“Once more people are introduced to the music scene and history of the city, we will hopefully have a large, supportive community to interact with and draw inspiration from,” says guitarist, educator, and composer Connor O’Neill. “I would also like to see Philadelphia’s jazz scene become more interactive with other forms of art in the city.”
He says his own community has come from going to jam sessions and taking the time to get to know his neighbors, some of whom are also musicians who live in the East Falls/Manayunk area of Philadelphia. “Although I’ve met a lot of colleagues and friends at the University of the Arts, I feel that I’ve made the best bonds with people through jam sessions,” O’Neill says.
O’Neill released his debut album “The Same Changes, Vol. I” in April 2022. The album features entirely original compositions and arrangements, and features O’Neill’s skill as a guitarist and improviser. Since 2014, O’Neill has led the Connor O’Neill Quartet, which performs his compositions and arrangements exclusively. O’Neill also frequently performs as a sideman who has mastered a multitude of musical styles, and he’s been featured at events such as The Gathering II, produced by the Philadelphia outfit Artsi.
“I would also like to see Philadelphia’s jazz scene become more interactive with other forms of art in the city.”
“Some of my favorite work has been with saxophonist Mervin Toussaint. I recorded two videos with him for WRTI’s Home Series and NPR Live Sessions,” says O’Neill. “I really like those collaborations because we completed them during the pandemic, when it was not easy to be creative and to engage with other artists. We performed some of his original compositions, which I think are new and exciting. People like Mervin show me where the Philadelphia musical community is headed in the future.”
O’Neill was featured on Toussaint’s 2020 EP, “Another Name for Everything,” as a guitarist, producer, and the sole mixing/mastering engineer. O’Neill is currently engineering Toussaint’s next album, set to release in 2022.
A large part of O’Neill’s contribution to the scene has been his work teaching students and mentoring peers at multiple organizations around town, including at the University of the Arts, his alma mater. He earned his undergraduate in 2017, when he was given the University’s Excellence in Tutoring Award for his work tutoring 20 peer students of the course of his tenure there, the School of Music Jazz Award, and the Catherine T. Quaile Memorial Guitar Award. After all those accolades, he earned a graduate degree in 2019. Prior to attending UArts, he also studied under Anthony Tidd at the Kimmel Center’s Creative Music program for five years, and he has taught private lessons for guitar, music theory, jazz history, improvisation, and musicianship since 2014.
He’s ready to take the next step in his musical journey with the help of his peers. “I believe the [Jazz Philadelphia CORE] program would help me establish my career and create work for myself, whether through events, grants, or an education position. I also have a second album in the works, so I think that the experience and community that I would gain through the program would allow me to create a more solid plan in releasing the second album, as well as creating events and press around the release,” says O’Neill.
“One of my biggest goals for these initial releases is to create press and expose the jazz scene to my music in a broader way,” explains O’Neill. “Attending this program would expand my community and give me tools to create exposure for my work. Another goal that the program would help me achieve is to obtain an adjunct teaching position at a local university. I think that building my professional and entrepreneurial outlook would allow me to achieve that goal. Lastly, I would like to expand my outlook on the art I create, and I believe that collaborating with other artists will encourage that expansion.”
Collaboration and mutual support are key, and feed into a more vibrant future for the whole city. “My vision for Philadelphia is that we will be able to promote performance spaces for artists, especially settings where people can listen to jazz who wouldn’t normally be exposed to it,” says O’Neill. “I think that we as a city can work harder to create spaces and events that uplift newer artists, and especially artists who push boundaries.”
That vision isn’t without obstacles. Creating cost-effective spaces to produce music is at the top of O’Neills list. “The best way to overcome this is to use creative thinking as a way to bring music shows into different settings—parks, homes, etc.—or to add live music to community events which might not normally provide it,” he says. “As far as bringing in more new artists, I think that adding them as openers or features to more well-known bands” should be a more widespread practice.”
He also has big goals for himself as a devotee of new creative music and he wants to create a pathway to a sustainable career for himself and others. Like many artists trying to make a living, he relies on multiple sources of income, and it can become stressful at times. “My vision for my musical career is that I am able to financially support myself through my craft, whether through teaching, performing, recording, or otherwise. Having other jobs has put strain on my creative life. I truly believe that if we can build a stronger community that features younger musicians, we will allow many of them to create a real career in music,” says O’Neill.
“I truly believe that if we can build a stronger community that features younger musicians, we will allow many of them to create a real career in music”
“Having a stronger, larger community that works to create new events would also aid in my creative process. For instance, I would love to do a concert series in nature—perhaps around the Wissahickon or Fairmount Park—because my music is greatly inspired by it,” O’Neill says.” If this was a grant-funded series, we could even commission a series of works specifically for those shows.”
“I think that participating in the CORE Cooperative will help me establish credibility as an artist, which will help me secure grants and more easily be able to contact possible event spaces,” says O’Neill. “[It] would also help me build my community of artists and curators, which would expand my options in creating events. I believe the skills that I will build in this program would greatly increase my chances of being able to actualize that goal.”
He knows that as a current and future leader within the community, he needs to stay focused on the traits that he feels good leaders possess. Not only to remain hard-working, goal-oriented, and to be able to multi-task, but to attend to other aspects of leadership as well. He believes empathy, intuitiveness, and communication are also important qualities of leadership that build trust and community.
“I realize that worrying and stressing about problems doesn’t make them go away. I also try to remind myself that all of the artists that I love have faced similar or worse problems, and that I should accept difficulties as an imminent and essential part of life.”
It’s one’s own values and the community around you that keeps you on track when things get tough, and O’Neill knows that those moments are inevitable. When he faces them, “I stay motivated by keeping my focus on my goal,” O’Neill says. “I realize that worrying and stressing about problems doesn’t make them go away. I also try to remind myself that all of the artists that I love have faced similar or worse problems, and that I should accept difficulties as an imminent and essential part of life.”
Find him online at coneillmusic.com
Jazz Philadelphia is proud to have Connor O’Neill in the inaugural cohort of the CORE Cooperative, an entrepreneurship, leadership, and wellness program for jazz artists and advocates. For more information, visit Jazz Philadelphia.
“I think that we as a city can work harder to create spaces and events that uplift newer artists, and especially artists who push boundaries.”