Jazz Philadelphia

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.”

Hometown Hero: Ruth Naomi Floyd

By Bobbi Booker | Photo by R. Carter

Jazz vocalist-composer and photographer Ruth Naomi Floyd has been at the forefront of creating sacred jazz vocal settings for over 20 years. Born and raised in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Floyd honed her musical talents as a young child by singing in church choirs and studying piano, flute, and bassoon. Currently, she leads her own multi-faceted ensemble and has created a five-recording discography explicitly dedicated to a sacred jazz expression.

Floyd says her Philly hometown and its influential jazz players made a lasting impression upon her art. “We are gritty. We are fighters. We don’t give up. We’re not intimidated,” explained Floyd. “When I think of what that means musically, classically it speaks for itself. The jazz—the long, beautiful, stunning legacy of jazz musicians—it affected me in a way that was very sobering. I knew from the beginning if I was going to do this, I was not going to enter into it lightly because there were those that came before me that fought for the music; that protected this music and sacrificed their lives for the music, and so to honor them would be to learn it and to do it at a high level. I’m grateful to come from a place known around the world as a jazz city.”

Although it was a challenge to not name the many area-based artists who have contributed to her growth, Floyd credits the late bassist Chares Fambrough for her early career validation.

“He was the first one that made me understand that the bandstand is the greatest lesson: when you make a mistake on the bandstand you’ll never make that mistake again,” she recalled. Her mezzo-soprano voice and distinctive progressive jazz improvisation has now been featured on several highly acclaimed recordings and performances.

Floyd has been a presence and worker in areas of the arts and justice throughout her career, and recently debuted an improvisational jazz composition, “Frederick Douglass Jazz Works,” which explores the abolitionist’s fiery anti-slavery speeches and writings. She wants to give that spark to others.

“I’m an educator teaching jazz vocals, and so my hope is that students would learn the craft and then be able to make it their own, and that they would just continue to push this music forward,” Floyd shared.

V-JAM Philly Session Leader: Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts

“What if there was one activity that could benefit every student in every school across the nation? An activity that could improve grades and scores on standardized testing? An activity that would allow students to form lasting friendships? An activity that would help students become more disciplined and confident?” asks Lovett Hines, Artistic Director for the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.

Fortunately, he says, there is such an activity. “This activity is something that everyone is aware of, but not everyone has a chance to participate in. At the Philadelphia Clef Club, we believe this activity is music,” Hines explains. “We are creators, improvisers, innovators. We can’t control the nature of the covonavirus, but we respond to it with imagination and determination.”

Even though the Clef Club made the difficult decision to postpone concerts and the Music Education Program for the safety of students, faculty, staff, and patrons, they are in the process of transitioning all ensemble instruction online. Using an interactive online learning tool in partnership with Berklee College of Music, Berklee City Music Network, and dedicated faculty, the Clef Club will be able to bring students together with their peers and faculty each week on Saturdays.

Pre-Covid-19, the Clef Club celebrated the legacy of jazz through accessible education for the Greater Philadelphia region, and supported the evolving art form through talent development, programming, and public performances. The club served more than 1,200 students through in-school programs and out-of-school activities.

The Clef Club was founded in 1935 by James Adams and members of Local No. 274, Philadelphia’s Black Musicians Union, to be the Local’s social club. It was not unusual to see Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Blakely, Dinah Washington, Max Roach and others in the hallways of the club. The Clef Club continued to function as a social club until 1978, when it expanded its activities to include jazz performance, jazz instruction, and the jazz history preservation. In 1982, a new facility was constructed at 738 South Broad Street as part of the development of the Avenue of the Arts. In 1995, the club established a new facility on the corner of Broad and Fitzwater Streets that houses classrooms, a performance space, recording facilities, and executive offices.

Hines says the Clef Club is looking forward to presenting both renowned and emerging artists on a monthly basis year-round. “Just like this music, Hines says, “it swings harder when played together, and it is together—as a community—that we will get through this very challenging time.”

Hometown Hero: Bootsie Barnes

By Shaun Brady | Photo by Anthony Dean

Tenor giant Bootsie Barnes has been the epitome of a “Hometown Hero” for most of his 82 years. He’s never left the city, instead becoming a cornerstone of the Philadelphia jazz scene, remaining constant even as styles and generations changed around him. With a husky, soulful sound honed in smoky organ clubs, corner bars, and the stage of the legendary Uptown Theatre, Barnes exudes the grit and attitude of Philly in every note he plays.

“It takes guys like me in every city to keep the music alive,” Barnes told me in 2008. To prove his point, he listed the names of heavyweight “local legends” from scenes around the country: most notably Von Freeman in Chicago, who passed a few years later. “All the guys that I’ve taught are carrying the music on.”

Barnes’ protégés are numerous; curmudgeonly as he could be, his brusqueness was always tempered by a salty but genuine warmth. The eclectic pianist Uri Caine spent his formative years touring the chitlin’ circuit with Barnes, and many bandstand students graduated into lifelong collaborators, including trumpeter John Swana and keyboardists Lucas Brown. 

Born in 1937, Barnes grew up in North Philly’s Richard Allen Homes; his father was a trumpet player in the big band led by organist Bill Doggett and had played alongside Dizzy Gillespie in bandleader Frankie Fairfax’s orchestra. The Barnes’ neighbor, altoist Howard Cunningham, would host informal conclaves of local saxophonists. The young Barnes, then an aspiring drummer, would drop in and soak up the music and conversation, learning only later that he’d sat at the feet of John Coltrane and Benny Golson. Later, bassist Spanky DeBrest, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and drummers Lex Humphries and Tootie Heath could be counted among his contemporaries and friends.

Inspired by Jackie McLean, Barnes eventually switched to the alto, but he found his soulmate in the tenor. In his early years he spent much of his time playing rock and R&B gigs, backing groups like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Jackson 5 at the Uptown and touring the south with renowned organ masters like Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, and Charles Earland. He occasionally flirted with the notion of leaving town for the increased opportunities in places like New York or Chicago but preferred to keep busy in Philly’s unique scene.

In its heyday, venues took myriad forms, most of them relatively makeshift, Barnes recalled in 2017. “Every little corner bar had a jazz band. A place becomes a jazz club when jazz musicians play in it.”

Though he’s remained aware of the music’s evolution, Barnes remains a hardcore bebopper at heart, which may have made him seem out of style for a few brief moments, but ultimately translates into a hard-earned timelessness. “I really enjoy everything I hear that’s kind of cutting edge,” he explained. “But there’s certain roads I just don’t see myself traveling. If everybody went down the same road, where would the music be? You always have to have a variety, so there’s something for everybody.”

That’s not to say the tenor titan has ever rested on his laurels. After decades of dogged playing, he insisted on practicing as much as humanly possible even as health issues intruded. “Every day is a learning experience,” he concluded. “You never learn it all. When my time comes to play, I just play what I play, my own natural self. It usually turns out good.” 

Hometown Hero: Terell Stafford

By Bobbi Booker

Acclaimed trumpeter Terell Stafford has been hailed as “one of the great players of our time, a fabulous trumpet player” by the late piano legend McCoy Tyner. The acclaimed bandleader and recording artist has appeared on dozens of albums, including five of his own, and is a soloist with the Grammy-winning Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Born in Miami, Florida, and raised in both Chicago, Illinois, and Silver Spring, Maryland, Stafford recalled being transfixed when at age nine he happened upon a trumpet while visiting his grandparents’ sharecropper’s farm.

“To just hold this instrument in my hand because I was always fascinated by how all this music came from, like, three valves; what’s the secret behind it? In sixth grade I was able to play the trumpet—and it hasn’t left my hand since.”

Originally a classical trumpet player, Stafford soon branched out to jazz with the University of Maryland jazz band and spent five years touring and recording with Bobby Watson’s quintet, Horizon, along with co-leader Victor Lewis and Shirley Scott. Eventually, Scott invited Stafford to join her quintet, play alongside Tim Warfield and begin their ongoing musical collaborations.

Stafford says the knowledge he gained while working with Scott enhanced his education beyond the bandstand. “It taught me about community. The music lifted us: we listened to the music, we learned the music, and we came up with things to complement the music as a team.”

Currently the Director of Jazz Studies at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University, Stafford has high hopes for the ever-evolving Philadelphia jazz music scene.

“Teaching at a college has been incredibly inspiring because I’ve been at Temple University for 24 years and, more or less, came to the Philadelphia area a couple of years before that,” said Stafford. “I was speaking to a student yesterday who was interested, and the mother of the student said, ‘Why Philly?’ and I said, ‘Well, why not?’ What is there to doubt if you look at the history, and you look at the great musicians that have come from here and the great musicians who continue to come here, and the institutions and the music scene that we have—there’s no other music scene like this.”