The Jazz Scene: Celebrating Sun Ra, Comfort & Joy, and more

Sun Ra in a still from Robert Mugge's 1980 documentary 'A Joyful Noise.' (Image via

The late and still controversial Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, may not have done himself a career favor with his straightfaced insistence that he was a visitor from Saturn. Fortunately, he was nonetheless recognized as a groundbreaking jazz visionary during his lifetime. Ra, who left Earth for parts unknown in 1993, was a cutting-edge pianist, bandleader, and composer whose innovations opened the doors and laid the groundwork for what would become avant-garde jazz. Ra’s influence and his “Arkestra” are still very much with us, and his genius will be celebrated with a monthly program running December 2017 through June 2018, spearheaded by the Philadelphia Jazz Project, called Satellites Series: A Sizzling, Sonic Celebration of Sun Ra.

After the December 1 kickoff at the Barnes Foundation, this wide-ranging project — featuring about 100 DJs, producers, musicians, singers, poets, rappers, rockers, hip-hop artists, and others paying tribute to Sun Ra with original compositions — the event moves to a number of venues, including performances at the Ardmore Music Hall on Wednesday, December 20, and Wednesday, January 17. Among the artists appearing at this impressive and important series are the Arkestra’s very own Tara Middleton and DM Hotep, the Eye2Eye Trio, vocalists V. Shayne Frederick and Kevin Valentine; and progressive saxophonist Elliott Levin. Visit for the complete schedule.

Comfort & Joy and the Keswick

Mary Ellen Desmond, described by Jazz Times as “the most refreshing voice in jazz,” is a certifiable vocal treasure in this region and beyond. She isn’t heard here as often as she should be, but fortunately, her popular Comfort & Joy concert (her 14th annual holiday benefit performance) is coming up on Sunday, December 10, at 6pm at Church of Saint Luke and the Epiphany (330 South 13th Street). Backing Desmond are Philadelphia’s finest: pianist Tom Lawton, saxophonist Larry McKenna, bassist Lee Smith, and drummer Dan Monaghan.  All proceeds benefit people affected by HIV/AIDS.             

Along with Philadelphian Stanley Clarke and the late Jaco Pastorius, Victor Wooten helped bring what was once “an instrument in the background,” the bass, to the forefront as a solo instrument and individual voice. Wooten has had a visible and varied career as a soloist, bassist for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones since 1988, novelist, educator, and winner of five Grammy Awards. Wooten will visit Glenside’s Keswick Theater on Friday, December 15, for an 8pm show. 

A jazz connector

Michael Ricci’s and have long been the online destinations for all things jazz locally, regionally, and nationally, from schedules, news, and reviews to musician bios. He has also done everything within his considerable powers to bring the jazz community together. One of these essential outreach programs, the Philadelphia Jazz Professionals Meetup, will take place at SOUTH restaurant and jazz club Tuesday, December 12, from 4 to 7pm. The idea of the confab, says Ricci, is to “network [and] discuss new ideas and potential collaborations with the goal of developing a deeper level of cohesiveness in our community.” Part of the get-together is a two-hour “pitch session” for attendees to announce projects, talk about their organizations, and recap the year’s achievements.

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