The Jazz Scene: Big band is alive and well in Philadelphia

Hear Michael Pedicin on August 17 at Hawthorne Park. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

On Monday, February 7, 1966, a Monday night big-band jazz tradition began when the now-legendary Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra first played at the Village Vanguard in New York City. Though Thad and Mel are long gone, the Monday-night legacy continues in New York with the Monday appearances of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at that venerable Village jazz emporium. Philadelphia is now establishing a Monday-night big-band tradition of its own with the weekly booking of the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra at Chris’ Jazz Café every Monday night throughout August at 7:30pm. What makes this swinging ensemble unique is that the band, under the direction of Princeton High School band director Joe Bongiovi, is comprised of the best college and high-school musicians in our area. PJO, deservedly, has toured all over the world and has won a fair share of festival competitions. Is there a bright future for big-band jazz? You bet.

Also part of the region’s big-band sweepstakes is the South Philly Big Band, led by saxophonist and Temple University graduate Chris Oatts. This unit will appear at Chris’ on Thursday, August 10, at 8pm.

Jazz in the park and jazz at Vespers

Saxophonist, recording artist, bandleader, composer, and educator Michael Pedicin has been a presence on the local and national jazz scene for decades. He was a “smooth jazz” pioneer, an important part of the famed “Sound of Philadelphia” legacy, a pivotal figure as a bandleader during the heyday of Atlantic City casinos in the 1980s, and, for several years, one-quarter of the celebrated Dave Brubeck Quartet. Pedicin and his group will appear in a Jazz Bridge-sponsored performance, free and open to the public, at Hawthorne Park at 12th and Catharine Streets on Thursday, August 17, at 7pm. 

Pianist Jim Holton is another versatile individual player who has been an essential part of the area’s music landscape for years. Holton is consistently inventive and technically astonishing, whether accompanying a singer or holding down the difficult piano chair at the Tuesday-night jam sessions at South restaurant. Holton heads a Jazz Vespers on the first Sunday of every month — this month, it’s on August 6 — at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ambler (24 N. Ridge Avenue), which begins at 7pm. Not surprisingly, Holton has assembled a group of fine players for these nondenominational confabs, including flutist/music minister Cindy LeBlanc, bassist Justin Sekelewski, vibraphonist Hideo Morris, vocalist/cantor/music minister Christine Djalleta, and drummer Leon Jordan, Sr., subbing on August 6 for regular drummer Adam Pfannenstiel.

Looking ahead in Kennett Square

Though the Longwood Gardens annual Wine and Jazz Festival has taken a year off, with a promise to resume next June, this beautiful venue continues to book jazz occasionally through the year. While the blockbuster booking of Chick Corea Elektric Band and Bela Fleck & the Flecktones on Wednesday, August 9 has long been sold out, Kennett Square jazz fans should note that the following have just been booked for the fall: the quintet of trumpeter Terell Stafford will appear on Friday, October 20; and the trio of jazz piano giant Kenny Barron will perform on Friday, November 10.