel celebrations of National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month a compendium of work from Sanchez’s 40-plus career will be released by Beacon Press. The book’s cover features quotes from her friends and colleagues Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, with the latter offering: “Sonia Sanchez is a lion in literature’s forest. When she writes, she roars, and when she sleeps, other creatures walk gingerly.”      

Sitting in the Germantown home where she has resided since the 70s, Sanchez reflects more on the lessons she’s learned than the ones she’s taught. She expounds on the creative and real-life experiences she shared working alongside musicians and activists acknowledged nowadays as Black History pillars.

“An organization like the Black Arts Movement was about artists who demanded an art of struggle; an art that related to our her-story/history, and what was really going out in the world… you had to live it and taste it. One of the ironies of the Black Arts Movement is that the most important people who really made [it] work were Malcolm X and John Coltrane—and by the late 60s, they were both dead. And so what will then continue that motion and movement, especially like Coltrane’s motion of dismantling Western music and then Malcolm’s words [advocating] human rights? We wrote beautiful and moving works outside these Western constraints and was talking about a new world that was possible.”

Her lifelong affiliation with jazz music was rooted early (the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame inducted her late father in 1980) and continues to blossom in her creative performative collaborations. Shortly before the 2020 pandemic pronouncement, Sanchez teamed up with bassist Christian McBride to perform his composition The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Muhammad Ali.

“We grew up and listened to people talk about music, going and playing it into people’s houses,” recalled Sanchez. “I was raised on these jazz records, and my father had the most beautiful records. He taught [drummer] Papa Jo Jones, and we knew [drummer] Max Roach and these musicians who would come to the house all the time… That’s why I loved to gig with Brother Max because he was pure genius. And that’s why I love doing work with Christian McBride because he plays that bass and holds that bass close to his heart. He loves that bass, and because he loves that bass, only beautiful music can come out of that bass. Sometimes, I touch that bass while he’s playing, and I even think I can play it, right? I say the words, and the words jump up that bass, into his hands, and he plucks that bass, and he returns the words back to me. And I began to soothe the words and, and the words say, ‘You can sing this: the brother just gave you permission to sing’— and so therefore I sing.”

“I was raised on these jazz records, and my father had the most beautiful records. He taught [drummer] Papa Jo Jones, and we knew [drummer] Max Roach and these musicians who would come to the house all the time… That’s why I loved to gig with Brother Max because he was pure genius. And that’s why I love doing work with Christian McBride because he plays that bass and holds that bass close to his heart.”

Sanchez describes her contributions as “poetry, motion, and sound” as the inspired, yet nearly two-hour conversation drew to a close.

“We, Blacks and others, have known and been in outer space via our music,” she shared. “The universe is not alien to our eyes as a consequence of this great classical music sometimes called jazz.”

Hometown Hero: Jymie Merritt

By Suzanne Cloud | Photo by Ryan Collerd

Journalist Dorothy Kilgallen led off her popular New York Evening Journal column (syndicated in 140 papers) with a 1963 story about Philly bassist Jymie Merritt that traveled around the world. Turns out, Merritt was a bit miffed at drummer Art Blakey. When he quit the Jazz Messengers, Merritt said he just wanted to “get off the road and rest awhile,” but Kilgallen wrote, “…the real reason was a dispute with Blakey when the leader forced Merritt to pay for his own overweight baggage on airplane trips, and Jymie uses an electrically amplified bass with a heavy 90-watt amplifier and speaker…” add his upright bass and that’s a lot of baggage!

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Merritt was one of the first musicians to embrace the electrified bass, even inventing his own hybrid transducer/amplified system for the upright called the Ampeg, a fact that marks him now as a visionary. But Merritt drew quite a few raspberries from traditionalists like writer Leonard Feather who was horrified when Dizzy Gillespie insisted Merritt be in his band. 

But no one should have been surprised that the resourceful son of Raleigh and Agnes Merritt, both educated and enterprising young people from the south who moved north, would do so well. His father, an alumnus of the Tuskegee Institute, was a close confidant of scientist George Washington Carver. His mother taught piano and elementary school. They both helped build the Vine Memorial Baptist Church.

For decades, Jymie Merritt was the go-to bassist for giants whether it was touring and recording in his early days with blues and R&B musicians like singer/saxophonist Bull Moose Jackson or B.B. King or jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, trumpeter Chet Baker, and drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey later on. He moved easily from genre to genre, adapting and enhancing every one.

Merritt moved to New York City in 1957 to join Blakey’s band with a lineup that many feel was one of his best—and they ALL were Philadelphians: pianist Bobby Timmons, saxophonist Benny Golson, and trumpeter Lee Morgan. Check out the band on Timmon’s composition “Moanin” (Merritt has a remarkable bass solo at 10:50).

In the 1960s, Jymie Merritt formed his own ensemble, The Forerunners, which included founding member saxophonist Odean Pope. The group played his cross-rhythmic and ethereally complex, poly-harmonic compositions, utilizing what Merritt called “The System.” Quoted in a short film for Jazz Night in America titled  Jymie Merritt: The Beat Goes Deep, Pope said, “He had his own concept. He was just so fluent in what he was doing. To me, playing his music was like going to the highest university in the whole world.” 

Quoted in a short film for Jazz Night in America titled  Jymie Merritt: The Beat Goes Deep, Pope said, “He had his own concept. He was just so fluent in what he was doing. To me, playing his music was like going to the highest university in the whole world.” 

“Nommo,” a hip and loose hard bop composition in 7/4 by Merritt, is one of his best-known compositions and was recorded on Max Roach’s album Drums Unlimited in 1966. (Listen for Merritt’s bass solo at 7:12). He took the title from a West African concept—the power of the spoken word can create harmony and balance in an upside-down world. 

Bassist Mike Merritt talked about the city of Philadelphia’s impact on his father’s life and music.

“Jymie was never the one to see the city in his rear-view mirror. I remember when [Philadelphia saxophonist] Benny Golson was working in LA, in the studios, and called up my dad to move out there. And Jymie was thinking about it. But I think he felt his music was best expressed through a Philly prism. I mean, the giants in jazz were here.”

“I think he felt his music was best expressed through a Philly prism. I mean, the giants in jazz were here.”

Awarded a Pew Fellowship in 2016, Merritt was a previous recipient of the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Award, a Living Legend Award from the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and the Performing Arts, and was recognized by the Philadelphia City Council in 2013.

One of the most inspiring aspects of Jymie Merritt’s life was his continuing interest in science and technology. Unlike many seniors from his generation who ran for the hills when faced with any kind of software, Merritt revelled in the exploration of the digital world until the end of his life at 93. 

Merritt saw the possibilities of digital composition and it influenced his musical conceptions. “The shift from analog to digital united the traditional instrument with the computer,” he told the Pew Center for Arts and Culture, where he was a fellow. “My interest is to provide composition prototypes that honor the past while envisioning an increasingly digital future.” 

Jymie Merritt always looked forward, even in his 90s, and he’ll always be a major player in Philadelphia’s jazz pantheon.

Hometown Hero: Uri Caine


By A.D. Amorosi | Photo by Bill Douthart

When Uri Caine speaks in his deep, low voice, each phrase unfurls with rich, diverse, all-inclusive information. In a fashion, it’s as if the Philadelphia-born pianist and composer is looking to get everything inside his head out, quietly, but succinctly.

The same goes for the elegantly eclectic, Modern Creative, jazz-based music he’s crafted, first in Philly clubs, then when he began making records in the 1990s. First, he was a sideman with Don Byron and fellow Hometown Hero Bobby Zankel as a leader with 1993’s Sphere Music. Eventually, he moved through to epically beloved solo albums inventively tackling Mahler, Wagner, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. 

All at once, Caine’s classical training and modal jazz chops issue forth with touches of klezmer, post-bop, Philly soul, Tin Pan Alley stylizations and avant-garde everything. The same algebraic innovation and emotional improvisation that Caine brought to 1999’s Zohar Keter and its focus on Jewish heritage and electronic music is equal to the intensity of his playful, funky, organ-filled excursion with The Roots’ Ahmir Thompson, and with Christian McBride on 2001’s The Philadelphia Experiment, as well as 2021’s brio-filled bop job Catbird with Jon Irabagon, Mark Helias, and Clarence Penn.

Considering his early classical training, it was an uncle’s gift of Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums that spun Caine’s head around to the jazz idiom. “I was like 11 when I got a taste of jazz, and as I got older, it was an evolution.”

Such advancement came with listening to, and playing, in a wealth of Philly jazz clubs as Caine came up. He talks about “lost venues such as the Aqua Lounge, Jewels’ on Broad Street, Just Jazz on Arch Street, Togetherness House next to the Bandbox in Germantown, and Saint Mary’s Church in West Philly,” as well as studying with expatriate French pianist Bernard Peiffer. As Caine was already playing classical pieces, Peiffer stressed taking the motion of harmony and structure in those compositions and breaking them down—it was a door to the faculty and facility of improvisation. Taking those improvisations and writing from the experience became the work of another teacher in Caine’s life, composer George Rochberg at Penn State’s University Scholars Program.

“Bernard was particularly tough, but great, and had a weekly gig at the Borgia Café Tea Room in Headhouse Square,” said Caine, speaking of how the classroom and the barroom interacted. That venue was another circle, as was Trey’s Lounge, to hear Philly Joe Jones and Bootise Barnes. “If you waited until the end of the night, and they tolerated you, you could sit in and play. That focused me, immersed me in music, and gave me insight as to what all these different scenes meant.”

“If you waited until the end of the night, and they tolerated you, you could sit in and play. That focused me, immersed me in music, and gave me insight as to what all these different scenes meant.”

Those scenes still mean everything to Caine. As he tells a story of moving through Philadelphia’s jazz environs of the past, he reveals his own influences, his own diverse set of heroes, and the wealth of elders to look up to, men whose discographies Caine knew by heart, such as Hank Mobley, Odean Pope, and the ever-intense Pat Martino. He also rattles off young contemporaries such as Tyrone Browne and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who he played with on stage and on albums. 

“All these different characters became apparent and different worlds opened up the deeper I went into downtown Philly, playing clubs and sessions,” said Caine. “I found myself, more and more, understanding all the different components of this scene, of the wealth of music from the avant-garde to Philly International. Everyone from Mickey Roker, Bobby Durham, Sun Ra, Shirley Scott, Gerald Price, Sam Dockery, Edgar Bateman, Jymmie Merritt, Johnny Coles, Grover Washington George Crumb, and the Philadelphia Orchestra with the 2 dollar seats at the top of the Academy of Music.” That’s all Caine. 

“I found myself, more and more, understanding all the different components of this scene, of the wealth of music from the avant-garde to Philly International. Everyone from Mickey Roker, Bobby Durham, Sun Ra, Shirley Scott, Gerald Price, Sam Dockery, Edgar Bateman, Jymmie Merritt, Johnny Coles, Grover Washington George Crumb, and the Philadelphia Orchestra with the 2 dollar seats at the top of the Academy of Music.”

And if you listen closely, every inspiration—and none—is readily apparent in his music. 

Jazz clubs, scenes, teachers and mentors aside, Caine—a Manhattanite since the mid-1980s—looks at Philadelphia as the Great Incubator, where every element of the City of Brotherly Love opened yet another door. “The older musicians were tough, but beautiful and supportive.” 

Caine doesn’t shy from bringing up the politicized and often tumultuous times he came up in—his father’s interest in the ACLU, the Rizzo years and that Mayor’s hardcore policing policies—and managed to tie it all to his most recent released album, 2019’s The Passion of Octavius Catto, in dedication to the Black Philadelphia activist and teacher whose image stands before City Hall in the “Quest for Parity” memorial. 

“People have a love-hate relationship with where they come from,” said Caine. “You carry something in your heart in regard to your origin story, even though your life goes into many different places. I carry everything about this city with me. Of that, I am proud.”

Coltrane Watch: The Backstory

Blog by Jazz Philadelphia | Research by Suzanne Cloud

Interventions surrounding the Coltrane House over the last decade—from nearly all quarters of the Philadelphia jazz community—prove how anguished advocates have been over the condition and the future of the property. What follows is a breakdown of some of the attempts at intervention since the house was transferred to someone outside the Coltrane family. This information has been compiled from research, interviews, and the personal experience of researcher Suzanne Cloud, who has been involved over the years in efforts to save the property. 

Our hope with this report is simply to inform the community of all currently known efforts to intervene with the property, which is in disrepair, and adjacent to a property for which a demolition permit has been applied for—but at the time of this post, not issued—by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections. 

A Timeline of Attempted Interventions to Save the John Coltrane House in Philadelphia from 2011 – 2021

  • 2011 – Filmmaker Rob Armstrong and writer Tom Moon approach the owners* about making a film about John Coltrane, which will highlight the house. They solicited a grant from the Pew Center of Arts & Culture for the project through the Preservation Alliance.
  • 2012 – The Pew Center of Arts and Culture awards $71,825 for the project and the grant includes money to do a community study on what to do with the historic property. Because the grant is not awarded to the owners directly, they withdraw from the entire project and community report. The short film, Coltrane’s Philadelphia, is made nonetheless and debuts at the International House and on WHYY in August 2013.
  • January 2012 – Don Gardner, who passed in 2018, was in 2012 the executive director of the Philadelphia Clef Club. He invites Suzanne Cloud, then executive director of Jazz Bridge, to meet with a representative of the owners at Clef Club to discuss fundraising to rehab the home.
  • April 2012 – A meeting is held with the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy at City Hall with then director Gary Steuer and representatives from Jazz Bridge, LifeLine Music Coalition, and the Philadelphia Clef Club. The group plans and implements another “Great Day in Philadelphia” photo with Mayor Michael Nutter to raise attention about the need to rehab the house.
  • August 2012 – Homer Jackson, executive director of the Philadelphia Jazz Project, along with pianist Alfie Pollitt, percussionist Robert Kenyatta, and songwriter James Solomon meet with  the person managing the house. She wants their help to form a John Coltrane House Planning Committee.
  • 2013 – The Preservation Alliance releases its exhaustive study which included, as part of the process of developing the report, four focus groups. Every stakeholder with any ties to the success of the Coltrane House is invited to weigh in. To read the study, click here.
  • July 2013 – The Philadelphia Jazz Project presents a benefit performance for the Coltrane House with pianist Alfie Pollitt, saxophonist George Barron, bassist Lee Smith, and drummer Alan Nelson. A jazz walk event featuring public art installations all through Fairmount Park celebrating eight Philadelphia jazz icons, including John Coltrane, is presented.
  • September 2016 – Philadelphia Jazz Project presented nine days of Coltrane-related events as part of Philadelphia Celebrates John Coltrane. A city-wide series of events for Coltrane’s 90th birthday. The owners do not participate.
  • December 2016 – Philadelphia Jazz Project met with Fairmount Park Conservancy, pianist Alfie Pollitt, Touré Fernandez (who is related to past and present owners of the house) and consultant James Solomon to discuss how to engage the owners of the Coltrane House in the future of the Fairmount Park plans. The owners do not participate.
  • September 2017 – The Philadelphia Jazz Project attempts to involve the owners of the Coltrane House in a 7-day Coltrane celebration, but they do not participate.
  • Feb. 2018 – Jazz Bridge reignites attention to problems with the deterioration of the house. Suzanne Cloud, then executive director of Jazz Bridge, tries to get in touch with the person now managing the historic property. Diane Turner, curator of the Blockson Collection at Temple University, has also been trying to find a way to support the project, but is not able to get through. After speaking with Paul Steinke, executive director at the Preservation Alliance, Suzanne Cloud hired a videographer in March 2018 to take drone photos of the historic property to assess damage from the outside.
  • March 2018 – Jason Fifield took drone photos of the Coltrane House that reveals damage to the outside. Suzanne Cloud sends the photos to Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, in an attempt to get help from the Philadelphia Historic Commission.
  • 2018 – Faye Anderson, advocate for the preservation of Black historical buildings in the city and the head of All That Philly Jazz, gets involved and is included in a panel at WHYY about urban planning and preservation. The owners are unhappy that conversations are proceeding without them, and they make clear they will only participate if the money goes directly to the family to manage.
  • 2020 – The Philadelphia Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer both publish stories on the deterioration of the Coltrane House.
  • January 2021 – The house next door to the Coltrane House, owned by the same family, is sold to a private developer.
  • February 2021 – The new owners of the house next to the Coltrane House apply for a permit of demolition, which reignites concern for the house among the jazz community.
  • March 2021 – A petition to stop the demolition gains over 10,000 signatures in less than two weeks, and an ad hoc committee is formed by local jazz advocates and organizations to keep watch on the proceedings. The Philadelphia Inquirer again reports on the story, this blog, “Coltrane Watch” is started, and sources confirm that the Coltrane family is interested in starting conversations with current owners about the future of the house. Coltrane Watch has again spoken with L&I, who has confirmed that if a permit is issued for demolition of the house next to the Coltrane House, it will appear in the appropriate public records database.
  • April 2021 – A new report is forthcoming. Within the next week, the Strawberry Mansion CDC will be releasing a report about the house and development possibilities. 

Stay tuned for more information as the #ColtraneWatch continues. 

If you have information, additions, or corrections to our research to share, please send it to hblakeslee@jazzphiladelphia.org and info@suzanne.cloud and we will enter it into the larger record we’re creating.

Was this blog forwarded to you from a friend? Sign up for Coltrane Watch today.


* The ownership and management of the house are difficult to untangle, but here, “owners” refer to members and associates of the Gadson family, including Aminta Gadson, Norman Gadson (deceased) and Leonora Early (deceased). Please note that jazz producer Leo Gadson is not part of the ownership/management group. It’s our current understanding that the Coltrane family would like to be the main party interacting with the current managers of the house as they try to come to a resolution to protect the property.

Keep Going, and It Will Happen

I was fortunate to have musicians in my life who took the time to provide mentorship when I needed it. They were more than bandleaders, they were my guides in navigating a complex artistic and professional landscape. Through Ira Tucker, John Blake, Grover Washington, Jr., Joe Zawinul, and Odean Pope, I learned how to lead a band, run a rehearsal, plan a recording session, and interact with a myriad of music industry pros.

I also learned how to deal with failures as well as successes.

After a particularly frustrating set performing in front of a German audience, I made an admission to Odean Pope about my improvised solos.”I can’t seem to get anything happening,” I complained. His response was encouraging and straightforward, “Keep going, and it will happen,” he told me.

It wasn’t just his advice that was helpful; it was also seeing this saxophone giant embody his own advice night after night. I witnessed his perseverance, his continual search for the right sound, and the ways he expressed himself and his ideas through his instrument.

“Keep going and it will happen” became my mantra. Over time, I became more confident in my own ability to express myself. Since then, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of being able to mentor young musicians.

This is a time-honored tradition of how the art of jazz is transferred from one generation to the next. The elder gives from a position of experience and honesty. The younger receives with a spirit of openness and humility. This process is essential to preserving the integrity and quality of the music while allowing space for it to grow and evolve. This form of education happens on and off the bandstand and the “classroom” becomes a learning space with no walls.

Making it happen together – across generations – with new programs

At Jazz Philadelphia, we recognize the importance of this intergenerational connection. While today’s emerging artists are skilled in the nuts and bolts of music-making, they often need soft skills and encouragement to navigate an increasingly complex professional terrain, as well as their own personal artistic journeys and life challenges.

We’re pleased to announce that one of our forthcoming programs—an ongoing series of intergenerational jazz jams—will add to the robust education opportunities already provided at Philadelphia’s leading music institutions, which are all part of forming this inventive new program.

Our Intergenerational Jazz Jams series will strengthen the bond among artists of different ages; provide mentorship and practical information to younger and emerging players; honor the wisdom and musicality of our elders, and give artists the opportunity to hone their improvisational skills together. Look for more details soon about how to participate.

For Jazz Appreciation Month, we have also embraced the theme, “Jazz For All Generations.” We are working with the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy to present two jazz concerts that will underscore our commitment to intergenerational connection.

On April 3, we will present an Emerging Artist Showcase at the Cherry St. Pier. Then on April 10, we will offer an Intergenerational Jazz Jam at the Horticultural Center. These performances will feature some of Philadelphia’s rising stars alongside established names we know and love. See below for more details.

We hope you’ll join us for these two free outdoor performances so that we can all begin connecting again and making music again. There are few things as uplifting as live music created by and for all generations. As Odean Pope told me so long ago, if we keep going, we can make it happen. Let’s do it together.

With Love and Respect,

Gerald Veasley,

President Jazz Philadelphia

Hometown Hero: Ernest Stuart

By A.D. Amorosi | Photo by Ben-Houdijk

How does trombonist-composer Ernest Stuart best show his Philadelphia-ness? 

Of course, there is his music. Stuart has a post-bop-jazz-based but often genre-fluid sound that merges influences from Philadelphia soul past and present. Think Gamble & Huff and John Legend melded with alternative electronic pop á la Radiohead. In his mind, it’s a very Philadelphia thing to do. 

“Playing in Philly means playing every type of music. Scenes and sounds intersect. I’ve played salsa gigs, Brazilian music brass band. I love it. I am a musical sponge.”

That’s Stuart’s signature, his tell: His ability to be true to himself, to sturdily soak up every tone and every genre, and to reflect it uniquely and with fluidity, is who he is to the bone. 

“Express your influences, connect them all, and watch what happens,” he says. “If you present the music in a way honest to you, that reflects society, you can’t go wrong. My signature then is my welcoming energy—to be open to the truth. With that I can fill up a room and waft down the street if the windows are open.”

“My signature then is my welcoming energy—to be open to the truth. With that I can fill up a room and waft down the street if the windows are open.”

Equal to his music, though, is his sense of civic pride and duty, one that led him to create the still-going Center City Jazz festival in 2012, and currently finds him executing a course of study in nonprofit management and its ethics at Columbia University. “Through the festival, I’ve been given a rare opportunity to work within the non-profit sector, interact, and want to learn how to become a better advocate, not just for jazz but the broader scope of all the arts. I want to be a resource.” Stuart is also a founding Leadership Team member of the advocacy organization Jazz Philadelphia.

Stuart has been a resource and an advocate for jazz ever since his beginning music classes and elementary school “jazz band” days in Pennsauken, NJ. 

“Looking forward as a beginner, ‘jazz band’ was the school’s ‘elite’ musicians,” said Stuart. “For me, that was the goal, the drive—proof that I was a better musician.” Playing trombone came with the call of the school jazz band. “I wanted to play saxophone, at first, but I sat in my early classes without an instrument for so long—because I couldn’t afford one at the time—that I had to find an instrument from the closet.” 

The closet held a sousaphone, a tuba, and a trombone. Stuart chose the ‘ 

’bone, and fell in love with his axe as well as jazz itself. “By ninth grade, I knew I wanted to play for the rest of my life.” Once connected to Sicklerville trombone wizard-teacher Jose Vidal, Stuart became more connected to the music he loved. Vidal became so crucial to Stuart’s life as a player that he even returned to his teacher during his professional life before touring with John legend. “My chops were terrible, so I reached out to Jose again,” he says.

So in love with jazz was Stuart—in particular, the big band sounds of Stan Kenton, J.J. Johnson, and Dizzy Gillespie—that he and a fellow band member would drive around Camden with that loud music blasting from their car windows. “Big band music blaring from our car: That’s goofy. We’d listen to WRTI, hear something we’d love, and blow our paychecks at Tower Records.” When you consider that Stuart’s 2014 Love/Loss and 2016’s Same Walking Animals EPs are grooving, genre-less journeys, Stuart integrated his love of Radiohead and Portishead into his jazz diet. “I grew up in a household where we were relegated to listening to Christian music, so branching out into jazz, initially, then other outer-bound sounds, was a revelation.”

Moving to summer programs through Temple University and at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts was Stuart’s entrée, not only to further developments in jazz, but the city he would come to love. “Two minutes away from Pennsauken the whole time.”

Two minutes away in Philadelphia, Stuart made the close association of jazz elders. “I would go to Ortlieb’s every day to hear Bootsie Barnes and Mickey Roker or play with Sid Simmons and John Swana; their prowess and contributions to the scene were quickly realized,” said Stuart. “Ortlieb’s was a micro-scene unto itself, the jazz clubhouse where everyone was respected.” 

“Ortlieb’s was a micro-scene unto itself, the jazz clubhouse where everyone was respected.” 

Among Stuart’s contemporaries who remained friends and collaborators beyond 6 a.m. hangs at Kelliann’s Bar were jam session boss Luke O’Reilly, pianist George Burton, and bassist Leon Boykins. Among these players, Ortlieb’s “micro-scene,” and his proximity to pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Justin Faulkner came Stuart’s debut album, 2011’s Solitary Walker, a “snapshot of relationships and of the moment” that still manages to haunt any listener.

This same cast of characters inspired Stuart to create the Center City Jazz Festival after the hallowed jazz halls of Ortlieb’s and Zanzibar Blue crumbled to show appreciation and promote the downtown clubs left for Philly’s jazz cats to inhabit; “to give back to a scene that meant so much to me,” he said. “To my surprise, it worked. And will work again.”

For this moment, Stuart is feeling out what to do with the 2021 Center City Jazz Festival. “The virtual event is not a format I happen to enjoy, so I’m waiting to see what happens with live stages this year,” he says. He’s also considering how and when to release his 2019 recordings with Philadelphia bassist Jason Fratacelli and Lionel Forrester Jr, “which just happen to be this crazy drummer, this wild ass bass player, and a trombonist,” he said laughing before mentioning that he is also a regular part of Philadelphia drag performance artist Martha Graham Cracker’s ensemble. 

“I look forward to developing all of my many, many musical ideas,” said Stuart. While I get my wonderful education in the non-profit sector, I’m trying to figure out how to be useful, both civically and musically for Philadelphia.”

Hometown Hero: Monnette Sudler

by Suzanne Cloud | Photo by Michael Donnelly

In 1992, Jack Lloyd, entertainment writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote, “A funny thing happened to Monnette Sudler on her way to becoming a folk singer.” That “funny thing” was her immediate induction in the early 1970s into the cutting-edge, free-jazz funky group “Sounds of Liberation” with fellow Germantownians vibist Khan Jamal and saxophonist Byard Lancaster. This group’s recordings were just rescued and re-released by Brewerytown Records. Very heady company for an emerging guitarist, singer, and composer..

Sudler said, “The Sounds of Liberation inspired me… the times were amazing and crazy. Part of it was my naiveté. But I just minded my own business and stayed in my lane, focused on the music…  Khan encouraged me to get gigs on my own instead of waiting for people to call.” 

It was great advice that guitarist, composer, and singer Monnette Sudler took to heart. Looking over her musical history is like gazing into so many unique musicians with their own musical styles and temperaments: The mbaqanga music of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the smooth jazz of saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., the avant garde jazz of saxophonist Odean Pope, the straight ahead jazz of bassist Reggie Workman, and the sensitive accompaniment to poets like  Sonia Sanchez are among the musicians she’s collaborated with and genres she’s comfortably settled into and excelled. From the beginning of her career, she had no fear of adapting to the moment and making it hers wherever she was. And it paid off. Quickly, Monnette was snapped up into the New York loft scene and ended up with a free jazz stint at the Newport Jazz Festival with Sam River’s group. 

It is astonishing how protean Sudler has been all her life, never afraid to try something new and put her feelings out to the public through her music. In 1999, the guitarist and composer set out to shake the world with poet Trapeta B. Mayson to create and perform a four-scene poetic play called “Makin’ a Scene” about women’s empowerment at the Painted Bride. In a Philadelphia Daily News interview, Monnette Sudler said, “It’s not about male-bashing, it’s becoming aware of you as a woman, and for the family, children, fathers, brothers, husbands, to become aware of what women think about and go through.”

“It’s not about male-bashing, it’s becoming aware of you as a woman, and for the family, children, fathers, brothers, husbands, to become aware of what women think about and go through.”

Throughout her life, Sudler has never been one for egocentrism, and her giving spirit is apparent. Through a grant from the American Composer’s Forum, she developed a curriculum called “Mend the Mind, Free the Soul,” which incorporated music and music education into the Children Achieving through ReEducation (CARE) program. And working with children led her to be chosen by the Philadelphia Opera Company to compose music based on the poems of children in a program of Art Sanctuary. 

Everyone by now knows by now that Sudler founded and is the musical director of her yearly Philadelphia Guitar Summit, which features notable guitarists from around the globe who play and teach workshops. Her 9th summit’s theme was “Strumming for Social Change” and featured many Philly ace guitarists. 

During the pandemic year, Sudler said she thought she was “losing her mind. I couldn’t focus.” She felt like she had “been locked down, just looking through my window.” But she got it together and once she, “learned how to be by myself, I wrote quite a bit.” 

In fact, her new album, Stay Strong, is about our pandemic year and her thoughts about herself, the country, peace, and love. On March 24, 2021, Sudler gathered the tribe of musicians who recorded with her for a zoom CD party. The jazz group surrounding her—Brady Bunch style on the screen—just nodded and smiled through the infectious grooves and soulful singing. 

On her song “I Can’t Breathe,” Sudler commented “America is suffocating all of us.” On the tune “Standing Up,” everyone knew what she meant when she sang the lyrics “standing up, though my knees get a little bit weak sometimes.” After listening for an hour, the musicians on the Zoom were visibly sighing at the power of the music they’d just heard. 

Bassist Gerald Veasley said softly, “Monnette leaves the room.” Drummer Byron “Wookie” Landham heartfully said, “There was no me without you.” Here’s hoping that the gathering was recorded and will be available to view, because it demonstrates wonderfully why guitarist, composer, lyricist, and singer Monnette Sudler is a Hometown Hero. All her prodigious work is available on online, including her new album—Stay Strong, a powerful mix of political drama wedded to an infectious groove, which includes a dynamic arrangement of the gospel song “O Mary Don’t You Weep.” 

In 1977, Philadelphia’s premier jazz writer, Nels Nelson, prognosticated, “Monnette Sudler is not only a superior musician, but a mature and self-assured young woman with an uncommon lock on the future.”

In 1977, Philadelphia’s premier jazz writer, Nels Nelson, prognosticated, “Monnette Sudler is not only a superior musician, but a mature and self-assured young woman with an uncommon lock on the future.” How right he was.

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