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.”