Jazz Philadelphia

V-JAM Philly Session Leader: The Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project

In 2018-2019 five Philadelphia jazz organizations—Jazz Bridge, Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts, Philadelphia Jazz Project, Jazz Philadelphia, and Ars Nova Workshop—engaged in a collaborative discovery process to explore how to preserve, interpret, and share Philadelphia’s expansive jazz history. Funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the one-year Discovery Project brought together leading figures in the local jazz community to develop a vision and lay the groundwork for a sustainable Philly Jazz Archives. Philadelphia has been home to many transformative figures in jazz history, including Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra, in addition to lesser-known musicians who shaped the community and its music. The project represented the first coordinated effort to identify and preserve original source materials that tell the story of the city’s vibrant jazz tradition, including manuscripts, recordings, photographs, show programs, and oral histories.

Today, The Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project (PJLP) is fiscally sponsored by Ars Nova Workshop and has received grants from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and the Stepping Stones Foundation to continue the work to establish a Philly Jazz Archives to collect, preserve, and share the city’s rich jazz history.

When COVID-19 hit, PJLP immediately asked the local jazz community to make 3-5-minute videos about the impact the virus has had on their lives, their emotions, and their music, and gave them a payment in return to help ease the blow of lost gigs due to venue closings. 

Project Director Suzanne Cloud says she has seen the community come together during this time: “The Philly jazz community has always been close knit and supportive of one another,” Cloud says. “During the pandemic, that means donating to musicians directly for their streaming music videos, supporting organization who are streaming concerts, and individuals helping each other with shopping and other necessities while musicians shelter in place.”

“The Philly jazz community has always been close knit and supportive of one another”

Even though PJLP has had to postpone programming at the African American Museum, Cloud says they are eager to start video interviewing jazz musicians in their homes and surveying their memorabilia after social distancing measures have ceased. 

“People have always turned to the arts in times of trouble, in times of anxiety and fear,” Cloud says. “Music lifts the spirits and allows the emotions to take a break from sad and worried thoughts that have been generated by this frightening pandemic. When we face the unknown, music that we love helps us cope. So, put on any type of music and find your strong center—we can get through this with a familiar rhythm and lovingly remembered melody.”

Hometown Hero: Christian McBride

By Bobbi Booker | Photo by R. Andrew Lepley

While acclaimed bassist and bandleader Christian McBride has toured internationally, appeared on more than 300 recordings as a sideman and is a six-time Grammy Award winner, he’s never forgotten his regional roots.

West Philadelphia-born and raised, Christian’s budding musicianship was nurtured early by observing his father, fellow bassist Lee Smith, while his mother, he recalled, enrolled me in every single music program in Philly: the All-City Orchestra, All-City Jazz Band, Settlement Music School Jazz Ensemble, Temple University Youth Orchestra, Temple University Youth Chamber Group.

By the time he entered the Philadelphia High School For Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA), he’d transitioned from electric to upright bass and began to forge working relationships with fellow young musicians.

My best friend growing up was (jazz organist, trumpeter, and vocalist) Joey DeFrancesco. We inspired each other: We went to the same high school, so we were together five days a week for four years, so we were learning from each other. Then starting in my junior year of high school, we had a new student come in, whose name was Amir Thompson—the rest of the world knows him as Questlove (drummer/co-leader of The Roots)—and then we started playing together every day. So I was very fortunate to go to CAPA because everybody there was insanely talented at something. You had no choice but to be inspired and practice every day because there was somebody around you every minute of the day doing something incredible.

Away from the bass, Christian is the dynamic host of NPR’s Jazz Night in America and embraces his role as Jazz House Kids co-music educator along with his wife, Melissa Walker. Yet, for him, all music roads lead back to Philly.

I am so proud of our hometown because they keep turning them out all the time,” Christian added. “Every generation there is a handful of musicians that come out and onto the world stage—and they just kill it. And, I’m just so proud of the fact that music education is still important in Philadelphia so that they are getting training and sharpening their skills. Because everybody has talent at something, but they don’t follow up on that to strengthen it and build it and to learn more about what it is that they’re doing, but Philadelphia has never had that problem.

V-JAM Philly Session Leader: Ars Nova Workshop

The Ars Nova Workshop (ANW) team has been busy during COVID-19 isolation. “We’re still dreaming up ways to support our heroes, including some virtual concerts, some commissioning, and we continue to work on our annual festival, our podcast, our upcoming LP releases, our exhibition (and connected catalog),” says executive and artistic director Mark Christman. “We’re also looking on how to partner with a record label to get recordings from our 20-year archive out commercially, getting much-needed funds into the hands of artists.”

With over 18 years of ambitious jazz and contemporary music activities behind them, the workshop’s archive of past events is extensive. ANW is also participating in virtual events and is putting together an impressive line-up for this Sunday as part of the Quarantine Concerts, a live-stream series hosted by Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio. “It includes amazing artists from Chicago, New York City, Saturn, but it’s all Philly,” Christman says. 

On their continuing response to COVID-19, Christman expounds: “We’re part of the burgeoning Jazz Coalition, a collective of industry professionals, musicians, fans, and supporters who are working together to identify global needs affecting the jazz and improvised music community, and strategizing solutions and opportunities towards action.”

Participating in national coalitions and events like these is an important part of ANW’s mission to elevate the profile and expand the boundaries of jazz and contemporary music in Philadelphia. ANW presents 40+ concerts per year featuring the biggest names in jazz and contemporary music. The workshop operates through partnerships with venues, non-profits, makers, visionaries, and creatives to present in spaces throughout Philadelphia. The workshop runs the “New Paths” festival, and in 2017, inaugurated The October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music (or OctRev), named in homage to a groundbreaking festival put together in 1964 by Bill Dixon. 

Christman says he is excited to continue planning future exhibitions. “We’re working on a major exhibition around the free jazz pioneer and polymath Milford Graves. It will open in late September at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Whether we’re all wearing masks or not, we’re looking forward this project many years in the making!”

Hometown Hero: Immanuel Wilkins

By A.D. Amorosi | Photo by Chris Longyne

Upper Darby-raised, Julliard School of Music graduate Immanuel Wilkins could have done anything. He started playing violin at age 3, moved to the piano at 4, was a child of the church, and his parents had an eye toward classical music for their smart son.

So, why jazz?

“When I was in third grade, I found out you could get into band a grade early if you had your own instrument,” said Wilkins. “I asked my parents for a saxophone, and they asked me to prove how much I wanted it, before they bought one. I figured out a song from church, and the sax rendered itself… resonant.”

No. Why. Jazz?

“I don’t associate myself with the word as much as the deed. Like all black music, there’s a certain freedom about it. The music, the culture, the community of it drew me in. But, it was always there.”

As a saxophonist-composer who studied outside of Philly – as well as outside the realm of music, and into experimental film—the community of Philly jazz means something more. “It took me leaving here to know and miss all of its most amazing things,” said Wilkins.

“When I mention Mickey Roker, Marshall Allen or Jamaaladeen Tacuma to players in NYC, they’re like ‘you’re around THOSE PEOPLE?” Considering the state of music education, let alone jazz, mentors as such are lost. Masters are lost. Wilkins knows he is lucky to have these heroes at his fingertips. “I’m part of the last generation that will be around those masters,” he said.

 “We have to treasure the mentors and the masters.”

Wilkins and Philly‘s young jazz lions must make themselves into mentors, become the next teachers and players to hold sway and gentle command over future generations. “I think my generation—visionary in its own right—will pick up that mantle. In my opinion, there hasn’t been a revolutionary talent in jazz the last 10 or 20 years. Jazz used to change drastically every ten years. Was a hard line moved between 2000 and 2010? Not really. Between 2010 and 2020? That’s where we come in.”

How Wilkins will lead the revolution comes down to taking the traditions and influences of his past—maintaining the love and inspiration of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Benny Carter, Charlie Parker and Henry Threadgill—and twisting it into his own stately, sophisticated swirl. His debut recording, Omega —produced by Jason Moran on the Blue Note label—will show off Wilkins’ talents toward the expectedly unexpected.

“I’m a traditionalist to people that are non-traditionalists and I’m a non-traditionalist to people who are traditionalist,” he said with a laugh. “Let’s do it all. One of my main goals has been to bridge the gap, and how do I get people who look like me at my shows. The answer is… honesty. Being true to myself—how I create, write, and improvise. We’re all product of truth and faith.”

Hometown Hero: Larry McKenna

By Bobbi Booker | Photo by Melissa Gilstrap

Hailed as one of the world’s finest jazz saxophone players, Larry McKenna is firmly rooted in his Philadelphia birthplace where he has spent over six decades showcasing a gorgeous tenor saxophone sound.

Aside from being a frequent guest on recordings by other top jazz players, Larry has released three other records under his name to critical acclaim. His partnership with longtime friend and fellow Philly tenor player, Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, resulted in their well received CD, “The More I See You” (Cellar Live 2018).

“Bootsie has been a big influence on me and also a good friend,” recalled Larry. “He’s among many of the really great musicians that come from this town, and I saw them when I was younger. I have been here all this time and seen a lot of people pass through and a lot of them have gone on to different places—and some of them have stayed here.”

Beyond his international reputation as a masterful jazz improviser, Larry is one of the most sought-out saxophone and jazz theory teachers in the region. The instrumentalist has kept a finger on the pulse of music trends by engaging with students at the University of the Arts, Temple University School of Music, West Chester University, Widener University, and Community College of Philadelphia.

“As a jazz musician, you have to keep your ears open to what’s going on at all different times,” he explained. “So if you’re just stuck in one groove, and you say, ‘Oh, well, this is the way I play, and I’m not going to change,’ you’re doing yourself a disservice. If I play with somebody, and I hear them doing something, I let myself open to be influenced by it, because I think that brings out something in me that maybe hasn’t come out before. It’s important to listen to what’s going on around you, and feel free to let it be an influence on you.”

Hometown Hero: Hiruy Tirfe

By A.D. Amorosi | Photo by Lidia Peterson

At 24 years of age, saxophonist Hiruy (Henry) Tirfe is killing it.

Not only has the Upper Darby-raised-and-schooled musician, in his brief career, already studied with the likes of composer-educator Anthony Tidd and played with top tier jazz lions such as organist Joey DeFrancesco and trombonist Robin Eubanks. The young jazz man with an eye toward future-forward music has backed up some of the biggest names in hip hop, such as Solange Knowles and The Roots, and has also appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon. Tirfe even has his own t-shirt and hoodie line, “Everythings KILLIN” which means—like the biggest names in music, sports, and entertainment—Tirfe is a ‘brand.’

“I didn’t do a t-shirt line to be a brand, necessarily,” said Trife with a laugh. “Even though musicians are known for having everything from their own line of drum sticks and instruments to skateboards. I did it because that is my motto: ‘Everythings KILLIN.’ And it stands for having everything being good in life—it’s OK—and meant to promote positivity for everyone. It’s there to tell people from Philly, and all around the globe, that whatever you have in your life, whatever you are, you must appreciate it.”

Tirfe’s life as a first-generation American (his parents are Eritrean and came to the United States in 1993) is all about appreciating the little and the big things. Though his parents weren’t much for buying albums, music swelled within the Tirfe household, and the teen Tiruy won a John Coltrane tribute album while playing saxophone in an Upper Darby High School talent context.

Tirfe never looked back.

“There was something magical in Trane’s compositions that I wanted to know more about from that moment forward,” said Tirfe, who—as a saxophonist—is influenced by Coltrane and fellow reedmen Michael Brecker, Cannonball Adderley, and Dick Oats. “I’m also inspired by Art Blakey—everything he did as a drummer and as a leader, he did with intensity. His music was always passionate and intense. That’s something that we need to do with this music, any music—lift it higher. People in the audience want to hear that intensity, to hear their spirits lifted by us. We have to make that journey worth it.”

The ‘us’ that Tirfe is talking about is the other set of influences in his life, his friends and comrades in Philadelphia jazz such as trombonists Jeff Bradshaw and Aaron Goode who lift him up.

“This scene of musicians in Philadelphia are crucial to my existence,” he says.

After graduating from the University of The Arts with a bachelor’s in saxophone performance, a minor in music education, and a master’s degree to boot, Tirfe believed he wound spent his life, not so much as a professional musician, but as a teacher. “That’s what I wanted to be, that’s what I thought my vocation would be,” he said.

Yet, between graduating and working on his debut leader album since 2018—the work-in-progress Malcolm Gladwell-inspired “10,000 Hours” with its surprising take on sampling and the use of 808 rhythms (‘it won’t be your usual quartet or quintet outing”)—Tirfe discovered playing on other artists’ sessions and live dates, all in varying styles. There, he learned life and music principles that make sense for anyone looking to succeed beyond just being the soloist or the bandleader.

“I’ve played with rapper Chill Moody and vocalist Patti LaBelle where you have to make ample room for the voice. I’ve played during the Grammys 2020 broadcast where the job was locking in with a good sound and being able to diligently read sheet music. As well as lead, you have to learn how to follow, and be ready for whatever job comes to you. Locking in with a good sound like I did at the Grammys—that’s a talent to be proud of. You don’t want be the one saxophone out of many who don’t sound good.”

Keeping on the tip of positivity and positive affirmation for all players, Tirfe said, “For younger people: be ready for anything that comes your way. It isn’t always just about you, or what you can do. The job may be about laying down a groove. Reading parts. Hitting the bass line and staying there. Work on music. All of music. Make it second nature.”

V-JAM Philly Session Leader: Jazz Bridge Project

By Rhenda Fearrington

The very mission of the Jazz Bridge Project is to assist Greater Philadelphia area jazz and blues artists in times of crisis. A mission such as this would have to be born out of love, where love is a verb. It is love that shows up to meet the needs of our jazz community. It is love that finds a way to clear obstacles from a musician’s path, giving them peace of mind and allowing them to re-focus their energy on their art. For 16 years, Jazz Bridge has been dedicated to addressing many types of crises without delay. 

However, COVID-19 was a game-changer, one that created the need for us to act preemptively. In the first weeks of March, after hosting 17 Neighborhood Concerts, we knew that for the safety of our artists, patrons, and everyone who supports our concert series, our three venues would temporarily close and we would have to cancel the remaining seven concerts in late March, April, and May, thus ending our season abruptly. Rather than wait until the impact of losing these gigs was felt, we immediately decided to offer an honorarium to each musician who was scheduled to perform at the canceled performances.  

The musicians let us know how much they appreciated this unexpected gesture of solidarity and support. And a sense of community was ever-present, as many of them declined the funds out of concern for other musicians who might be in greater need. Week-to-week, our patrons and supporters have become more aware of the impacts of the void of LIVE music and have donated generously and launched birthday fundraisers to raise funds for the Jazz Bridge Project COVID-19 Care Fund. These donations have helped musicians with critical needs flowing from the pandemic, from groceries to medications to bills for vital lifelines like phone and internet. This is what community looks like, and it reminds us of the adage: When “I” is replaced by “We,” we turn Illness to Wellness. 

At the same time, our bi-monthly newsletters have become a “one-stop shopping” source of information on everything from filing for unemployment to applying for additional support through grants. We’re also trying to connect the community to the jazz they love and miss by directing them to the treasure trove of recorded live performances and interviews with local musicians which can be found on our YouTube channel. Plans for our summer concert series in Hawthorne Park in South Philadelphia and in City parks throughout the 4th Councilmanic District are up in the air. But we’ll be ready in the fall to launch yet another stellar season of Neighborhood Concerts because music is healing and we’ll all need that.

The music increases our connectedness across any other differences we may have. Jazz, America’s music, is its own advocate that contributes to our social awareness and has the ability to create a shift in thinking about culture and stereotypes, as well as allowing one to experience engagement, joy and a feeling of being uplifted.

Right now, a universal crisis has hit the pause button on engaging with one another. But, we possess the universal key—the music. So, we’ll re-group, learn—because this is a lesson—and grow, then bounce back with renewed energy and focus. We’ll be ‘Harmonizing Art with Life’ once again, and Jazz Bridge will be right there with the rest of our community. 

V-JAM Philly Session Leader: ACT4Music

An idea that started as a concept for an iPhone app a year ago has now come into fruition at the perfect time. “When the corona pandemic took over, the idea which I had been sporadically working on suddenly got moved to the front burner,” says Anthony Tidd. “I’ve been working on it non-stop—dawn to dusk—since the beginning of March.”

What came out of Tidd’s work is ACT4Music, or Advancing Creative Transformation for Music, an organization that builds on the self-empowerment traditions underpinning the jazz community for over 100 years. Tidd says he felt there wasn’t enough support or venues dedicated to the furthering of creative music (jazz) or the uplift of this scene and community. “This led me to start exploring ways that I could develop a new venue and model for this purpose,” he says. The organization consists of Tidd, the creative director and founder, Dimitri Louis, the technical director, and four volunteers. Their first initiative: ACT4Music Fest.

“My [original] goal was to create a web-based international festival for creative music that would also feature hubs in a few major cities (London, Paris, Berlin, NYC, Philly, LA, etc…), which would present live performances along with streamed broadcasts via projectors and the iPhone app over an 8-week period,” Tidd explains. “The festival would focus on presenting creative artists to a global audience and commissioning new works to be presented as part of the festival. ACT4Music Fest is basically this hosted through a website, and obviously without the live hubs.”

ACT4Music Fest seeks to provide quarantined cities all over the world with daily opportunities to hear great performers do what they do best, while providing music loving audiences everywhere with a simple way to support the creative music community during this time of need. The ACT4Music Fest model is structured to provide artist-centric compensation, both in terms of ticket sales from shows, and in the form of a series of ACT4Music-Grants, intended specifically to help artists.

There are currently over 70 musicians and curators participating in the festival. Philadelphia musicians include: Dan Blacksberg, Ernest Stuart, Gerald Veasley, J. Michael Harrison, Mike Boone, Orrin Evans, Sumi Tonooka and a host of others.

The festival, which launched on Monday, April 20, 2020, runs for eight weeks and has four shows per day, six days per week for a total of 192 shows. 

Hometown Hero: Marshall Allen

By Suzanne Cloud | Photograph by Colin M. Lenton

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1924, Marshall Allen started on the clarinet at age ten. Eight years later, the time studying music stood him in good stead when he enlisted in World War II at age 18. After helping to liberate Italy and then going on to play alto saxophone with the Special Services entertainment division in Paris, the young player quickly got attention from two very important saxophonists—Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins. The lucky association ultimately evolved into a tour, and recording, with James Moody’s Boptet.

Allen met Sun Ra in the early 1950s, and his life was transformed. Ra’s mystical world and mission of human elevation changed Allen’s ideas about what music could inspire and do for spiritual uplift. So, the alto saxophonist stayed, and a unique movement was born that would end up in Philadelphia in 1968 when the Sun Ra Arkestra moved from New York City into a rowhome on Morton Street, a home they called “The Pharaoh’s Den.” 

Explaining the move, Allen said, “We were in Chicago 10 years, then in New York 10 years, so we moved to Philly, the First Capital, the birth of the country. When we got Philadelphia, we got America!”

Allen helped Sun Ra run the band “rehearsing Monday through Sunday” until Ra’s death in 1993, and after saxophonist John Gilmore died in 1995, led the Arkestra ever since, constantly exploring and reexploring the musical output of the late pioneer of Afrofuturism.

Trenton musician and current member of Kool and the Gang trumpeter Michael Ray (who’s been associated with the band since 1978), was mentored by Allen. Ray wrote in an email, “Marshall was my roommate and took me under his wing. He has been an unlimited reservoir of information, music, and love. He has always said, ‘PLAY WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW.’ To this day, I’m learning to play what I don’t know.”

Marshall Allen pioneered the avant-garde jazz movement of the early 1960s, and he was one of the first jazz musicians to blend traditional African song into his music. Allen’s collaborations with percussionist Babatunde Olatunji mark some of the first free jazz/traditional African music fusions. Because of his vast musical impact, this multi-instrumentalist won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Vision Festival in 2009 and was named a Pew Fellow in 2012 by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

Marshall Allen speaks about how Sun Ra’s concept of the “spirit of the day” isn’t an abstraction, and the idea says a lot about his creative longevity. Artists must leave preconceived notions of genres behind to express what is happening now in the world. Find your own instrumentation, and your own ways of playing an old or new composition. Explode your musical vocabulary and discover atypical rhythms of surprise.

Allen, who will celebrate his 96th birthday on May 25, 2020, understands how this philosophy keeps him young enough to find the next original musical thought that speaks to the world a moment later.

It’s like life,” says Allen. “You do the same things, but you do them differently because of the situation. If it’s raining, you get your umbrella and keep on going.”

V-JAM Philly Session Leader: The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance

Maud Lyon, president of The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, sees the dire situation of the Philadelphia jazz community and is working to do something about it. “Jazz suffers from both the loss of work at nonprofit venues and the closing of restaurants, bars, and clubs,” Lyons explains. “The majority of musicians are freelancers, making this situation especially difficult and uncertain. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is doing all we can to bring you resources, and to amplify your voice to leaders!”

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (GPCA) has been amplifying the voices of 460 member organizations since 1972. GPCA reports on the health and growth of the arts sector; awards grants in partnership with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; performs marketing and audience development through Phillyfunguide.com and Funsavers; and offers professional development, policy, and community engagement.

In 1991, they helped establish the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF) and worked to re-establish the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy (OACCE) in 2008. In response to COVID-19, these three entities recently launched the COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL to support artists as well as small and mid-sized arts organizations, and has raised $3.6 million so far. 

Additionally, GPCA is gathering data from member organizations to document the impact of the novel coronavirus and providing timely information on their philaculture.org/coronavirus page, as well as hosting webinars on how to apply for Paycheck Protection Program and making the case to individual donors. “We’re transforming the Phillyfunguide.com into a central place for over 130 virtual experiences to keep arts and culture in the public eye and to send traffic to the organizations that are streaming and posting content,” Lyon says.

Lyon says she has been impressed by the range and creativity of arts organizations continuing to serve the public: “There’s music lessons by Facetime, lots of entertainment, educational materials for kids to support beleaguered parents.”

“Music is the best virtual experience,” says Lyon. “From original hand-washing songs to Zoom choir performances to pre-recorded performances, music is helping all of us get through these troubled and frightening times.”