Jazz Month is almost upon us here in Philly. Each April affords diehard fans and curious neophytes alike dozens of opportunities to experience our city’s most famous cultural export. But the world is singing the Coronavirus Blues and Philly jazz fans are sadly watching the cancellation of live concerts all over the city most of the month.
A friendly suggestion
Stop binge-watching Westworld for a while and catch up on the Philly musicians who’ve been rocking the airwaves past and present on WRTI- Temple University Radio or WBGO (America’s premier jazz station out of Newark, New Jersey), or dig through your music collection and revisit the times of your life through a long-forgotten riff or fondly remembered solo.
For those who are relatively new to jazz, don’t be discouraged that you might not “get it.” You can take it as slow as you want or dive in with gusto. Your ears will grow as big as you ask them to, and Philly has a plethora of musical giants to teach you the basics no matter how deep you’re swimming in the vast ocean of jazz.
Some must-hear albums by Philadelphia innovators and stars from yesteryear include saxophonists John Coltrane (Blue Train and Giant Steps), Jimmy Heath (Really Big! and Little Man Big Band), Hank Mobley (Soul Station and Workout), and Gerry Mulligan (catch him on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool and Mulligan Meets Monk). If you love piano, try Ray Bryant (Con Alma with Philly players Arthur Harper and Mickey Roker) and the five essential recordings by McCoy Tyner (who recently died). And there are trumpeter Lee Morgan (The Sidewinder), bassist Charles Fambrough (The Proper Angle), and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Mickey Roker (you can find these two greats on many albums as sidemen). For singers, Philly has bragging rights to Lady Day (Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection) and Nina Simone (The Essential Nina Simone).
Finding locals who found fame
If you listen to just half of the albums above, I’m guessing Philly’s jazz magic will grab you and you’ll want to hear more. And if the Coronavirus Blues continue, discover a few standouts among our contemporary local jazz creators who have made it onto some pretty big world stages. Explore their work online and then go see them when they breeze into town (after we can cough in public again): bassist Christian McBride, pianists Uri Caine and Orrin Evans, and vocalist Paul Jost. Of course, you can check the wonderful Spotify list of Philadelphia jazz that’s continually refreshed by the Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project, whose mission is to create a jazz archive in the city.
So far, the closings in April have been heartbreaking, impacting hundreds of wonderful musicians. The Philly Celebrates Jazz initiative by the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy has canceled all of the scheduled free Neighborhood Concerts throughout March and April. The Philadelphia Clef Club has canceled some events and restricted others, and some of the clubs in town are braving it out while others are playing it safe. Double-check with All About Jazz’s online resource Philadelphia Jazz Near You for the status of individual venues and call before you go.
Dig some history
It’s also easy to broaden your jazz knowledge and check out the recent NPR interview with jazz advocate Faye Anderson discussing our city’s vibrant jazz history, and how it affected social life in the 1940s and 1950s.
“In Philadelphia, as in other cities, jazz and the jazz culture was the first time whites and blacks mingled on an equal basis,” she says. “And some folks did not like that.”
One of the “some folks” who didn’t like jazz fans of all stripes having fun together was former mayor Frank Rizzo. When he was a policeman, he was famous for regularly finding some reason to raid the Center City bebop nightclub The Downbeat. People are still shaking the political rafters to get Rizzo’s statue moved from its perch across the street from City Hall.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the musicians who live, work, and are inspired by our city. We hope these blues will lift soon, and we (new and longtime fans alike) can all get back to what jazz-lovers do best—arguing over the music.