Jazz Philadelphia

Hometown Hero: Randy Brecker

By Shaun Brady | Photo by Attila Kleb

Trumpet great Randy Brecker is a legendarily prolific voice across the worlds of jazz, rock, pop, and R&B. He became a pioneer of jazz-rock fusion with Blood, Sweat & Tears, then with his late brother, saxophonist Michael Brecker, in Dreams and their own Brecker Brothers Band. At the same time he recorded countless sessions with superstars like Steely Dan, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa and many others.

The groundwork for that stylistic diversity, Brecker said, was laid by his formative years in Philadelphia. “A lot of the jazzers in Philly really knew how to package their wares into more pop-oriented forms,” he says, pointing to the local bebop musicians who recorded with legendary Philadelphia labels like Cameo-Parkway and Philadelphia International. “Soul, disco, rock—I never looked at it as being commercial or trying to make money; it was just a way to reach a wider audience.”

Brecker grew up in a musical family in Cheltenham, just outside of Philly—one block from reaping the rewards of the city school system’s music education programs, he laments. His father was a lawyer who played piano and was a diehard jazz fanatic, a passion he instilled in his children from an early age. 

“Dad was a trumpet fanatic. He would regale me with stories of Clifford Brown. He once grabbed me by the arm after listening to one of Clifford’s records and said, ‘Man, the trumpet is the greatest jazz instrument!’ I wholeheartedly agree with that to this day—not to be too controversial.”

“I was destined to be a musician,” Brecker says. “I had no choice. Dad was a trumpet fanatic. He would regale me with stories of Clifford Brown. He once grabbed me by the arm after listening to one of Clifford’s records and said, ‘Man, the trumpet is the greatest jazz instrument!’ I wholeheartedly agree with that to this day—not to be too controversial.”

Brecker would accompany his father over the bridge to New Jersey’s Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, New Jersey, where he got to see many of jazz’s greatest while still in his adolescence—Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Maynard Ferguson, Carmen McRae. In his teens, he began to head into the city to hear live music, often accompanied by his father, who would ask the bandleaders if his trumpet-playing son could sit in. Through these experiences, he managed to insinuate himself into both the city’s white and black jazz scenes, which were largely segregated in the 1950s and 60s. 

While still in high school, Brecker stayed busy on the local scene, playing mostly in R&B bands, which would serve him well later as he found himself in demand for funk and soul horn section gigs. He left Philadelphia in 1963 to study at Indiana University, then headed to New York City. He recorded on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ ground-breaking 1968 debut Child Is Father to the Man before leaving to join his brother Michael in the Horace Silver Quintet. 

A stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers ended when the Brecker Brothers teamed with trombonist Billy Rogers, drummer Billy Cobham and guitarist John Abercrombie to form the influential fusion group Dreams. In 1975 the Brecker Brothers Band was formed, garnering six Grammy nominations over the next six years, and another five for their reunion efforts in the 90s. He’s also been featured on hundreds of recordings over the past half-century, many of them with music’s most iconic artists, and released dozens of solo albums—most recently Sacred Ground, performing music composed by his wife, saxophonist Ada Rovatti. For all of that, he still credits Philly as the ideal training ground.

“I haven’t lived in Philly since high school, but I still feel like it’s home,” he concludes. “I learned so much. It was such a special place, and it still is.”

Hometown Hero: Laurin Talese

By Shaun Brady | Photo by Evan Doheny

For Laurin Talese and Philly, it was love at first sight. 

The singer’s first encounter with her adopted city was via a VHS tape rolled into her classroom at the Cleveland School of the Arts. “It showed the Avenue of the Arts, the Academy of Music and the Merriam, the museums,” she recalls. “It was just bursting with color, and that’s something I didn’t grow up with. Downtown Cleveland in the 90s was strictly for business; art wasn’t celebrated in the city like that. I knew I had to go to Philadelphia. And the rest is history.”

That history is still very much in the process of being written. Since the release of her 2016 debut album, Gorgeous Chaos, Talese has seen her profile rising well beyond Philadelphia. In 2018 she took top honors in the seventh annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, which was particularly meaningful given her love for the iconic singer. In the fall of 2019, she embarked on a State Department-sponsored tour of Montenegro, Ukraine, and Poland, where she performed and led educational workshops.

Talese grew up in Cleveland with a family that was musical, albeit in a non-professional fashion. Her father and uncles would gather regularly to harmonize in the family’s dining room, singing songs from the doo-wop era through the classic soul of Marvin Gaye to 90s hits by the likes of After 7. Young Laurin would try to insinuate herself into this “grown man stuff,” one day finally catching her approving father’s ear. Soon after she found herself part of a children’s singing troupe, performing Christmas songs and archaic ditties at nursing homes and hospitals. In middle school she joined a community choir, providing the opportunity to hear voices influenced by R&B and gospel, though she still hadn’t discovered her own path.

She was helped along on her journey toward jazz by Dr. William Woods, her high school jazz professor, who introduced her to classic jazz singers like Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Chet Baker. “This was in the middle of the New Jack Swing era,” she laughs. “I loved Mariah Carey, I loved Toni Braxton, I loved the pop divas of the 90s, but I didn’t see myself singing that music. When I heard jazz, I said ‘these are my people.’”

“There’s a glamour and grit to Philadelphia. There’s certainly a hardness to it—walking down the street you’ll get that classic Philly stare—but at the same time there’s an elegance, something inherent that only Philly possesses, and that makes it one of my favorite cities in the world.”

Talese’s love of classic jazz, combined with the contemporary R&B and soul she was surrounded by, honed her distinctive sound. Her arrival in Philadelphia in 2000, to study at the University of the Arts, brought her to the city at the height of the neo-soul movement. Her first day at school she met classmate Adam Blackstone, who went on to serve as musical director for a who’s-who of modern pop stars: Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Janet Jackson, and countless others. With his encouragement Talese began touring as a background vocalist for singers Bilal, Vivian Green, and Jaguar Wright, teaching her the realities of show business. “It was a blessing to be in their shadows,” she says.

Wherever she goes, however, Talese brings a bit of Philadelphia with her. That initial infatuation with the city hasn’t faded, and she credits its unique character for helping her to find her own voice in the music. “Everybody embraces their own individuality here, she says. “People make you notice them because of the way that they express themselves. I was really taken by that and influenced by that. There’s a glamour and grit to Philadelphia. There’s certainly a hardness to it—walking down the street you’ll get that classic Philly stare—but at the same time there’s an elegance, something inherent that only Philly possesses, and that makes it one of my favorite cities in the world.”

Hometown Hero: Mike Boone

By Bobbi Booker | Photo by Richard Timbers II

As an enterprising young bassist, Mike Boone took what he initially thought was a detour from his New York City home to Philadelphia. Now, nearly four decades later he is firmly entrenched in his adopted home, playing, teaching, and mentoring up and coming musicians.

“Jazz is definitely a spiritual music and it’s also part of our culture as African American people,” reflected Mike at the start of freewheeling, and often passionate, conversation. “Sometimes that gets lost when you’re in academia—they don’t teach you about the connections. They don’t talk about the soulful jazz, urban jazz, and electric jazz.”

Mike began with piano lessons at the age of eight, later attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music to study bass. After touring with Ben Vereen and Buddy Rich, he moved to Philly in 1983.

“What I learned from hanging out in Philadelphia and meeting all sorts of people is that jazz was an African American art form and has spiritual qualities because it does come from the blues, which come from the church. There is definitely this connection, and I made those connections in a way that I probably wouldn’t have made had I stayed in New York. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be playing jazz, so it was a blessing to come to Philly.”

After embracing the upright bass, he found himself in the company of legendary local musicians, including John Swana, Sid Simmons, Byron Landham, Shirley Scott, and many more. Mike especially recalls his tutelage from Trudy Pitts—and Bill “Mr. C” Carney’s insistence that he convert from electric to acoustic bass.

As a leader, Mike has produced a few albums of his own and is currently an adjunct professor of jazz at Temple University. Nowadays, he is often accompanied on stage by his teenage son, musical prodigy Mekhi Boone, who plays drums. The bassist also has a vibrant social media life on Facebook where his provocative posts garner buzz-worthy responses. Ultimately, for the elder Boone, it is all about the power of music.

“I’m just trying to make people feel good and to do my job. Musicians are healers—we’re doctors, we heal people. People come in, and if they don’t feel good, we’re supposed to make them feel good.”

“I was blessed to learn the real deal: street jazz. So I take some of that street jazz with me into the classroom and directly on the bandstand and that’s what I try to portray. I’m not trying to do a bunch of hip stuff. I’m just trying to swing my ass off. I’m trying to tap into God because that’s where all this stuff comes from anyway. I’m just trying to make people feel good and to do my job. Musicians are healers—we’re doctors, we heal people. People come in, and if they don’t feel good, we’re supposed to make them feel good.”

Mike added, “They call Nashville ‘Music City,’ but when I think of Philadelphia, it is a true Music City—and I will always shout from the rooftops: ‘We got it!'”

Hometown Hero: Nicholas Krolak

By A.D. Amorosi | Photo by Mikhail Bezruchko

Philadelphia’s Nicholas Krolak is so in tune with nature and outdoor sporting preoccupations such as climbing that you actually begin to forget that he’s one of this city’s premier jazz stand-up bassist-composers, and that’s he’s released two rivetingly dynamic and challengingly contemporary post-bebop albums—2018’s Chicory Root and 2020’s Voice = Power—to prove it.

Philadelphia’s Nicholas Krolak is so in tune with nature and outdoor sporting preoccupations such as climbing that you actually begin to forget that he’s one of this city’s premier jazz stand-up bassist-composers, and that’s he’s released two rivetingly dynamic and challengingly contemporary post-bebop albums—2018’s Chicory Root and 2020’s Voice = Power—to prove it.

That melding of nature, nurture, jazz, and vibe—the freedom of it all—is exactly the point where Krolak is concerned. “My inspiration is to combine it all as I see similarities between the jazz world and the outdoors community,” said Krolak. “They’re both trying to protect this thing that is sacred to them… protect it from the interests of consumerism, against the short-sightedness of cashing in.”

“My inspiration is to combine it all as I see similarities between the jazz world and the outdoors community. They’re both trying to protect this thing that is sacred to them… protect it from the interests of consumerism, against the short-sightedness of cashing in.”

Krolak hails from Woodbridge, NJ, and attended Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Both nice—but neither are jazz jam session hubs. “There were many drives down to Philly at that point,” noted Krolak, who, after college, got a gig as a touring member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. “After that tour is when I moved to Philly.”

Obsessed with the upright bass, Krolak played in rockabilly bands in high school. “That was fun, but got boring fast,” he says. Through his facility on the instrument, he became equally obsessed with jazz. “The upright was my way in. The freedom of jazz kept me there.”

Once there, Krolak can be totally functional in regard to maintaining time and rhythm or more expressive in his search for melody and shadow. “You can ride that spectrum forever,” he said. “It never gets old.”

The freedom is there, a delicious option. But, a big part of that ride, the maintenance side, comes from the more nurturing part of Krolak’s personality. “When I’m playing music, I want everyone else to sound good, and be supportive. I never wish I could’ve taken a solo when I didn’t. I’m a laid back personality—a team player.”

Krolak was allowed to develop the more supportive side of his musical personality through one of his mentors, Temple University professor and bassist David Wong, who saw Nicholas through his Master’s Degree in Music. “Best lesson I learned from Wong was how to pick your right moment,” he said of feeling free to decline, then to shine brightly when necessary. Krolak also goes on to claim locals such as Paul Rostock, Mike Boone (“always giving knowledge”), Terrell Stafford, Ben Schaechter (“he helped me learn how to write.. all the songs from my first album came out of those studies”) and Gerald Veasley (“the man”) as friends and mentors. And, as for being a scene guy, a going-out guy, Krolak is mostly a stay at home kitten who only comes out to play. “For high-level jazz the likes of which Philly does, you have to be in the city and the scene, at events like (pianist) Tim Brey’s nights at TIME, or anywhere (trumpeter) Elliot Bild plays… if not, I’d live somewhere more rural.”

While that rural setting (or at least the back and forth between the bucolic outdoors and the clustered, crowded city-inspired “Chicory Root,” Krolak’s newer music from “Voice = Power”—just like his jazz interview podcast of the same name—deals with issues such as sustainability (“in an abstract way”),  touches on lyrics and spoken word poetry, and portrays the bassist-composer revealing the voice and pace of his own private “superhero” power.

“Some people hear whole things in their head and be done with it—I’m a whittler, picking at something over time until it’s right for me.”

Hometown Hero: Joey DeFrancesco

By Suzanne Cloud | Photo by Michael Woodall

The story goes like this: Philadelphia pianist Eddie Green led a jam session at the Not Quite Cricket room at the Latham Hotel every Sunday, and it was always packed. One night a 9-year-old kid came in with his parents and wanted to sit in on piano. Humoring the kid, Green chuckled and retired to the bar to let the rest of his rhythm section, bassist Steve Beskrone and drummer Nicky Ciminale, handle it. The kid sat down at the piano, counted off “Billie’s Bounce,” and the rest was history. 

Within a year from that night, organist Joey DeFrancesco would be sitting in with saxophonist Hank Mobley and drummer Philly Joe Jones, who realized right away this young jazzman was going places. By the age of 16, DeFrancesco secured a recording contract with Columbia Records and single-handedly brought back the popularity of Hammond B-3 jazz in the 1980s, joining a long line of  Philly organ luminaries in the city’s pantheon of monster B-3 players—Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith, Don Patterson, Groove Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, and Trudy Pitts among them. 

It was a heady time, touring and recording with Miles Davis—who inspired him to take up the trumpet—and recording his first album, All of Me, to be followed by Where Were You in 1990, Part III in 1991, Reboppin in 1992, and Live at the 5 Spot in 1993. Soon, DeFrancesco was collaborating with guitarist John McLaughlin, eventually forming a group with him called “The Free Spirits” that lasted 4 years and resulted in several albums, including After the Rain and Live in Tokyo.

But by 2000, DeFrancesco was back to his Philly roots bringing his idol Jimmy Smith onstage with him for the album Incredible! Live at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. His trio at the time, which featured Philadelphia drummer Byron Landham and guitarist Paul Bollenbeck, turned out The Philadelphia Connection: A Tribute to Don Patterson, an album hailing the artistry of an organist who made his home in Philly the last decade of his life. 

DeFranceso says, “Philadelphia has an incredible jazz legacy, second to none.”

“Philadelphia has an incredible jazz legacy, second to none.”

The Philly powerhouse has won the Downbeat Critics Poll nine times, the Readers Poll every year since 2005, and became a Hammond Organ Hall of Fame inductee in 2013. DeFrancesco has won five Grammy nominations to date and won a star on Philly’s Walk of Fame on the Avenue of the Arts in 2016.

To finish the story that opened this Hometown Hero profile, a story that has become part of the standard jazz lore of our city, the incredibly young lad surprised everyone in the club, and brought the house down, eliciting torrents of applause and hoots. After the uproar died down, Eddie Green slowly got up from the bar with his drink, walked over to the piano, and bent down to this new prodigy on the scene. He smiled and said, “Go to your room!” The audience exploded again in appreciation of the historic moment of an old head welcoming the future. I know. I was there.

Hometown Hero: Sam Reed

By Jack McCarthy | Photo from Philadelphia Jazz Project

Few Philadelphia musicians have had careers as rich and varied as saxophonist and bandleader Sam Reed. Born in South Carolina in 1935, at the age of six Sam came to live in the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia, then home to a vibrant black community with an active music scene. There, Sam became fast friends and bandmates with Albert “Tootie Heath (his lifelong best friend), Ted Curson, Bobby Timmons, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes, and other future jazz greats. 

Reed studied with Jimmy Heath, Tootie’s older brother, and through Heath was able to meet his jazz idols, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and others. As Sam recalls, the Heath house was a home-away-from-home for these jazzmen when they were in town. “The Heath house was where all the famous people of the music world came. The first time I met Charlie Parker and his group was at the Heath’s house,” he says. “At that time Parker’s group consisted of Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan, and Tommy Potter. Jimmy told Charlie Parker that I wanted to play sax. He smiled and said to me, “practice all the time.” In all likelihood, these memories are probably in 1947 or 1948.

“The Heath house was where all the famous people of the music world came. The first time I met Charlie Parker and his group was at the Heath’s house”

Reed continued, “Mrs. Heath would fix dinner for them, and they’d be at the table eating, and Tootie and I’d be sitting back, you know, just watching their mouths and everything they did. Another time J. J. Johnson and his band stopped through before a big concert at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Dizzy Gillespie and some of the members of his big band also stopped through. It was an exciting time, experiencing these recording artists up close, musicians that I had only heard on records.”

Reed and his buddies formed a band in their mid-teens and began getting gigs in the neighborhood at various local African American social clubs, fraternal organizations, and community institutions. “We developed our skills in improvising by listening to records. I would use my ear to take the notes off the records and wrote them down for our band to play for house parties and dances,” Reed says. “My first gig was at the Women’s Y at 16th and Catherine Streets. There was a little room on the side as you walk in the door, and they had a piano, and we would set the band up there. It was Ted Curson, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Jimmy Garrison or sometimes Henry Grimes, and Bobby Timmons or Robert Green, who also played piano.”

He then graduated to playing local venues such as Peps, the Showboat, and Spider Kelly’s, club’s in Atlantic City and Wildwood, New Jersey, and to leading his own band. He also played behind many jazz greats, including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and was an in-demand 60s and 70s session player, whether it was jazz, R&B, rock ‘n roll, or soul music.

Reed’s s biggest claim to fame was his stint starting in 1963 as leader of the house band at North Philly’s legendary Uptown Theatre, the city’s premiere venue for black entertainment in the 50s and 60s. He was also the first contractor for the horn players at Philadelphia International Records, playing on several hit records in the early 1970s and helping to craft the emerging “Sound of Philadelphia,” and also toured the world with Teddy Pendergrass.  

Still playing in his mid-eighties, Reed is often called upon by writers and documentarians for his insights on the history of Philly’s rich music scene.

“There were a lot of great musicians that came out of Philadelphia that were good in their particular time. They were stars as far as their years, in the 1930s and 1940s. What they did, they passed it on to us, to help us. And we just grabbed onto it. There were so many talented musicians here in Philly when I was growing up. Everybody just seemed to have what it takes to be a good musician. Whenever we had a chance to practice or get together, that’s what we did, so we could learn the tunes and know what we were doing with them and play them as well as we could.”

Hometown Hero: Wallace Roney

By Suzanne Cloud

Trumpeter Wallace Roney died from complications of the COVID-19 virus on March 31, 2020 at the age of 59. But his life in Philadelphia and beyond will always make him a Hometown Hero.

Born on May 25, 1960 in Philadelphia, Roney would become one of the leading lights of The Young Lions Movement in the 1980s. When he was 4 years old, his family discovered he had perfect pitch, so he was packed off to Settlement Music School to develop his talent and be tutored by Sigmund Hering, trumpeter for the Philadelphia Orchestra. A prodigy, Roney became the youngest member of the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble at age 12 until his parents divorced and the young teen trumpeter went to live with his father in Washington, D.C.,  where he immediately enrolled in the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a top high school for promising talent. Before he even graduated high school, he made his debut at Ali’s Alley, a loft space venue opened by Philadelphia drummer Rashied Ali to showcase veterans of the free jazz movement and encourage up-and-coming jazz musicians.

Within a few years, Roney’s star was rising and he moved to New York City permanently in 1981, where he played with Dollar Brand, McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Jay McShann, Slide Hampton, David Murray, Curtis Fuller, Junior Cook, and Frank Foster’s Big Band. 

Then came his big creative break—he became a member of the Tony Williams Quintet and took the place of Terence Blanchard in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the late 1980s. Once Roney released his first album as a leader, Verses, in 1989, he was an established jazz luminary.

Profiling Roney in The Washington Post, novelist James McBride declared, “His name is Wallace Roney III. He is 27 years old . . . and he is one of the best jazz trumpet players in the world.”

“His name is Wallace Roney III. He is 27 years old . . . and he is one of the best jazz trumpet players in the world.”

Wallace Roney was often accused of being a Miles Davis imitator by critics, and he never refuted that Miles was a huge influence on him. But Roney was immensely proud of what he learned from Miles, especially after they became fast friends. And Roney was always quick to point out that he followed his own muse. 

Roney, interviewed by JazzTimes, said, “Man, it takes a lot of knowledge to know how to open that door, to get that type of freedom within the form, to be able to take a chord and make that chord go anywhere you want. The reason John Coltrane played the way he played was because forms were nothing anymore. But they were everything… Then he got past that, where he could reduce it down to one chord and get the whole cycle in. Then he got to a point where you didn’t know whether he was playing ‘Resolution’ or ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ because what he was trying to say was the most important thing. . . That’s what people need to respect, not the licks.”

Wallace Roney won the Downbeat Award for Best Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 1979 and 1980, and at the end of that decade, he won the DownBeat Magazine’s Critic’s Poll for Best Trumpeter to Watch. Roney won a Grammy in 1994 for his participation in “A Tribute to Miles,” and he never tired of telling the story of when he met his idol. While appearing in an earlier tribute at The Bottom Line.

“He [Davis] asked me what kind of trumpet I had,” Roney told Time magazine, “and I told him none. So, he gave me one of his.”

Hometown Hero: Lee Mo

By A.D. Amorosi | Photo by Yonnie Simon

Whether singing jazz in a nuanced, mellow tone, tackling soul with sultry zeal, or hosting gospel’s tender spirituality with holy heft—there are no walls for Philly vocalist Lee Mo. Only open doors and easy gradations.

“Jazz allows more freedom, more room to experiment with the music and the moment,” said Mo whose vocal and compositional originals steer the forked road between jazz and R&B. “Soul music has its freedoms—gospel too—but most of it is far more structured than jazz, with harder rules. I’m never thinking as much about genre as I am conveying a feeling. Jazz, you just….mmmm.”

That may be the best definition that jazz has ever had. It’s just ‘mmmm.’

“Jazz allows more freedom, more room to experiment with the music and the moment”

Maryland-born and refusing to be placed into any boxes, musical or performance-wise, Mo lists the membership of the Baltimore City College Choir and the Baltimore City College Marching Knights as highlights of her resume, while dining out on a musical diet of jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holiday. 

“I was in the thick of studying… at a young age, I was harmonizing, picking up on things by ear,” she said. “Jazz was introduced when I was learning theory and playing trumpet in the fifth grade.” There she learned to love “voice” beyond just singing, and was inspired to further her education at Temple University, where she received her Bachelor’s in Vocal Jazz Performance in 2014.

When she got to Temple’s music program, studying under Philadelphia vocal legend Joanna Pascale and the “meeting of method and the music” became the vehicle through which she took in jazz as a whole. “Learning and un-learning, both are important,” said Mo. “The classroom is as important as the experience of going out and performing and mingling in the scene. Going out to jam sessions is a good way to unlearn, and ultimately enhance what you have to say.

The camaraderie of friends and the embrace of fellow players on the Philadelphia scene when she arrived here in 2009 is what has most impressed Mo.  She’s loved the music department, the open mics and the church services on Temple’s campus as much as she meeting trumpeter and Vertical Current bandleader Christopher Stevens (“he changed the sound of gospel with Tye Tribbett”) and Philip Collier. Making the acquaintance of mentors such as bassist Mike Boone and drummer Anwar Marshall. Playing sessions such as World Café Live’s “The Harvest,” and Warmdaddy’s soul nights.

Mo says of the scene, “There’s so many people that I am meeting at so many places all the time in Philly, playing all music, upping their skills and versatility.” 

Just like Lee Mo does every day.

Hometown Hero: Josh Lawrence

By Shaun Brady | Photo by Ola Baldych

Trumpeter Josh Lawrence grew up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, studying at Princeton High School with the tyrannical teacher caricatured in his classmate Damien Chazelle’s movie Whiplash. For the last four years, Lawrence has lived in New York City, where he’s pursuing his Masters at Juilliard while garnering accolades with his own band, Color Theory, or on tour with pop superstar Seal.

Regardless of where he came from or where he currently hangs his hat, Lawrence insists, “Philly is home to me. End of story. When I introduce myself to people I say, ‘I’m from Jersey, but Philly adopted me.’”

Lawrence’s ties to the city are evident throughout his work. Color Theory features drummer Anwar Marshall, a constant in Lawrence’s bands, as well as musicians introduced to the trumpeter through his work in pianist Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band. With Marshall and bassist Jason Fraticelli, he continues to co-lead the inventive Fresh Cut Orchestra, an ensemble originally assembled under the auspices of the Painted Bride Art Center that has gone on to enjoy a surprisingly long and fruitful life. most recently, a transformed version of the band traveled to North Carolina’s Black Mountain College to perform legendary drummer Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite in early 2019.

Even the band assembled for British singer Seal’s Standards tour was Philly-centric, reuniting Lawrence with longtime friends like trombonist Ernest Stuart, saxophonist Korey Riker, and saxophonist Chris Oatts.

Enlisted by innovative trumpeter Dave Douglas to compose a new piece of music for the annual Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), Lawrence once again declared his love for the city with “Philly Twisted,” which welcomed a pantheon of local trumpet players including Terell Stafford, John Swana, Arnetta Johnson, Leon Jordan Jr., and Duane Eubanks. 

“Playing all around the world has been great, and living in New York has definitely been fulfilling from a career perspective,” Lawrence says. “But day-to-day life there feels like being in the trenches: hop on the subway, go where you need to go, get the work done, go home. I miss Philly in a lot of ways.”

Lawrence first arrived in the city in 2000, earning a scholarship to the University of the Arts. A first stab at breaking into the New York scene proved unfulfilling, and the trumpeter took off for a year in Poland with his future wife, Ola Baldych. Returning to the States the couple found themselves back in Philly for a second five-year tenure, this one forming the associations and laying the foundation for Lawrence’s work since. He became a key member of Evans’ Grammy-nominated big band along with meeting his most important collaborators.

“I was basically raised musically in Philly. That’s been a real asset to me; it’s a specific sound and a specific attitude to life—not just music—that helps you relate to people from all over the place.”

Lawrence has released three albums on Posi-Tone by his scintillating Color Theory band, strongly drawing from the visual arts as well as other influences. His most recent album, Triptych, comprises a trio of suites inspired by painter Vasily Kandinsky, the band Earth Wind and Fire, and his wife. There’s something at the core of his music, though, that will forever remain tethered to his spiritual home.

“I was basically raised musically in Philly,” he says. That’s been a real asset to me; it’s a specific sound and a specific attitude to life—not just music—that helps you relate to people from all over the place.”

Hometown Hero: Odean Pope

By A.D. Amorosi

When it comes to the tradition of innovative Philadelphia tenor saxophonist-composers, Odean Pope is heavenly-high atop that list. Growing up, competitively, in the same North Philly neighborhoods where Benny Golson and John Coltrane lived would have that effect on any artist: it did Pope as he’s always fed his need for constant invention and metamorphosis, playing and writing albums of post-Bop, hard funk, avant-garde, saxophone choir soliloquies and Modern Creative sounds throughout his long career. He’s made daring and varied shifts in his career and his aesthetic even when staying still and repeating himself would’ve made more money. “I love all music, hearing it and playing it,” he said with gusto. “It’s a lot of hard work and discipline—the Creator allows me to pursue all of these configurations.”

Going on 82 years of age, and readying to release a new album, Pope isn’t about to give up the gauntlet any time soon. And Philadelphia is always at the forefront of everything he is and does.

“My parents moved us from South Carolina and brought me here when I was a child,” said Pope of his roots. “I was inspired first by the big Baptist church where my mother was the choir director. It was mandatory that we spoke up, be part of the experience. Then came the inspiration of living in a neighborhood of extraordinary musicians like Coltrane, Johnny Coles, Sonny Fortune, and Lee Morgan. Benny Golson lived half a block from me. I was in the mix, trying to get as much information from them as possible.”

Being part of the experience or “mixing it up” and being mentored by talented parents and extraordinary artists—to say nothing of being inspired by “a supreme being, a higher power of which I am a tool”—stayed with Pope through his adulthood as he believes in paying it forward, every way that he can.

“Whether it is the rich community of North Philadelphia where I lived, or young people coming up and playing this music, I believe in giving back,” he said before remarking that he had won a 2018 grant from the Pew Center that was devoted to examining and furthering the legacy of jazz in this city. “For one year, I had 21 young people, from age 18 to 84, exploring my music and that of my seven-piece ensemble. In order for this music to live, we have to commit ourselves, educate audiences, and be willing to give back. You have to pass the information along.”

“In order for this music to live, we have to commit ourselves, educate audiences, and be willing to give back. You have to pass the information along.”

Currently mixing an angular album with that same  (as of April 2020) septet of Philadelphia musicians featuring bassist Lee Smith and harpist Gloria Galante, Pope can’t put a label on the sound of his new music. Yet, the master is quickly able to show how its feel and tone are part of the rich continuum of playing with organist Jimmy McGriff, drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, or being a part of the funk-jazz ensemble Catalyst, before leading his own bands or assembling his Saxophone Choir.

“I’m extraordinarily blessed and this project feels good,” said Pope, comparing his newest work to personal favorites such as Catalyst’s 1972 album “Perception,” 1987’s “The Saxophone Shop” and 1999’s “Changes & Chances.”

“Really good. So different and so great. That’s always the point. It’s another tool, another very profound project I’ve created, where a higher power is telling me what to do, and working through me.”

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