June 04, 2020
By Suzanne Cloud | Photo by Anthony Dean
Composer and alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel never expected to stay in Philadelphia when he blew into town in 1975. “I thought it was going to be temporary. I didn’t think I was going to stay here. I wanted to get back to New York as soon as I could.” Laughing, he said, “…I thought it was punishment from the gods at the time.”
A few years before the move, this young musician from Brooklyn had gotten the attention of the jazz world through his membership in pianist Cecil Taylorʼs “Unit Core Ensemble.” Zankel’s underground status in New York’s famed free jazz loft scene grew in 1973 as he performed with bassist William Parker, creator of the annual Vision Festival; trombonist Ray Anderson, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and saxophonist David Spencer Ware, as Zankel continued his apprenticeship with Taylor’s ensembles large and small.
But family concerns soon took him away from the heady atmosphere of that experimental scene and he landed squarely in our hard bop town. Instead of a backwater, Zankel quickly discovered Philly represented a challenge, and it changed his life.
“As soon as I got here, people were really, really nice to me, and things would just happen that made me feel really happy about being here. I got the chance to play in a variety of situations, different types of music. In New York, the city was so compartmentalized. I was part of Cecil Taylor’s world. But I wanted to do other things. Almost as soon as I got here, I started playing with Odean Pope and taking piano lessons with Eddie Green. I finally hooked up with Dennis Sandole. I’d always see guys from New York taking the train down to study with Dennis, and I’d think, ‘why should I go back to New York and then take the train back down here all the time?’ Dennis was intense and his approach became my life. The next thing I knew 40 years went by.”
Bobby Zankel’s alto saxophone playing, a soulful mixture of hard bop and free jazz, and his compositional work has received commissions from the Network for New Music, Relache, and more recently Jazz Bridge’s Vision Song for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. Zankel has won a fellowship from the Pew Center of Arts & Culture and has produced nine albums that have included many Philadelphia jazz artists. In 2001, Bobby Zankel created the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, an organization dedicated to promoting new jazz through big band music, and this ensemble has collaborated with composer Muhal Richard Abams, saxophonists Steve Coleman and Dave Liebman, and hosted multi-instrumentalist Don Byron, and tenor saxophonists David Murray, Jaleel Shaw, and Odean Pope.
In 2018, Bobby Zankel was celebrated with Philly’s “Jazz Living Legacy” award and the Philadelphia Clef Club’s “People Choice” pick for top alto saxophonist. In addition to all his work with the glittering lights of some of the world’s best musicians, Bobby Zankel has devoted 30 years working with and sharing musical ideas with Pennsylvania prison inmates.
“I love Philadelphia. I really feel honored and blessed to be here. I got to play alongside Johnny Coles. I even got to play with Hank Mobley! I’ve had a 45-year old relationship with Odean Pope as well as seen young musicians come up through the Clef Club like Jaleel Shaw and Emmanuel Wilkins. Those kinds of opportunities would not have come up in New York.”
And we are so glad you stayed!
“As soon as I got here [to Philadelphia], people were really, really nice to me, and things would just happen that made me feel really happy about being here. I got the chance to play in a variety of situations, different types of music. In New York, the city was so compartmentalized… The next thing I knew 40 years went by.”