It’s 9 p.m., and I’m watching the band set up for Victor North‘s jazz jam at Heritage in Northern Liberties. On the first and third Thursdays of every month at 9:30 p.m. the Philly jazz legend is there with his trio (or quartet, depending on the night).
Tonight, percussionist Doug Hirlinger is joined by the Budesa brothers, Rich on keyboard, Rob on guitar. Other musicians just out for the night begin to mill around. A white-haired woman sits at the table directly in front of the stage. North comes in and starts organizing himself. He crosses to the white-haired lady to chat with her. There’s apparently something special about her. More on her in a minute.
The magic of a jazz jam is the intimacy and spontaneity of the performance, and the fact that the musicians haven’t rehearsed together. North may email some of the performers with some of the songs they’ll play, but the musicians might not even know for sure who else will be performing any given week.
This twice-monthly jam is also an opportunity for amateur and student musicians to get some experience performing in public without harsh judgment. Critical commentary may be offered after the set, but not the nastiness often seen on TV voice competitions.
The first set tonight has North and his band playing some of his originals and some standards. For the second set, guest musicians sit in. Joining the jam tonight are saxophonist Steve Cutcher, Chris Simonini on keyboards, drummer Gusten Rudolph, and Joe Breidenstine on trumpet. James Santangelo, who leads the jam instead of North on alternate Thursdays, plays several instruments including piano and bass. And rounding out the assemblage is Will Caviness from New York, whose album “A Walk” by the Will Caviness Sextet hit No. 20 on the Jazz Week chart.
A Colombian woman brings down the house with “Chega De Saudade” and then leaves without even telling us her name.
The white haired woman is Mama Dot, also known as Dottie Watkins. She is 95 years old, about to turn 96, and she drove herself here from Cinnaminson, New Jersey, just to play. Rich Budesa lovingly sets up the keyboard for her. The musicians know her from years ago at nearby Ortliebs.
Ms. Dottie plays “Billie’s Bounce” as North, Caviness, and Breidenstein weave in and out. I tell her that I recorded some video of her jamming, and she says to me, “Why would you want to take my picture?”
Michal (pronounced Michelle) Beckam takes the stage to sing a sensational and sensual version of “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” from the 1939 stage musical “Too Many Girls” and the 1957 film version of the musical “Pal Joey.” I am hearing notes of Dinah Washington in her voice. Beckam tells me she is influenced by Nancy Wilson. North, Caviness, and Breidenstein join in.
I ask North how they play so well together with no rehearsal.
“So as far as the house band goes, these are the songs I sent them ahead of time in the first set,” he says. “After that, everything we did is called standards. We just come up with some standards that we all know. We just call out songs until we find one we all agree on.
I ask how the musicians know when to come in and out and whose turn it is to play solo.
“That just comes with experience,” North says. “Just learning bandstand etiquette and how that works. Jam sessions can have really wonderful experiences. Sometime it’s not so good. You just never know.”
North says he gave up teaching full time last year to be a full-time musician. “It’s something I wanted to do for a long time. And because of my family commitments, I haven’t been able to do it until now,” he says.
Of course, he still teaches younger players in the context of these jam sessions. “It’s interesting,” he says. “A lot of my old students from when I taught at the Kimmel Center … are now in their 20s and coming to the jam sessions. And a big part of learning to be a jazz musician is done on the bandstand, which is definitely where I’ve learned my most important lessons.” Through the years, he says, he has shared bandstand with local legends such as Bootsie Barnes, Larry McKenna, Boby Jones, Arthur Harper.
The musicians play on, unrehearsed, seamlessly, magically, weaving the music together. Most of the performers aren’t even being paid. They are here for the love of the music, each other, and Victor North.