After starting 2019 with a performance tour at George Mason University during Valentines Day and preparing for their upcoming international spring festival, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the Children of Adam Band’s 14-personnel tour schedule to a screeching halt on March 11, 2019. The band brainstormed during from April to June, attempting to strategize a “work-around” that would allow them to resume some resemblance of rehearsals in preparation for their new album scheduled for 2021 release.
And they found one. In order to engage with audiences, Children of Adam repurposed some performance videos they had already shot into 8 live stream events during 2020. Additionally, they focused on creating safe outdoor rehearsal space—staying 20 feet apart, using disposable mic covers and battery-operated amps and wearing ppe—to create and share audio clips for their new songs.
The band was also approached by WHYY-TV12 and some international digital radio stations about adding Children of Adam Band’s music to their shows, and festival venues that cancelled their 2019 schedule due to the pandemic are now emailing back confirmations of including the band in their 2021 season.
“As I said to the audience in our 2019 PHL Live Center Stage award ceremony: the most important thing is opportunity. Grasp and take hold of every opportunity, have faith, be patient, and you will receive what you need,” said band member Baba Ahmad Kenya.
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Due to COVID, the Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project is presenting a free, monthly Philly Jazz Zoom Room to discuss books about Philly jazz, offer presentations about Philly jazz history, and musicians discussing the music. Their first Philly Jazz Zoom Room was on January 29 and featured Homer Jackson, director of the Philadelphia Jazz Project; Eric Battle, illustrator; and Dr. Diane D. Turner, curator of the Blockson Collection at Temple to discuss the book Philadelphia Jazz Stories: Illustrated.
These free events will continue monthly. Follow their Evenbrite page to get notifications on new events.
Have a story, fundraiser, or survival strategy to share? We would love to hear about it and feature it on our Community Resilience page. Submit here.
By A.D. Amorosi
Jazz and community. Jazz and activism. Jazz and family.
These aren’t just words for West Philadelphia drummer, composer, and educator Justin Faulkner. They’re life lines, ideas on which to act, interact and intercede, to work toward, play with, and pray for.
Ask him for a motto to which he lives, and Faulkner quotes Psalm 1:3
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not yet 30, this West Philly native—a drummer who could rage and thunder, who could tickle and traipse—has played with the likes of Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jacky Terrasson, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Most famously, Faulkner has been a part of saxophone colossus Branford Marsalis’ Quartet for 12 years. More familiarly though, Faulkner is but part of a music bloodline, a familial heritage that includes the activism of his mother, Carol, the classical pianist. Of Nazir Ebo, his brother, a multi-instrumentalist, and their passion-filled West Philadelphia-focused Community Unity Music organization.
Ask Faulkner how he got to jazz and to the drums in the first place, and his answer is it’s all in the family.
“The mature aesthetic, taste, and style of the men in my family, my father and grandfather, led me to love the past,” said Faulkner. “The elegance, grace, and virtue of the women in my family—my mother and grandmother—brought an early understanding of integrity and a sense of occasion. Hindsight being twenty twenty, I find that anything connected to those four people made its way into my life in some form. Jazz entered second after Classic Men’s Style, when, at age ten, I saw a jazz chapter in my drum method book, and asked if we could check it out. There was a new font used for the notation that initially drew me in. All of the jazz heard in the house led me to that moment as well. Kind of Blue was my entry point. That album changed everything for me. Jimmy Cobb was the first drummer to inspire what is now my artistic path. Who knew that picking up a Fisher-Price drum at nine months of existence would lead to this life? I can’t see the future, but I feel like most of my early childhood foreshadowed the things to come.”
“The mature aesthetic, taste, and style of the men in my family, my father and grandfather, led me to love the past,” said Faulkner. “The elegance, grace, and virtue of the women in my family—my mother and grandmother—brought an early understanding of integrity and a sense of occasion.”
The Faulkner family—his extended family (“the scene”), as well as his spiritual family—account for the drummer’s continued dedication to jazz musicianship and spirit. Working with many Philadelphia greats across four generations, Faulkner is quick to riff on local legends such as Bootsie Barnes, Sam Reed, Odean Pope, Lumpy King, Sid Simmons, Byron Landham, Mike Boone, Marc Johnson, Orrin Evans, Craig McIver, Denise King, Nina Bundy, Michelle Beckham, Luke Carlos O’Reilly, Ernest Stuart, George Burton, Korey Riker, Dahi Divine, James Santangelo, Erik Kramer, Jordan Williams, Immanuel Wilkins, Dylan Band and Yesseh Furaha Ali.
While jazz served one part of his soul, activism came early for young Justin as well.
“My grandparents raised and provided for a lot of the children in our family and my neighborhood. That was my first understanding of advocacy. My father used to have community reading time on our steps and porch with the neighborhood kids, brothers, cousins, and me. My mom always mentored the young women in our family, in my friendship circles, and in our neighborhood. Outreach and helping young people transition into adulthood have been passions since my youth pastor Ernest Daniels Jr. changed my Christianity perspective. I will always believe in apprenticeship and mentorship for younger people. It’s one of the best forms of education one can ever experience and is often a part of the process of learning in the world’s most important career paths. Social currency is essential to the artist, especially for outreach. Kim Tucker is an extended family member but also a member of the advocacy group Jazz Bridge. Rhoda Blount is the ex-VP of Education and Community Engagement for the Mann Center and the reason I connected with Branford.”
“Teaching flight is the responsibility of anyone who has learned to fly,” he is quick to say. “My community supported me from the beginning. Words of encouragement, scholarships, resources, extended practice time allowance, support, and so many other actions showed the young man of that time his role in society.”
Always a part of his mother’s Community Unity Music organization and festival, and currently an instructor at Temple University’s College of Music and Dance, Faulkner does not look at himself as an advocate. “Teaching flight is the responsibility of anyone who has learned to fly,” he is quick to say. “My community supported me from the beginning. Words of encouragement, scholarships, resources, extended practice time allowance, support, and so many other actions showed the young man of that time his role in society.”
Along with drumming for Marsalis, one of his principle life roles is leading his own group people with whom he connects and shares pages. Gentlemen with whom he has evolved, such as saxophonist Tim Warfield and pianist Neil Podgurski. And like everything else in his life, his band is a community, an extended family.
Just like the community of which he finds himself front and center, Faulkner centers music as what sustains and inspires him.
“The music I am actively creating is informed by the past and filtered through my imagination,” said Faulkner. “I connect sound to the expression of emotion. That promotes the translation of music to the human effectively. As a song feeds me, it is also supposed to provide for others.”
By Shaun Brady | Photo courtesy of the artist
Awarded a New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America in 2019, pianist/composer Sumi Tonooka found herself inspired by the root systems of trees. Above ground they may appear self-sufficient, tall and majestic, but hidden underground there is often an intricate network of shared resources, not just within a single species but beyond the greater ecosystem.
“I thought that would be an interesting metaphor for how communities work,” Tonooka says. “I was thinking a lot about women supporting one another as artists and as friends, and of the people that have helped carry me through my life.”
The planned premiere of Tonooka’s piece was postponed, one of countless casualties of the Covid pandemic, but the delay has given her time to pause and expand the concept to encompass unfolding events such as the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and their echoes of her own parents’ radical politics of the 1960s. The idea of roots nurturing a community has also resonated with the pianist’s return to her native Philadelphia in late 2017 after decades away, first in New York and later Seattle.
“On the one hand I never left,” Tonooka explains, “in the sense that my family stayed here and I’d come back and forth quite a bit. But it took my being away to really give me a different perspective on Philly and the East Coast in general. Philadelphia has, and has always had, a very vibrant jazz scene—in the sense of the people that make the music. The economics of it is a whole other thing, but the creation and vitality of the music is about the people. And I’ve seen it happen generation after generation.”
“Philadelphia has, and has always had, a very vibrant jazz scene—in the sense of the people that make the music. The economics of it is a whole other thing, but the creation and vitality of the music is about the people. And I’ve seen it happen generation after generation.”
In more recent years that’s manifested itself as much through Tonooka’s work in the city’s educational system as through her own playing, as she’s taught gifted young players at the Kimmel Center and the University of the Arts. But she’s also continued to broaden the horizons of her own music by bridging the worlds of jazz and classical music as she does with Alchemy Sound Project, a collective of adventurous, genre-defying composer/instrumentalists.
Tonooka herself learned firsthand from some of the music’s most legendary artists, traveling to Harlem to study with pianist Mary Lou Williams and being tested on the bandstand—while confronting even harsher lessons about being a woman in the male-dominated jazz scene—through touring with drummer Philly Joe Jones while still a teenager. She enjoyed a long tenure working with bassist Rufus Reid and collaborated for more than three decades with Philly violinist John Blake Jr., including a life-changing tour of West Africa raising money for children orphaned by AIDS.
Exemplifying the generation-spanning reach so central to jazz, Tonooka’s trio now includes Blake’s son, drummer Johnathan Blake. Her own recording career as a leader was launched in 1990 by With an Open Heart, with more recent work including the solo outing Now and the quartet album Initiation, with Reid, saxophonist Erica Lindsay, and drummer Bob Braye.
“No one really knows how much time they have, but at this point I’m entering the autumn stage of my career, and what’s most important to me is trying to be authentic, not just in my work but to myself.”
The hiatus necessitated by the coronavirus has given Tonooka the time to pause and assess those accomplishments, but also what she values in her music going forward. “Creatively, the whole experience of Covid has made me really think what time I have left,” she explains. “If Covid has taught us anything, it’s just how fleeting life can be. No one really knows how much time they have, but at this point I’m entering the autumn stage of my career, and what’s most important to me is trying to be authentic, not just in my work but to myself.”
by Jazz Philadelphia | photo courtesy of scribe.org
Precious places exist all around Philadelphia, and tonight, one of the city’s most important jazz clubs will be celebrated in a Scribe Video center documentary, which is free for the public to see when it premieres at 7 p.m. tonight.
The Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts sits on Broad Street not far from Philadelphia’s City Hall on the Avenue of the Arts. Before the pandemic, walking into the center meant bumping into musicians on their way out of rehearsal studies, seeing programmers and staff readying the building for the night’s performance, and students learning to play the jazz music that has such a rich and storied history in Philadelphia.
You’d also likely find Artistic Director/Founder of the Music Education Program Lovett Hines. Hines, a soft-spoken and much-loved presence at the center, exudes clear joy when he talks about his students. Hines says that “Developing and mentoring young musicians and helping them to find their creative voice,” is far and away the most important aspect of the club to him. For him, it’s personal.
The realities fo Covid have quieted down the club, but not its activities. “Covid-19 has forced PCC to continue its programming by exploring various virtual formats,” Hines said, and adds that they are continuously working on “the ability to find alternate means to sustain existing and new programs.”
In 1935, James Adams and members of Local No. 274, Philadelphia’s African American Musician’s Union, founded the club. According to Scribe Video Center, who helped produce the documentary, it was a seminal moment. “At a time when the city’s African American musicians struggled for political, economic and cultural recognition, Local No. 274 gave them representation and broke a tradition of segregation.”
Hines says that one of the difficulties of producing the video was, “Trying to tell a comprehensive story within the time limits.” But filmmakers were able to get 86 years of history into a tight eight minutes.
Since it will likely leave you wanting more, just be patient. “There are plans to produce a more comprehensive documentary telling our story,” says Hines.
Hines says he believes the documentary will help the club by, “Reaching a broader audience, which includes musicians, jazz fans, and students,” and that the club is looking to the future. When asked what hope and opportunities there were on the horizon, Hines has a lot to look forward to. “The development of new partners, which includes alumni, a National Musicians Advisory Board, developing a sustainable donor base, and developing the Clef Club archive,” are all on the table, he says.
Don’t miss the premiere tonight at 7 p.m. to learn more about why the club is such a key aspect of Philadelphia jazz history and of its future.
The documentary will premiere on January 21, 2020, and it’s free to register to see the film on the club as well as other storied places around the city. From Scribe Video Center:
This year’s films document: The Germantown Potter’s Field by Afrocentricity International, The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts located in South Central Philadelphia, Pier 53 on the Delaware River by Friends of Washington Avenue Green in South Philadelphia, James Shuler Boxing Gym in West Philadelphia, Northlight Community Center in Roxborough-Manayunk, Dahlak Paradise by the Selam Committee in West Philadelphia, Stephen Smith Tower Apartments in Belmont, and the Freedom Theatre by the Disappearing Heritage Historic Group in North Philadelphia.
By Suzanne Cloud | Photo by Michael Perez
It was quite a place to grow up for a young man. His home at 1927 Federal Street in South Philadelphia was the place for musicians to hang and jam with his much older brothers: saxophonist Jimmy Heath and bassist Percy Heath. Young Albert Heath, named “Tootie” by his grandfather for tutti-frutti ice cream in his youth, was also named a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, not bad for a kid who would steal up to the projects in North Philly with drummers Mickey Roker, Eddie Campbell, and Lex Humphries to jam with bassist Jimmy “Spanky” DeBrest, Lee Morgan, and McCoy Tyner. As Heath told Jazz Philadelphia in a January 2021 interview, “South Philly gangs and North Philly gangs didn’t get along too well so we had to be careful, but Lee made sure we were left alone.”
Heath would meet the greatest jazz giants at the time—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, the entire Ellington Band—and some, like Trane, would end up in his brother Jimmy’s big band.
In a 2015 interview with All About Jazz, Heath said, “It was a huge band. They’d have section rehearsals in our parents’ house because it wasn’t big enough to have the whole band in there, 18 pieces or so. So, the trumpets would come one day, the reeds the next. The drummer and the bassist would be there a third day…That was one of the major influences for me to be interested in jazz.”
But the most important instrumentalist to Heath was the drummer in that big band: Charles “Specs” Wright, another Philly phenom, who took the young Heath on as a student. According to an interview with pianist Ethan Iverson (who has been working and recording with Heath), “Specs Wright was very technical, a great reader, wonderful smooth hands, clean, the “4”s were exact.” In fact, the reason everyone called him “Specs” was because no musical manuscript was too much for him. As Heath retold the story in an online oral history, “Specs could read the specks off a sheet of music!”
Soon the drummer was running around with the likes of pianist Bobby Timmons (who lived around the corner), bassist Jimmy Garrison, a singer fresh up from Florida who fell in love with the bass when he met Percy Heath, saxophonist Sam Reed (whose mom made the best coconut cakes for them after school), and the 15-year-old trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan.
The friends played a few gigs in bars around Philly until the mid-1950s when Heath joined the Hightones with John Coltrane, organist Shirley Scott, and Bill Carney, who sang and played percussion.
“Sam Reed and me used to play down the shore too, with an R&B crooner Buddy Trenier, who sang like Billy Eckstine.”
As he discussed his career, the history of Philadelphia jazz was apparent. “Sam Reed and me used to play down the shore too, with an R&B crooner Buddy Trenier, who sang like Billy Eckstine,” Heath says. “Bobby Timmons was the piano player.” Later, Heath explains they would play in the house rhythm section at the famed Philly jazz nightclub the Showboat, with headliners such as Lester Young and Oscar Pettiford. Heath even played a week at the Blue Note on Ridge Avenue with Thelonious Monk. By 1958, at the age of 23, Heath moved to New York to play with J.J. Johnson and start a wider career working and recording with the best in jazz.
Heath left the warm chrysalis of the Philadelphia jazz community, which his family was foundational in building, ultimately playing with a diversity of artists from Nina Simone (her first album Little Girl Blue) to Herbie Hancock (The Prisoner).
How does a family who loves music build a dynasty? By imbuing their children with a love of music and adventure. Heath’s mother enjoyed gospel—Mahalia Jackson was her favorite—and loved to sing. His father was a mechanic who listened to John Phillip Sousa. “My father used to play the clarinet on Saturdays and go to practice in the Elks Marching Band on Sundays. On Mondays, he put the horn in the pawn shop on his way to work and then pick it up the next Friday.”
“My father used to play the clarinet on Saturdays and go to practice in the Elks Marching Band on Sundays. On Mondays, he put the horn in the pawn shop on his way to work and then pick it up the next Friday.”
Heath said that the people on his street weren’t musical, but that “We were the people who brought the music to the neighborhood.” Even sometimes when “music” might not have been the best operational term: As a young man starting out, he once led a group consisting only of the drums and two horns.
He told an NPR interviewer, “That’s a real strange instrumentation. I mean, most people need the bass, and a lot of people like a piano in there or some melodic chordal instrument—and we didn’t have any of that. But the place across the street from where I lived, some adult people were good enough to let us come in there and play. It must have been awful. And one guy came up and gave us 75 cents as a tip. He was drunk, of course, and he walked away — ‘Oh, you kids are great.’ And I realized: That’s a quarter apiece. Hey man, we can get paid doing this!”An educator and a versatile drummer who by his resume can play nearly any genre of music, Heath remains a member of one of Philly’s most prestigious jazz families, and told his story with dynamism and joy. And he’s not finished. He also opined that, “once everything opens up again” (after COVID), he’ll be back playing with his trio. To catch his latest project, check out his album Philadelphia Beat. Or if you want a taste of his sublime drum solo work with Sonny Rollins check out St. Thomas. Then you need to move on to all the rest of the music this 85-year-old hometown hero has made his life.
“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
In past years, celebrations for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day would have included live musical performances and service projects throughout Philadelphia that people could participate in shoulder to shoulder, and hand to hand. This year, the Philadelphia Jazz Project and the Museum of the American Revolution are among the partners who have looked to highlights of celebrations past to create a beautiful and moving video celebration featuring Philly jazz artists such as V. Shayne Frederick and the renowned Philadelphia graphic artist Eric Battle. While we may not be shoulder to shoulder, we can still be heart to heart. “We Shall Continue: Celebrating MLK Weekend with the Philadelphia Jazz Project” can be viewed online on demand for anyone who needs to center themselves in the spirit of the day.
“From the very start, I was profoundly moved by the invitation from the Museum of the American Revolution to celebrate this revolutionary man, using this revolutionary music, in this revolutionary museum at this revolutionary moment in our history,” says Homer Jackson, Director of the Philadelphia Jazz Project. “Not losing sight of this grand example at work here, I did not take this opportunity to present a musical message celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lightly. I brought together a team of talented artists who work to bring together spirituality, message and mastery. We chose a collection of provocative songs that broadly illuminate the diverse and complex, personal, social, political, and spiritual energies of the times.”
Adding to the music and the inspirational poetry and reflections is the work of West Philadelphian Eric Battle, well-known for his work in major comic juggernauts in New York, and the illustrator behind the Philadelphia Jazz Project’s “Philadelphia Jazz Stories Illustrated.”
Battle told Jazz Philadelphia, “Having the honor of creating imagery of The King of Real Life Superheroes that embodies the vision, strength, perseverance, nobility, compassion, power and dreams that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspires in all of us, is an opportunity that had my imagination immediately dancing, and always will be unmatched.”
As Adrienne Whaley, Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Museum of the American Revolution says, they hope to uncover and contextualize the dynamic, “ongoing American Revolution” that is our country, and in which Dr. King placed himself, “fighting to make the words of the Constitution meaningful for all Americans.”
Participating performers in “We Shall Continue” include Kareem Idris, Toby VEnT Martin, V. Shayne Frederick, James Solomon, Kendrah Butler-Waters, Jocko McNelly, and Kimpedro Rodriguez. Historian Dr. Dianne D. Turner and civil rights activist Kenneth Abdus Salaam are among the other celebrants along with PJP’s Homer Jackson.
By Steven Bryant | Photo by Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN
Latin jazz percussionist Pablo Batista has developed a reputation as one of most versatile and hardworking players in Latin jazz, modern jazz, and in R&B and funk circles. Born to immigrant Puerto Rican parents in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Batista honed his skills playing in school bands. But his main love was playing Afro-Cuban and Latin music, which he started at the age of nine with his mentor and master percussionist Miguel Candia, also a teacher of the renowned drummer Giovanni Hidalgo.
While majoring in criminal justice and pre-law at Temple University in the early 80s, Batista continued to study music on the side. His first big break on the scene came from the fabled-Philadelphian Grover Washington. The opportunity came from a chance connection. “I had been working for a community summer program,” Batista related. “It happened that my supervisor Dr. Williams Keyes was friends with singer Jean Carne’s manager, Walt Reeder. Walt gave Grover a demo tape of Afro-Cuban drumming I made. The next thing I know, I was invited to a recording session for Jean. So my first-ever professional recording was a song called ‘Closer Than Close,’ which Grover produced for Jean and became a big hit.” Batista’s tenure with Washington started in 1991 and ended in 1999 with Washington’s passing.
In 2000, Batista crossed genre lines and joined superstar Alicia Keys, whom he toured and performed with for the better part of 12 years. During his tenure on tour, Batista continued to expand his cultural knowledge, and received two Pew Fellowships to further develop an opera titled “El Viaje.” He also received a number of grants to travel to Cuba to study Afro-Cuban percussion, music, and folklore. Percussion masters he studied with included legends like Changuito, Tata Guines, and Miguel “Anga” Diaz. As a result of these studies, Batista became an adept on the sacred bata and honed his chops on congas, timbales, and other percussion.
“In order to succeed in this art form, you have to develop discipline in all aspects of your life, both as an artist and as a professional. You achieve this goal,” Batista added, “you will enjoy the fruits of your accomplishments.”
During this period, Batista was also playing with some of the top salsa groups in New York City. Along with fellow Philadelphian Papo Vazquez, Batista worked with the legendary group Manny Oquendo’s Libre and he toured and recorded with trombonist Jimmy Bosc. Batista’s skills and versatility made him a first-call percussionist on the R&B and soul music circuit where over the years he’s racked up a number of Gold and Platinum records performing and collaborating with the likes of Patty Labelle, Phyllis Hyman, Gerald Levert, Kirk Franklin, and Jeffrey Osbourne.
Batista has become a mainstay in Philadelphia’s jazz and Latin music circles, including giving back as an Latin-percussion educator for the last 17 years at the fabled AMLA music school. He’s also recorded Philadelphia artists and others at his own Slaphard Studios. In addition to staying true to his first love and playing routinely with his 10-piece salsa conjunto outfit Mambo Syndicate, he continues to stretch past musical boundaries, playing with eclectic groups such as Worldtown Soundsystem.
“I believe that my success as a musician came as a result of my intensive study and practice,” reflected Batista. “In order to succeed in this art form, you have to develop discipline in all aspects of your life, both as an artist and as a professional. You achieve this goal,” Batista added, “you will enjoy the fruits of your accomplishments.”
By Bobbi Booker | Photo by Chris Longyne
A couple of weeks ago, Immanuel Wilkins, 23, was awakened at home in Upper Darby when his mobile phone buzzed with congratulatory messages lauding the selection of his debut album, Omega, by The New York Times as the #1 Best Jazz Album of 2020.
It was a tiding of good news that buoyed the Philadelphia jazz community, which has been challenged during the months-long pandemic. As the world struggles to contain the coronavirus, performance venues have shut down in response, taking Wilkins and his fellow musicians off the stage.
“It’s actually been cool for me,” said Wilkins of his quarantine. “You know, I think the name of the game has just been to roll with the flow. I’ve been basically back home since March, and for the most part in Philly, and it’s been nice to just get the hang of my family and work on music in solitude, which doesn’t get to happen and it’s probably never going to happen ever in my life… I’ve actually just got time to just sit with music and not perform it, which is actually been good. I’ve been able to work on it and realize as much as possible. I’ve been enjoying it.”
I think the name of the game has just been to roll with the flow.
The alto saxophonist’s impressive music career began in the Delaware Valley, where he started his trek playing in church and under the tutelage of jazz masters in music education programs like the Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.
In between music lessons, Wilkins recalled he would watch his mentors practice and perform at the Clef Club, which, he says, “was a pretty formative experience for me…it felt like a family.”
During those sessions Wilkins would listen to guitarist Charles Ellerbe, who frequently spoke of his time playing with Ornette Coleman. Naturally, Wilkins went online to check out the legacy saxophonist and discovered video of the horn man leading the Prime Time Band performing “Dancing In Your Head” during a concert in Japan.
“That was my first intro to Ornette, and it ended up just changing my whole life. I remember listening to it and feeling like it’s way over my head, but I knew that Ornette was someone I needed to know,” reflected Wilkins as he laughed at the memory of the lessons learned.
“I was in a gap between not liking it, but knowing that this guy is an essential worker. And so, I did the work and checked out a bunch of early Ornette and that taught me about contextual relevance. Sometimes, you need to contextualize a person for you to gain understanding, and therefore, enjoy.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in Music at Juilliard, he established himself as an in-demand performer recording and touring the world with Solange Knowles, Bob Dylan, Wynton Marsalis, and the Count Basie Orchestra. In 2017, pianist Jason Moran hired Wilkins to travel with him playing the music of Thelonious Monk. The musicians’ affiliation grew, with Moran returning to Blue Note records as a producer for Wilkins’ debut album featuring his long-time bandmates, pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns, and drummer Kweku Sumbry. Moran told Jazz Times: “Immanuel … blends traditions in a way that only his generation knows how to do.”
From start to finish, Omega addresses racism in America. Opening with “Warrior,” and followed by songs titled “Ferguson – An American Tradition” and “Mary Turner – An American Tradition.” The 10-song collection offers a raw musical assessment of the past and present.
“Honestly, I like to leave a little mystery in the music,” said Wilkins. “I was thinking about just the idea of what meaning is. Sometimes I find that, in a way, words can take away from what the inherent meaning of the music is. Sometimes there’s musical meaning in the actual music, you know? I don’t even know if there’s a specific thing that I want people to say about the record, yet, all our music has been about a kind of Blackness and Black identity. I think that has come across, especially during this time when it’s been magnified in our society right now.”
Honestly, I like to leave a little mystery in the music
Now, it’s Wilkins who is pondering how he’s going to pay it forward to Philly’s jazz lions and lionesses in waiting.
“I am finding myself in a position where the tables are slowly turning,” says Wilkins. “There was a point where I knew all the young kids from Philly because they were my peers, and now they’re starting to become a younger generation of folks that look up to me, so it has been a nice opportunity for me to give back in that way and, and do what I can to help, although, at this point, it’s just me pointing them to older folks, telling them, ‘Y’all need to be checking out these cats.'”
This story is part of Jazz Philadelphia’s Community News Program. If you have tip or want to write for us (it’s paid!) please contact us. We’re looking for stories on the jazz scene in Philadelphia, first hand accounts of resilience and struggle during the pandemic from musicians and others, and thoughts about jazz in our city. Jazz Philadelphia is grateful for the support of the Independence Media Foundation for this project.
Pamela Hetherington, a jazz tap dancer who owns a percussive dance space in North Philadelphia, had to keep her space locked down for 23 weeks out of 2020. She used the time to produce multiple live-stream tap dance and jazz music concerts. In September, Hetherington created a live-stream tap dance and jazz concert series called “A Month of Sundays” (4 Sundays, 4 pm) for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. “It brought together my group choreography, improvised sets and audience requests,” Hetherington writes. “We were able to reach a lot of people who wouldn’t have seen our work otherwise, and what I was most proud of was that I offered gigs when there weren’t any.”
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