SA5: The Philadelphia Issue

What is the personality of a city? What allows us, acting as citizens or visitors, to relate to it as a separate evolving organism? Even if we’ve never set foot in a given city, we approach it on equal footing—as its own being, equal to and different from us. I’m currently on a plane to Mexico City, a place I’ve never been, and I have already been grappling with my personal preconceptions of it as a city crammed with people, somehow slow and fast at the same time. Yet I’ve traveled enough to anticipate being disabused of these notions when I land. Discovering a city is like meeting someone for the first time, an enthused search for points of mutual consonance and dissonance. Philadelphia is a city I continue to grapple with, though as a 12-year resident of New Jersey it’s well within striking distance. I’ve visited often. I’ve done what those not from Philadelphia are supposed to: consumed a cheesesteak, visited the colonial attractions, mounted the steps of the Museum of Art. I’ve wandered the hardware and electronics stores in North Philly, and come to accept its derision of my New Jersey license plates. But we had no true relationship, Philadelphia and I, and so I undertook this issue of Sound American with the excitement of first exposure to another’s heart and mind. Vijay Iyer recently published an article for the Red Bull Music School connecting the idea of social systems, history, and the physical infrastructure of a city (New York, in his example) with the architecture and process of music, specifically improvisation. It is a fascinating idea that might be applied to Philadelphia: the seeming insularity of its neighborhoods, multiple campus centers, and history of class and racial strife have surely affected the way people make their music. Yet I’ve chosen a different approach. Rather than analyze the specific historic, social and cultural systems of Philadelphia as brought to bear on its creative inhabitants, this issue will focus on the creative inhabitants. The hope is to take information of a cross-section and find the common denominators—the personal and musical qualities that anecdotally rise to the surface when taking each artist at face value and in their own words and sounds. Through the conversations presented in this issue I came to better understand the nature of artistic practice in Philadelphia, while avoiding a form of urban chauvinism that elides the individual even as it attempts to define what makes a city unique. While there are trends amongst these interviewees—musical eclecticism, a certain satisfaction in being left alone to their work, a DIY aesthetic mixed with liberal application of the concept of mutual aid—there is no fixed Philadelphia archetype, but rather a collectively sustained environment within which they create their personal statements. No issue comes without regrets on my part. By the time I’m writing this opening salvo, I am already battling the voices in my head, wishing I had been able to include this piece of music or that composer. The Philadelphia issue is especially sensitive in this respect. Due to the size and scope of the project, there are many facets of the city’s musical culture and history that are not included here, either due to my own inability to grasp its heritage in one three month period, lack of space, or polite refusals of subjects to take part. The most glaring omission, is the complete lack of voices from Philadelphia's African-American community; a community that makes up almost half the population of the city and is THE major source of its cultural milieu. This is a great loss to the conversation, one that I understand and feel, and hope to rectify in a future issue. Sound American Issue 5 was funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. They have been a generous collaborator, allowing me to find my way among the musicians of the city and learn by experience, rather than via a set of guidelines that might have resulted in a discovery process more touristic than artistic. I’m grateful for their sensitivity.
Elliott Levin grew up in the musically rich environment of Philadelphia with a background more in literary and visual arts.Only by series of coincidental events becoming a music major which began his studies with composer Monte Tubb. After a year of studies there, he returned to Philadelphia and began private studies with Mike Guerra (former Granoff teacher- of John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan,etc.). After becoming involved in many bands in the Philadelphia scene, he remained in the area, and eventually met up with Cecil Taylor who was an artist in residence at Glassboro College. While not officially enrolling there, he became a member of the ensemble Cecil formed, performing in concert, and was asked to join Cecil's Unit Core Orchestra (in NYC) which performed at Carnegie Hall (1974). A relationship with Cecil has lasted until this day.

Elliott Levin

While continuously involved in the more improvisational music and performance poetry scene during the 1970's-80's, much of this time was also spent performing in a wide variety of groups also thriving in Philadelphia specifically in the rock and rhythm and blues area. From approx. 1983-94 he toured with Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes extensively throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. In 1990 he was chosen as a representative of the Peace Tools Community Center for a cultural exchange in Moscow where he performed in a series of concerts and workshops. He is currently performing in various of his own ensembles- including Interplay; a quartet co-led by Tyrone Hill; as a member of Calvin Weston's ensemble-Big Tree; Odean Pope's Sax Choir, and Collective Voices Ensemble; Cecil Taylor's Sound/Vision Orch.; the world fusion music ensemble Animus, and many others. He's currently performing and recording with Bobby Zankel and The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound.
On Discovering Music I first remember listening to records - mostly show tunes - that my parents had. We also had a Nat King Cole record ("Kee Mo Ky Mo")I remember being very fond of. I had an uncle named Kal Mann who worked as a lyricist/songwriter for Cameo Parkway Records (Chubby Checker, DeeDee Sharp, Orlons, etc.)... While I was not so drawn to that music perhaps, it was some of my earliest exposure to the music business at the time. I have an older sister, who is an artist - Barbara Romain - and she always had musician friends. They turned me on to a lot of good music. The first two records I remember her getting were Jimmy Smith Plays Peter & the Wolf record, and a Dave Brubeck - I dug Blue Rondo a la Turk, maybe the first song I heard in 9[/4 time signature]- And also the West Side Story sound track...one of the first films I remember being influenced by. For my 15th or 16th birthday, she bought me 2 albums- Ornette! and Outward Bound- Eric Dolphy. These records certainly changed my life. Most of my friends in high school were musicians. I hung out with them, and was always going to concerts and jam sessions. I played a little recorder and plastic flute in elementary school as it was mandatory. I once tried out for the elementary school orchestra [on] acoustic bass but didn't make the audition. I was really being fascinated by the sax at this point, but couldn't really make the commitment for such an investment yet. A good friend of mine found a flute in a house he was cleaning out, and told me he would give it to me on the condition I would learn to play it. He said it was similar fingering to the saxophone, and it would be easy to switch if I wanted to. Synchronistically, at the same time (when I was about 15 or so) my first long-time girlfriend was a flutist. She started helping me to read music, and we were soon playing duets. A friend of my father's lent me an old beat up C melody sax. I tried to mess around on it, but was having a lot of trouble. I ran into a sax player - Walt Unterberger - who used to play very free-form avant jazz/rock with a band called "Dead Cheese". They were doing very progressive music for a band of that kind at the time, and I dug his playing. He offered to show me some things to help my playing if I came to see him, and when he tried my horn he was amazed I could play it at all! It was so unplayable. I was relieved because I thought it was my lack of ability. He ended up lending me his old Conn 10M tenor which I ended up buying. He also later turned me on to my first great teacher, Michael Guerra, the mentor of most, if not all, the clarinetist/saxophonists from the Philadelphia Orchestra, and also one of Coltrane's first teachers. Guerra gave me the direction, and helped develop my discipline to begin really learning the instrument. On Leaving Philadelphia… This is an interesting thing- very much a result of the times (1971). My sister's boyfriend at the time was a very good artist, who had spent some time on the West Coast. I was becoming disenchanted with school , even though I did well in high school. He, my sister’s boyfriend, told if I was looking for a college , the hippest school (and place to live) he had seen was the University of Oregon in Eugene. I applied there, as well as to other schools. But, I got in to Oregon, the tuition was very reasonable, and I got an academic scholarship. I was considering going into a Biology major, with a strong interest in Anthropology (as was my father-Leon Lewis Levin- also an architect) And, I also had a strong interest in creative writing. Ironically, I was very into track and cross-country in high school, and the U of O had one of the greatest running schools in the country. Their coach, Bill Bowerman, became the Olympic coach. Steve Prefontaine, an Olympian who had 2 films made about him, was also there at the time. I actually used to go and work out with them sometimes, just to stay in shape, but I was not at that level of competition. Plus I was starting to play music more and more, and my "lifestyle" was changing, [becoming] not so amenable to being a world class athlete (although Prefontaine was a pretty heavy rebel, and partier). I only planned to take a music class to learn some theory, of which I knew practically none. I was now playing flute & sax, mostly for fun. When I went to the music department, it was so crowded they said only music majors could take theory classes. To be a major you had to pass a test. I told them I would never pass, but for some reason they encouraged me to take it anyway. I took it, and forgot about it. Several days later, they called me, and said I passed. I told them it was a fluke, because I had guessed most of the answers. They then asked me if I really wanted to study music, and I said yes. They said that maybe this was fate, and I should try it out and see what happens. This is how hip they were back in 1971. I had a great theory teacher named Monte Tubb who was very open to all kinds of music. He was friends with Harry Partch, and loved Indian and African music, etc. I brought in a Sun Ra album one day, and he played it for the class , and we analyzed it theory-wise. I was not on the level of many of the students, but I hung in the best I could. I also really got into my creative writing and literature classes. The Vietnam War was winding down, but we still had a draft, which was now controlled by a lottery. It used to be if you were in college, they couldn't draft you, but then that was considered unfair, because poor kids were always the first to go. The U of O contacted me to say they would be glad to protect me from the draft, and encouraged me not to register because many in Oregon were resisting. Sen. Wayne Morse I believe was one of the main voices to openly oppose the war in the Senate. Anyway, I registered eventually because I ended up getting a high lottery number, and was not likely to be drafted. But somehow, President Nixon found out about the University's policy of draft resistance, and he suspended all grant money allocated to the school, which cut off my scholarship. This all happened around the end of my first year. I was just starting to make a breakthrough in beginning theory, and so much was happening around me: the Grateful Dead were coming through Eugene and having all night acid parties (Ken Kesey had a farm there), the Rainbow family was starting out and had their house there. I also remember groups like The Art Ensemble [of Chicago], Don Ellis, and Alice Coltrane coming through. … And Returning Friends I came up with in Philly were talking about starting a band. They kept asking when I was coming home. At the end of my first year, with my scholarship run out, I came home for the summer to see what would happen. At my final conference with Monte Tubbs, I asked his opinion about coming back to school- or getting full time into the playing world back East. He said that if I wanted to be a teacher, stay in school, but if I wanted to be a player to go out and play. I was living with my girlfriend and we signed on for a ride with another couple in an old beat up car. We picked up another girl on the way, and started driving back to Philadelphia. After several hundred miles, in the middle of the Idaho mountains, the car broke down. My girlfriend, the other girl, and I hitchhiked home with all our worldly possessions. It took a week to get East, but it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life; crossing America on foot/thumb in the roaring early '70's, although I did it once before with two high school friends in 1969). When I got home, things were happening musically all around, and I was a little more prepared now. This is also when my cousin Walt introduced me to Mike Guerra, and I started taking private sax lessons around Philadelphia and playing in a lot of free-improv type bands. On Cecil Taylor Around 1973, I was playing in an ensemble with a pianist named Heath Allen; and also another more electric keyboard/synth player, Seth Kurtzberg. Both of these guys had some decent connections and were able to hook up some interesting gigs. Another more experienced reed player on the scene was George Bishop, who lived around Glassboro, NJ, and I was also playing a lot with a local guitarist I went to high school with named Mike Urbanek. George [Bishop] was playing a lot with Rick Iannacone. Rick is a guitarist who I became very close with, and toured and recorded with for the last 40 years. Coincidentally, he now lives in Eugene. Anyway, George invited us to come to hang out and jam in Glassboro one afternoon. It just happened to be the day that Cecil Taylor was giving a concert there, and starting his year-long "residency". We all went to a "lecture" CT [Cecil Taylor] was suppose to give, but for some reason it got cancelled. We ended up having a jam session at the school. A lot of musicians (students & otherwise) came out to hear CT. Most were "straight ahead" players, and weren't quite ready for what was to come. One by one, the jam narrrowed down to my self, Mike Urbanek, George Bishop, guitarist Tom Rollison, bassist Mike Egan, and drummer Jim Richards. This became the core for a group OLDUVAI, which recorded on TIWA Records, and also the core of CT's Glassboro Ensemble (although George soon left to go on the road. We toured briefly together with GONG, with whom he went to Europe, where he stayed until his death a few years ago). During the year in New Jersey with CT, he was forming his Orchestra in NYC, and he invited myself on tenor with other Glassboro students to start coming to rehearsals in NYC. My first gig in NYC was with this big band at Carnegie Hall in March of 1974. I was 20 years old. The band up there had about 40 members, including his quartet at the time: Jimmy Lyons [on alto sax], Sirone [on bass], and Andrew Cyrille [on drums]. Sunny Murray was also in this band, and we all commuted back and forth between Philly and NYC for the next year, sometimes playing together 5 or 6 days a week and often 6-8 hours a day. It was in this ensemble I first met Bobby Zankel. He later moved to Philadelphia and over the years we've shared two different apartments and played together in his Warriors of the Wonderful Sound. On Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes I spent the next decade mostly between Philly and NYC playing in a variety of jazz and funk bands, as well as some Latin, African, Middle-Eastern bands while becoming more and more involved with spoken word, theater, and dance collaborations. Living this kind of lifestyle has never been easy, and at one point I remember looking at my calendar, and there was not one gig scheduled. I had just played my last show at a local coffeehouse, and I remember saying to my long time friend/collaborator, drummer Ed Watkins, “something's got to change”. I believe it was the next day that I got a call from a trumpet player friend of mine named Greg Henderson. We were both living in Germantown at the time, and he and his brothers had a jazz band. He said his brother-in-law was Harold Melvin's road manager and step-son, and he needed some horn players to leave that night at midnight to ride on a tour bus to Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado. I was broke, and it was the middle of a steaming hot Philly summer. I was more than ready to get out of town, even though I was not particularly a big fan of this music. Growing up in Philadelphia, though, I was familiar with it, and had played in many R & B bands. I figured it would be a cool way to get a paid vacation. Plus we got to play on a bill with Lew Tabackin, Junior Walker, and a very young Bobby McFerrin, who was a front man of a jazz quartet. It was an amazing experience, and I decided to try to hang in for a little while, since not much else was happening. I ended up staying 11 years. Of course, I continued to play my own gigs whenever I could. I started getting good at finding ways to book my own gigs on the road - on off days - all over the world. This way I got to do some hip things with my friend Rick Iannacone in Hawaii and Japan and with trombonist Tyrone Hill, drummer Eddie Jones, and many others. Interestingly, it was maybe about 10 years later, after a Blue Notes gig in NYC, I was hanging out at an after hours spot and ran into Cecil. He asked me what I was doing lately, and I told him, reluctantly, about playing with the Notes. He was fascinated by this, and started asking me many questions, and it developed into a reconnection. [After this conversation] he asked if I would be interested in participating in a new ensemble he was organizing for a residency at The Knitting Factory. Of course, I didn't hesitate to accept, and have been part of every ensemble he's invited me to from that time ever since. On Spoken Word I have been writing as long as I can remember. In elementary school I wrote a play with a close friend of mine. We acted in it, with others, and I directed it as well. Again in high school I did this, this time with a teaching assistant who had experience in off-Broadway directing. I got a very accomplished songwriter, Buzzy Linhart, to contribute a song for the production. I later got to tour with him a little, despite poor health these days, he is an amazing performer and composer. I had a teacher in high school that very much encouraged my writing, and was especially drawn to my more experimental efforts. He also turned me on to great writers; Melville, and especially Joyce, who were very influential. When I got to University of Oregon, I took some literature classes. Again, Joyce was very important. I really connected to his development, so reminiscent to me of Coltrane, where he started mastering the more traditional, short story forms (like Coltrane’s years with Monk/Miles, then Giant Steps), and then crossed into the epic Ulysses (Coltrane’s albums A Love Supreme/Meditations); and finally Finnegan's Wake (Trane's last few years) where the Tao of Art & Physics all merge. This all started becoming very much a part of my creative process. I had a very influential creative writing teacher at U of O as well, but unfortunately I can't remember his name. He asked us to write out our dreams. I've never been really good at remembering my dreams, but the week of that assignment I remembered every night, and wrote them out. When I returned back East and eventually found myself in Cecil's ensemble, he often spoke of writers - Bob Kaufman and Ishmael Reed being memorable for me. On our concert in Glassboro, part of the composition was to each create a 3-line/3-word per line poem. I still remember mine: Rise erect spirits Sax sages sing Fucking is swing Amazing to remember this now. It was 1974 and this was very much in the "spirit" of what I was feeling and learning around me. Out of this ensemble grew my first real band, OLDUVAI, which was basically myself, Tom Rollison-guitar (now in SF area), and Jim Richards -drums (deceased-1979). A bassist Mike Egan also played often, and trumpeter Stephen Haynes came east from Wisconsin, and lived and played with us for a while, before going on to Bennington [College] to study and play with Bill Dixon. My music was getting more and more serious and consuming, but I continued writing. I was for the first time, through learning about sound, dynamics, and rhythm, [figuring out] how to make my writing more satisfying. It was always easy enough intellectually, but now I was finding ways to achieve emotional and spiritual satisfaction as well. I remember playing at an art festival in an outdoor amphitheater in Trenton, New Jersey. [The audience] was a combination of tourists, avant-music crowd, and families spending a day in the park. I had a particularly intense and personal piece I had just written. We were coming very much out of performance art, having just played for a year with Cecil, hanging and listening to the Art Ensemble [of Chicago], Revolutionary Ensemble, SunRa... Totally in the moment, I picked up my "poem" in the middle of the concert, and it just flowed like the music. It was a true revelation. I haven't looked back since, so to speak. I was also very influenced by the late Steven Tropp and his wife Gloria who would do the most beautifully innovative stretched out vocalizations behind his straight ahead narrative prose. After he died, I collaborated with Gloria many times over the years. Over the years with Cecil, I’ve also used poetry in his performances. When we performed/recorded in Berlin in 1996 we started a concert with me doing a poem I wrote for my friend Kathy Chang(e)- who had just performed a self-immolation in front of the peace sign on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Cecil danced, chanted, and eventually played with me while I read. This was a beautiful confirmation for me of so much I had been learning and growing with over the years. I have a book "does it swing?"(on Heat Press), and many CDs of my poetry (with music). Working on more as we speak... On Philadelphia The history and tradition; musically, not just "colonial" history [of Philadelphia] is deep, awe-inspiring, as well as humbling. It's no exaggeration that audiences here will not be easily fooled or intimidated. So many greats have come up or come through here. This in itself is a severe education, creating a need and desire to always go to my roots to learn and experience the blues/R&B scene that is here, the discipline of the classical, and more traditional jazz scene, and the ever-present "underground" from which I came and inevitably remain. The world music scene is strong as well. African drummers particularly were drawn to Philadelphia. I got to know Bobby Crowder, who played with Olatunji, Art Blakey, Sun Ra, etc., and they all credited him to being a link between Africa and American jazz. The great Ghanain drummer Saka Aquay, who I got to see in a rare US performance at a local recreation center one afternoon, built a statue of him in Ghana... It is pretty centrally located. I seem to remember Sun Ra once saying he came here because it was the center of the Universe. He also mentioned something about it being Hell I believe as well. But, with all this being said, it seems to be a decent place to be "based out of", affordably and logistically situated for a "free-lance" musician perhaps. I could go on about this, but I think all the things I've detailed in my history so far, show strong evidence as to why I have continued to remain in Philadelphia after so many years. Like so many places, live music venues are disappearing, and it's somewhat amazing that the pay scale for musicians (here and elsewhere) has not seemed to go up anywhere in reasonable relation to the cost of living. Yet, one of the benefits of surviving is that you see these trends come and go and, gratefully, I know I am blessed to still be here to hear it and see it and play it.

Shaun Brady on the State of Jazz in Philadelphia

In February, a blog post on Philadelphia Magazine’s website whipped up a furor within the local jazz community. Provocatively headlined “R.I.P. Philly Jazz?,” the short piece spun a tentative moratorium on the city’s jazz scene from rumors that its last dedicated jazz club, Chris’ Jazz Café, was planning to supplement its programming with comedy and rock acts during the week, and was even considering a name change to remove the offending J-word (the club has since declared that the name will stay). Jazz has always suffered from a severe hypochondria, with someone ready to read its last rites at the slightest cough or blemish, but Philly’s jazz musicians and promoters were quick to take offense at the notion that they constituted the city’s walking dead. The Blog post wasn’t wrong in tracing the decline of Philadelphia’s club scene from its heyday, when countless jazz rooms littered the city and nurtured the careers of future giants like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lee Morgan. In more recent years, the local jazz scene has become more of a movable feast, nurtured by presenting organizations like Ars Nova Workshop and Jazz Bridge, which promote concerts in a variety of different sites; venues like the Painted Bride and the Annenberg Center, which fold jazz into a broader arts calendar; and innumerable short-lived concert series initiated from within the scene that take up residence in all manner of alternative spaces. The main problem with sustaining a vibrant jazz scene in Philadelphia has been consistent since its earliest days: the tractor beam pull of nearby New York, an irresistible draw for artists eager to test their mettle. It’s long been said that Philly lives in the shadow of New York, which has both positive and negative connotations. A shadow provides shade, its cooling, calming effect an asset for musicians seeking to live close to the action while maintaining a slightly less hectic pace and a more economically feasible quality of life for themselves and their families. The city continues to sustain the likes of Dave Burrell, who has enjoyed a career renaissance while exploring the city’s history through his residency at the Rosenbach Museum and Library; or Orrin Evans, who has referred to himself as hailing from the New Jersey Turnpike due to his frequent trips between the two cities. But a shadow also covers the ground in darkness, and too many musicians who have chosen to stay in the city have been unfairly overlooked by history. Many of those artists have served as mentors to better-known names, but one has to wonder whether Trudy Pitts would be mentioned in the same breath as the legends of the Hammond organ, or whether Sid Simmons would be a profound influence on pianists outside of the weekly jam session at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, or whether John Swana’s mid-career switch in focus from the trumpet to the Electronic Valve Instrument would have been hailed as pioneering if any of them had set up house in the Big Apple rather than the City of Brotherly Love. More often than not, Philadelphia becomes part of the creation myth of an artist rather than the place where they make their most important statements. The legend of John Coltrane is one of spiritual seeking and sonic exploration; the legend of John Coltrane in Philadelphia is of this most meditative of musicians “walking the bar” with R&B bands in North Philly and experiencing his “Come to Bird” moment seeing Charlie Parker at the Academy of Music in June 1945. Coltrane was one of several musicians who migrated from the Carolinas to Philadelphia during and after World War II, along with Dizzy Gillespie and the Heath Brothers. Before the war, the local jazz community had largely been the province of Italian-American musicians like guitarist Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti (a legacy later carried on by South Philly-born guitarists Pat Martino and Jimmy Bruno). But with the post-war change in style wrought by Gillespie, Parker and their collaborators came a distinct change in Philly jazz. Coltrane’s transition from R&B honker to bebop acolyte was indicative, and he soon found himself part of a community that also included the likes of Jimmy and Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, and Benny Golson. They had ample opportunities to play in the then-thriving club scene, which included fondly recalled spots such as Peps, The Showboat, the Downbeat, and Spider Kelly’s, all long gone. A decade younger, Odean Pope looked up to and often substituted in those clubs for Coltrane, while McCoy Tyner was rehearsing his first bands in his mother’s West Philly home hair salon, his destiny with Trane to be fulfilled only once both had moved away. While not as strongly associated with the city as some of these names, Gillespie would prove deeply influential on its music scene beyond his era-defining innovations. Gillespie’s big band would provide early opportunities for most of Philly’s up-and-coming musicians, including Coltrane, Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Lee Morgan. But those origin stories of Trane’s bar-walking days also play into the popular conception of Philadelphia’s more rough-hewn, down-and-dirty attitude. Trumpeter Terell Stafford, who has been the director of jazz studies at Temple University since 1996, recently founded the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, a big band populated by local musicians dedicated to performing repertoire by composers associated with the city. When asked what qualities characterized Philly’s music, he immediately came back with “soulfulness,” indicating that the DNA from those raucous, smoke-filled bars was still a part of the music’s genetic material. It was an element that became dominant in the late 1950s and 1960s, when Philly became the hub for the soul-jazz sound fueled by the introduction of the Hammond B-3 organ. At the center of that movement was Jimmy Smith, born in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown. He’d been preceded by Bill Doggett, who veered in a more strictly R&B direction, but Smith’s redefining approach on the organ inspired Philly pianists to make the switch in droves – and guaranteed employment for jazz players of all stripes. Pat Martino plied his trade in the early days with Don Patterson and Trudy Pitts; avant-garde saxophonist Bobby Zankel found work accompanying organists when he moved to the city from Brooklyn in 1975; and as late as the early 1990s, Ari Hoenig, Terell Stafford and Tim Warfield got their first breaks from Shirley Scott while she was captaining the Ortlieb’s jam sessions. By the mid-70s, the advent of fusion took its toll on the organ scene, sweeping away many of Philly’s clubs with it. But the soulfulness remained even in the city’s contributions to the fusion movement. It’s deeply ingrained in the music of Catalyst, the undersung electric quartet formed by Odean Pope, Eddie Green, Tyrone Brown and Sherman Ferguson that melded soul-jazz with the avant-garde and contemporary funk. Pat Martino graduated from organ trios to pioneering fusion work before suffering his near-fatal brain aneurysm in 1980, which disrupted his career for years prior to his remarkable comeback. And Grover Washington Jr. was one of the voices who updated soul-jazz with a contemporary feel that only much later was corrupted into the soulless variant known as smooth jazz. Ornette Coleman built his electric Harmolodic-funk group Prime Time around young players on the Philly funk scene, recruiting guitarists Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbee and the rhythm section of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and G. Calvin Weston from bands more steeped in Earth Wind and Fire than in Miles Davis. Still making their homes in Philly, Tacuma and Weston continue to flex their free-funk muscles in a variety of contexts; they’ve worked together with Marc Ribot, Derek Bailey, and James Carter, and formed the trio Free Form Funky Freqs with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. Fittingly, more forward-leaning artists swam against the trend, migrating to rather than from Philadelphia. The avant-garde landed in Philly in 1968 in the form of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, which took up residence in a rowhome in the city’s Germantown section. Despite the ensemble’s raucous din and the close quarters, the Arkestra remains headquartered in the same house 45 years later under the leadership of saxophonist Marshall Allen. Regarding his adopted home, the Saturnian bandleader famously said, “To save the planet, I had to go to the worst spot on earth, and that was Philadelphia, which was death's headquarters.” When saxophonist Bobby Zankel decided to move from Brooklyn to Philly in 1975, bassist Reggie Workman warned him that the city was “a graveyard.” Despite such dire warnings, Zankel found Philly a welcoming environment and has remained for nearly four decades, eventually founding his big band, the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, which helped seed the local experimental music community over ten years of monthly performances. In recent years, the ensemble has commissioned new works from composers like Rudresh Mahanthappa, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Steve Coleman. Through apprenticeship opportunities like Zankel’s Warriors and in its educational institutions, Philly continues to craft new creation myths. One of the most astonishing modern origin stories is the late-80s class at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), which included Christian McBride, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joey DeFrancesco, and members of The Roots and Boyz II Men. But on the other side of Broad Street sits an establishment that McBride refers to as even more influential, the Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts. Founded as a social club in 1966 by the musician’s union, the Clef Club has since become transformed into a cultural and educational organization, mentoring the likes of McBride and, more recently, drum prodigy Justin Faulkner. (His younger brother, drummer Nazir Ebo, was dropping jaws by the age of nine; he works regularly in local jazz ensembles even though he’s still not old enough to drive). Ortlieb’s weekly jam sessions were a spawning ground for jazz talent for decades before the club’s shuttering in 2010; it has since reopened in a much different guise, with jazz relegated solely to the much less vital jam nights. But for years newcomers like Orrin Evans and Terell Stafford found their voices in the narrow club under the stern guidance of Shirley Scott, Sid Simmons, and Trudy Pitts. Its loss has also led to diminished opportunities to hear standard-bearers like drummer Mickey Roker and saxophonist Bootsie Barnes, whose early mentorship injected a dose of hard-bop Philly soulfulness into the playing of Uri Caine. Along with the venues, many of those mentors have since passed on; in just the last few years, the scene has lost Simmons, Pitts, drummer Edgar Bateman, and saxophonist Byard Lancaster, a veteran of the New York loft scene and self-appointed “Jazz Ambassador.” Makeshift spaces have filled the gaps at least since the early 1970s, when Geno’s Empty Foxhole hosted the free jazz elite in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in University City. In recent years, Bowerbird has hosted experimental and new music in spaces ranging from record stores to historic homes, the Science Fiction series ran in the bar of an Ethiopian restaurant, Lucky Old Souls placed its stage in a bookstore in its dying days, and now Fire Museum and the Archer Spade Performance Series (named for the duo of trombonist Dan Blacksberg and guitarist Nick Millevoi, who host and often perform) set up in art galleries and yoga studios. Philadelphia also has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few major cities without a major jazz festival to its name; the last George Wein-produced Kool (later Mellon) festival took place more than twenty years ago. The West Oak Lane Festival brought local jazz artists and major R&B stars to a Northeast Philly neighborhood for seven years but folded after the 2011 edition. Last year, trombonist Ernest Stuart took it upon himself to create the first Center City Jazz Festival with a Kickstarter campaign. That festival recently celebrated its second edition and was awarded funds from the Knight Arts Challenge for future iterations; the Knight Foundation also provided funding for a festival planned by Ars Nova Workshop. Lifeline Music Coalition, the organization behind the West Oak Lane festival, has also announced plans for a new festival to be sponsored by the energy company PECO, which will take place at the Clef Club this fall. So rumors of the death of Philadelphia’s jazz scene, to paraphrase Mark Twain, may be greatly exaggerated. The shadow of New York will always continue to loom large, but a rich variety of foliage can thrive in the shade.

 

Bobby Zankel

"Leading people to enlightenment through sound" Brooklyn-born composer/saxophonist Bobby Zankel first began attracting attention in the early 70s for his work with Cecil Taylors Unit Core Ensemble as a skillful young altoist with a powerful music at his fingertips. His underground reputation grew on the New York Loft Scene, where he performed with the likes of Ray Anderson, William Parker, and Sunny Murray and where he continued his apprenticeship with Taylor. Zankel became a Philadelphian in 1975 to raise his family and to expand his artistic vision without heed to commercialism or the trends of the times. Since 1975 his performances as a sideman have ranged from the Hank Mobley/Sonny Gillette Quintet, to Jymmie Merritts Forerunners, to the Dells, NRBQ, Odean Popes Saxophone Choir, Ruth Naomi Floyd, and European work with Taylor. Zankel's intensive studies of tonality and rhythms with Maestro Dennis Sandole have lead to his development into one of the most brilliant and original composers of the 90s. His alto playing has been described as a unique amalgam of the precision and rhythmic intricacy of be-bop, with the soul and drive of hard bop, and the fire, spirituality, creativity and intensity of the avant-garde. Zankel's tenure in Philadelphia has been marked by a series of acclaimed collaborations with choreographers, writers, and visual artists (funded by a variety of grants, and commissions), four that have resulted in three ballets and one opera. In 1995 he was honored to receive the prestigious PEW FELLOWSHIP (the largest monetary grant that one can apply for in the US) for his writing. Zankel's compositions, which are characterized by a stunning blend of rhythmic layers, a highly personal, complex, chromatic harmonic language, and a hauntingly beautiful melodic lyricism, have been performed by such diverse musicians as Johnny Coles, Odean Pope, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Lester Bowie, Marilyn Crispell, Ralph Peterson Jr...The introspection of the composers life is balanced by more than a decade of artist in residence programs in the Pennsylvania prisons. Comprised of some of the most creative musicians in Philadelphia, The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, Bobby Zankel's large ensemble, has been in existence for five years now. This is Bobby Zankel in his own words. He talks about his initial attraction to the saxophone, his years of working with Cecil Taylor, his study with master teacher Dennis Sandole, and his almost 40 years living in Philadelphia. On Growing Up I started on clarinet in fourth grade, and I never fell in love with it. You know, when I was a kid I wanted to play saxophone, and they said you had to play clarinet. I played around with little bands and stuff, but I never considered myself a musician. I loved music, but I always battled with the clarinet. I just wasn’t that disciplined. Then, at around age 17, I was at the University of Wisconsin. This was 1967, and I switched to alto and just felt right away…you know the clarinet, even though I wasn’t a great clarinetist, allowed me to pick up the alto right away and just play it. [In] 1967, which is the year I started college, that was sort of the most chaotic time in the United States. People talk about the hippies and love and all of that, but what was the greater undercurrent was the upheaval caused by the war in Vietnam where the government - I mean people talk about the government now, but 6,000 Americanas died in Iraq and 50,000 died in Vietnam. So, nothing really looked worth pursuing. [When you’re young] you might think you want to be a lawyer or a college professor or something, and at that time it all looked so corrupt and so – well, you just didn’t want to be one of those people. And then seeing all of these great musical artists [during that period] made you think, “yeah, that’s what I want to be”. Take Jackie McLean for example. He would come into a room and you would feel his charisma and his intelligence, and this is a guy who had been through prison! What can I say? The magic these people exude… So, I was listening to a lot of different things and, once I got the alto, I just attacked it and played all the time. I had seen Ornette [Coleman] play in New York around that same time, in ’67. It was a special time. I got to see Jackie McLean a bunch of times, and Joe Henderson. Going to see music like that, and especially when you can go night after night, it’s so different. I mean, you can learn from the records, but the experience of being around…not that I know those people…but being around those great artists really gave me a feeling of something to aspire to. You know, the music world was so different then in that the areas of so-called jazz were not so broken down. Like on Blue Note, they might record Cecil Taylor one day and then Lou Donaldson the next. So, I really listened to it all. I certainly felt an attraction to modern things, and jazz was almost the most popular music of that time. I mean, Coltrane… I had a lot of those Coltrane records early on and it was something I couldn’t figure out at first, but I knew it was important. Ornette I related to really early. The melodic genius of it and the logic of it was really touched me. People talk about how it’s “out”, but it seems much more logical to me, because it’s linear thinking rather than chord changes or harmonic thinking. By the summer of 1969, I was going to Berklee [School of Music] for the summer programs. I had been going to University of Wisconsin and dropped out, and just played for a while. I saved up enough money to go to Berklee for the summer. My family said they weren’t going to pay for me to do that, but they were very nice. They said if I went back to University of Wisconsin, I could be a music major. I remember going back to Wisconsin in the fall of 1969. I went to the office of the guy that was the dean of the music school, who happened to be Gary Burton’s uncle, and he told me that Cecil Taylor would be coming in a few months, and a chill went over my body because I had seen Cecil play a bunch of times when I was out of school in New York. The band he had then was Andrew Cyrille on drums and Jimmy Lyons on alto. I remember seeing them play at Slug’s and thinking “I could fit in there, I can deal with that”. [laughs] I mean I don’t know if I could have dealt with it, because those guys played so great. On Cecil Taylor When Cecil [Taylor] was at Wisconsin, he was so generous. For about three years, we had a group there and he would write music every day. We were playing composed music. We’d play twenty, twenty-five minutes without a solo. [sings atonal shapes] And, it was all taught by him playing stuff at the piano and telling us what he wanted. There was no rhythmic notation. It was just “D up to G, E up to A, down a half step to Ab”, and then he’d play it at the piano and we’d play it the best that we could. We rehearsed every day like that. That [group played] in Wisconsin for a year and then he got a job teaching at Antioch College in Ohio. I dropped out of Wisconsin and thought I was going to be Johnny Hodges* and stick with this one guy, you know? That was my thinking at the time. I just moved to Ohio, and that’s where it really, really got serious. He was there for two years, and there were people that came from a lot of different places. It was a couple of students from the university, but it was mostly people that just wanted to do this music. We would practice every day and maybe once a year someone would come out from Impulse! or something and want to record. Cecil would drive them away [laughs] and we’d all be disappointed. But, we felt like we were building this thing. After two years at Antioch, Cecil moved back to New York and I, of course, followed him. This was 1973, and I really didn’t think I was ready to be in New York. He didn’t want [the group] to be Sun Ra. You know…he didn’t want to be anybody’s father or a cult leader. So, when we got to New York, there were just a couple of gigs that the large group did. We did a concert at Columbia. We did a concert at Carnegie Hall. Then the group just sort of died. But, you know, when I met Cecil I was trying to be John Coltrane, you know what I mean? Just in the sense that I knew how to play the blues, I knew how to play Giant Steps, but I was really trying to go to the end of the universe….the whole encyclopedia, not just A and B…[laughs]. And then, I think it was January and I had been staying with some friends who lived in a building where [pianist and composer] Abdullah Ibrahim was living on the first floor. I went down and hung out with him a little bit. He was also very nice. He told me that the best way to learn chord changes was George Russell’s [Lydian-chromatic] system. So, I was trying to be the hippest guy around and I went up to Cecil and said, “you know, Dollar Brand [Ibrahim’s name before he changed it] said George Russell’s method is the best method to play changes, what do you think?”. Cecil looked at me and said, “who wants to play changes?” [laughs] So I said, “okay, I don’t have to do the whole encyclopedia”. [laughs] On Philadelphia The woman I was with at that time…we had one daughter…was getting her graduate degree at University of Indiana. I felt really responsible for my daughter and I got her and her mom to come to Brooklyn. I had started practicing Buddhism and it just made me feel that even though she didn’t want to be with me, I should take responsibility for my daughter. I thought it was noble at the time, but if you don’t want to be with somebody it’s not going to work. In any case, she came to New York and then ended up getting money to get a degree at the University of Pennsylvania, so that’s what brought me to Philadelphia. This whole scene that had been in New York…I mean, these guys weren’t developed yet like they would be later, but it was exciting to be a part of a movement. It was good. It was positive and was clearly an evolving situation. The thing that was frustrating [about leaving that scene] was that it felt like there was a little bit of room to get through, but in another way I was really happy to move to Philly because I thought I could really get myself together here. I didn’t think I’d be here very long, though. For some reason, when I came to Philly…maybe because I’d been in New York…people treated me really great. It was 1975 and the golden era of Philadelphia was already done, but it was still…like we’re here on 47th street and if you walk up to 52nd street that was the main business street in the black community in West Philadelphia. There were four clubs that had organ music almost every night on that street, and I used to go up there and sit in, play with Don Patterson and local guys and people were just really, really nice to me. They were playing standards and so I was sort of able to amass some stuff. Then there was a program that the government had called Model Cities. I don’t know where it came from, if it was part of the war on poverty or what, like the cultural component of it. Anyway, Odean Pope, Tyrone Brown, a great piano player named Eddie Green, Jymie Merritt, all these guys had a big band through that program and I would go play in that. That’s where I met Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Earl Gardner, really great players. So, that was another thing going on. On Dennis Sandole When I got down here I tried to find Dennis Sandole’s phone number. It wasn’t in the Philadelphia directory, I remember. I didn’t know anyone who was studying with him at the time, so I had to dig a little deeper, but it paid off and on January 2nd, 1978 I took my first lesson. He was a Jehovah’s Witness so holidays didn’t mean anything to him, you know. He would give a lesson on Christmas day. He was quite a magical teacher. He was a musical genius and at some point put his horn down and put everything he had into the art of teaching. And, he was a beautiful guy. Every time you went in to take your lesson you would feel like you were his favorite student, and when the next guy would go in he would feel that way too. He was just like that. I went there first for a couple of years and then I went away for a little bit and would come back for a couple more years and I was with him up until when he died. He had this way of teaching he called a “maturation of concepts”. It was his way of dealing with harmonic concepts. He’d write out these things for you to work on and it would be evolving week after week after week where you’d have to play these things in 12 keys. People do that all the time and it’s a sure-fire methodology to get your ear together, to get your fingers together, and to make you hear yourself. But, with Dennis, he wasn’t giving you licks or stuff you would play on the bandstand. What he was writing was stuff that would make you hear your options, like you can play a flat 9 on a dominant chord; he would write those things out and you would play them so you could just hear that sound. The stuff he was giving me after 10 years was crazy! [laughs] What was terrible was that most of the students he had were guitar players, and for guitar you can play in 12 keys and it ain’t shit, but I’d go in there on the horn and on the saxophone it was terrible! [laugh] I would go and practice 4 hours a day. I stopped doing gigs and was just practicing to try and play this crazy stuff, but I could tell after just a couple of weeks when I went to play that this shit was happening, I mean wow. On Writing Music Part of what Dennis did, though, was to encourage me about my writing. Part of it was that he would give you a four-week sequence of activities, and on the fourth week you were supposed to write something using what you’d been working on and I just gravitated toward that, so he encouraged me to get the stuff played, and I studied orchestration with him. And, when you start writing tunes you want to become a leader. In 1985 I got my first grant from the Pennsylvania Arts Council for a piece. I think I had a big band before that, but this grant - it was for one concert - but it gave me enough money to hire people to rehearse. It was an octet project with dancers. Then the next year I got another grant, you know, and by around 1991 I had a project where I had Johnny Coles playing trumpet, Odean Pope was in the band, Tyrone Brown from Max Roach’s group was in the band. I don’t know what had happened in all those years, but the stuff was evolving. I mean I always thought of myself as out, but this was really different and melodic. Maybe Johnny Coles thought is was out but he just got off the road with the Ellington band. [laughs] In the early 80s I was playing with Jymie Merritt. People know his name because he played with Art Blakey and Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie for years as a professional working bass player, but very few people know that he was an incredibly bass player. He had this system of working with cross-rhythms, really complex. There’s this piece that Max always used to play called Nommo that was 3 against 7 and he had some pieces on the last Lee Morgan where you can really here his rhythmic stuff. But, playing with him really taught me about how to write and play rhythm and really got me involved with non-metric rhythm as opposed to conventional rhythm. He had me hearing these cross-rhythms and gave me a grounding in it to where I wasn’t just guessing. At some point, I was asked to put together a big band for this festival and I was used to using guys that were older and more experienced than me, you know that could really read, but the guy putting it together said he could get me some young guys to do it and it was so great. It was so much fun to be the older guy, to kind of become the teacher in that situation. And it was great to write for them. The house is big enough to rehearse a big band and so I was able to start having that group over to the house once a month. That was the smartest thing I did was to have it once a month and not once a week! [laughs] That became the warriors of the wonderful sound. Right now, it seems to have stopped, but those things come full circle, you know? On The Future Right now I’m in a funny period…I teach music in the prisons, which is a job I stumbled into and have been doing now for over 20 years and so that keeps me going, but musically I’m doing what I said in the beginning [when talking about Ornette Coleman], trying to write music that is not metrical, not song form, and where the improvising isn’t based on harmonic movement. I think if I like something I don’t mind being a beginner. In fact I think I like things where I can be a beginner. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Philadelphia as a city has changed so much. The world has changed so much, and not all for the better. And I think where it’s not for the better is the lack of humanity. There are so many people in the schools that can play their instruments well, but there seems to be less interchange and there are certainly fewer places to play. But I’ve never been one to be a crybaby, and you just have to deal with your situation. Sometimes you don’t realize how great things are because it’s happening to you and it’s hard to reflect in that way. I don’t have to stay young but I want to try and figure out how to stay vibrant and how to keep growing. That’s the most important thing and you know, when you’re young, growing happens by itself. At this point in time for me it doesn’t happen by itself. It’s more natural in a way to recede into the background but, because I can define the problem, I can solve it. I mean, we could talk about the scene, but the scene is the scene and I have to figure out how I want to operate in relationship to it. It’s never been easy, not just in America in the 21st century, to be an artist. It’s not what a materialistic society is about, and if you want to spend your time creating beauty you’re swimming against the stream. Get over it and get a good kick.