All that jazz

Coltrane House
Mayor Michael Nutter speaking outside of the former home of jazz musician John Coltrane. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“We need to work to rebuild appreciation of jazz and promote innovative presentations of jazz music to build the audiences that clubs need to survive,” Mayor Michael Nutter remarked in his keynote speech at the Jazz Connect Conference sponsored by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters this past January.

He has a point. Regardless of politics, Philadelphia needs to listen to their mayor.

As the birthplace or temporary home of influential jazz musicians like Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Sun Ra Arkestra and a whole lot of other cool cats, Philadelphia has a connection to this music genre that is awe-inspiring and, lately, nostalgia-inducing.

The jazz community of the early and mid-20th century was unlike any music scene Philadelphia had ever seen. Not even the Philadelphia Soul, put out by Gamble and Huff in the 1970s, can compete with the longevity of Philly jazz. This “other sound of Philadelphia” had a longer buildup and staying power, but it definitely is still a “back in the day” kind of music trend. 

As one of the bigger northern urban cities after World War I, Philadelphia saw an influx of African Americans who left the South during the Great Migration, which lasted for thirty years before World War II started, and the Second Great Migration, which lasted for thirty years after World War II ended. The city’s black population jumped from 84,500 in 1910 to 220,600 in 1930 to make Philadelphia the country’s third-largest city from 1920 to 1950, with the population peaking at 2 million people in 1950. The prosperity of jobs and abundance of people allowed for the arts and the arts economy to flourish as more musicians and music-lovers frequently attended popular jazz and bebop music shows.  

The city was home to over 30 jazz clubs from the 1940s to 1960s, 16 of them in North Philadelphia. Of course, none of these jazz clubs are open in present day. Back then, the big streets that emerged as the hip places for jazz were “The Strip” on 52nd Street, which had the Aqua Lounge and Red Rooster, and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue), with eight clubs conveniently located near, famous jazz musician, John Coltrane’s first Philly residence­–an apartment at 1450 North 12th Street between Jefferson and Master Streets. South Philly offered popular clubs like Pep’s Musical Bar and the Clef Club, which also served as a Philadelphia chapter of the independent black musicians' union affiliate, Local 274. The list of members reads like a who’s who in jazz: Coltrane, Gillespie, Nina Simone, Philly Joe Jonas, Jimmy Oliver, and Jimmy and Percy Heath.

There were many opportunities to hear and play jazz music outside of the thriving club scene. The demand for jazz was so great that musicians found work performing for the Elks, Masons, fraternities, socials, civic organizations and events, teas, dances, and churches.

“Jazz musicians don’t get to feel that way in 2013,” Mark Christman, curator and executive director of the 13-year-old nonprofit jazz and experimental music booking organization, Ars Nova Workshop, said of today’s jazz scene. “A lot of things have changed since then.”

Coltrane, one of Philadelphia’s legendary jazz imports, experienced the city’s jazz age when Mr. “A Love Supreme” lived in the City of Brotherly Love from 1943 to 1958. During that time he studied and practiced before playing professionally in the city, and then across the country. He returned to his Strawberry Mansion house after he was fired from Miles Davis’ quartet in 1956 due to his heroin addiction, which he kicked a year later and moved out of Philadelphia with newfound energy, drive, and inspiration.

“We wanted to raise awareness of his relationship to the city and the city’s relationship to him. A lot of people don’t completely understand his role here and the city’s role for him,” Rob Armstrong, the director of the Coltrane's Philadelphia documentary, said of  

the 28-minute documentary, which uses archived historical photos and interviews with local Coltrane peers to showcase, as the title suggests, the Philadelphia Coltrane knew.

Philadelphia wasn’t just his home base because his mother and cousin lived in the city. According to saxophonist Odeon Pope, a Coltrane contemporary, once Coltrane would come back from playing with Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and other jazz luminaries in the Big Apple, he was always welcomed back as a hometown hero when he met with Philly musicians in clubs to talk about the music people, events, and styles taking over New York City.

After Coltrane died in 1967, Coltrane’s cousin Mary Lyerly Alexander, who inspired Coltrane’s tune, “Cousin Mary,” lived in the national historic landmark until her death in 2004. The current owner of Coltrane’s Strawberry Mansion house on N. 33rd Street created the John Coltrane House nonprofit organization and is working with the Greater Preservation Alliance, who also funded the documentary, to restore the house and open it as a museum and public space.

The hotspots of Coltrane’s scene have cooled down. The Clef Club is the only organization still around, though it’s moved locations and is now Clef Club of Jazz, an artist-founded and artist-run cultural organization founded in 1995.

“We wanted to make the documentary while there were still people left from Coltrane’s time,” Armstrong said. One of Coltrane’s contemporaries interviewed in the film, singer Dorothy "Dottie" Smith, passed away last year. Elderly audience members at the premiere praised the diversity of ages and skin tones of people who came to watch the film during its premiere at the Contextualizing Jazz in Philadelphia event at the International House on August 7. One audience member told Armstrong he was sitting on the stage at Coltrane’s last Philly show. The story of Coltrane’s Philly is still relevant to this day.

After Coltrane’s death, another Philly jazz legend surfaced in 1968 when Sun Ra Arkestra, a pioneering experimental jazz group led by the “cosmic philosopher” and bandleader Sun Ra, moved to a Germantown house on Morton Street. Saxophonist Marshall Allen’s father rented out the house to the group. Previously, the musicians had lived in New York and Chicago, the other big jazz hotspots at the time.

The Arkestra became an integral part of the Philadelphia jazz scene and their neighborhood, as shown in the 1980 music documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise during Contextualizing Jazz in Philadelphia. Saxophonist and de-facto tour and business manager Danny Thompson even opened up a neighborhood convenience store appropriately titled Pharaoh’s Den, and drummer James Jacson literally brought a part of Philadelphia on the road with the African-style hand drum he fashioned out of a tree struck by lightning on their block.

The three-story row house continued as the band’s home base, even after Sun Ra “ascended” (or “died,” as non-followers would say) in 1993. Current bandleader Marshall Allen still resides at the Germantown house with several Arkestra members, according to Greg Drusdow, who has done communications and public relations for the band since Sun Ra recruited him in 1978.“The Arkestra house remains a rehearsal space for the band with at least two rehearsals a week continuing under Marshall's leadership,” Drusdow revealed.

In May, Allen and the band played at Allen’s annual birthday celebration held at Johnny Brenda’s, a Fishtown club best-known for its indie rock concerts. Though Johnny Brenda’s doesn’t seem like a likely choice for the band, Greg Mungan, its venue production manager, said that the shows usually gather big crowds and Allen’s 89th birthday concert sold out the 260-person area upstairs.

It’s a good sign for the band, as it starts preparing for the 2014 Sun Ra Centennial Celebration celebrating the 100th anniversary date of Sun Ra's “arrival” (birth) in May. Sun Ra “departed” (died) the same month, 79 years later, which is fitting considering the musician told late Daily News jazz columnist Nels Nelson he believed “Man's true birthday is the day of his death."

According to Drusdow, dates, events, and locations for the celebration are not yet definite, though the band is working to hold concerts, choreographed dance events, plays, readings of Sun Ra’s poetry, lectures on Sun Ra’s philosophy, and film events in locations like Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Europe, and Japan.

Should the Bicentennial find a home in Philadelphia, it will indubitably benefit the city’s jazz community, which has expanded since Mayor Nutter was elected in 2008 and Nutter first pronounced April as Jazz Appreciation Month in Philadelphia in 2011.

Since then, Philly has seen yearly festivals like the Center City Jazz Festival (founded in 2010, held in May), the Lancaster Avenue Jazz and Arts Festival (founded in 2007, held in July, organized by People's Emergency Center), and the first-ever Philadelphia United Jazz Festival and Celebration (founded in 2013, will be held in September, presented by the Clef Jazz Club).

The Philadelphia School District continues to put on its annual JazzFest concert and last year hosted a week of concerts for students, performed by students visiting from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Area institutions like the Kimmel Center, Temple University, and University of the Arts offer jazz programs for musically inclined youths.

“Jazz music won’t endure unless young people pick up the torch,” Nutter said. “It is our responsibility to teach them to love it.” Right now, the city’s longest active jazz club is Chris’s Jazz Café. At 27-years-old, the Samson Street venue wasn’t even around during the genre’s golden years in the city. The café features jazz performances almost every night, though weekly jazz performances can be found at World Café Live and even at art museums like the Woodmere Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Morris Arboretum. This year, Clear Channel Media and Entertainment Philadelphia brought back ‘JJZ’s Smooth Jazz radio station which was shut down five years ago.

Still, the jazz scene is picking up, having offered more and more opportunities for jazz musicians and fans in recent years. Will it rise up to its ‘40s-‘60s heyday? Probably not. But, will it offer a chance to inspire more people to appreciate the genre and the city’s connection to jazz? The mayor certainly wants that to happen. “We must do all that we can to sustain, nourish, preserve and promote the unique history and tradition of jazz in America,” Nutter said. “Let me say it again: ‘Jazz is alive and will never die’– because we won’t let it!”