Experimental jazz finding a home base in Philadelphia

    Philadelphia has an important jazz history, having launched the careers of John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones. More recently, the experimental music scene is on the upswing and it may soon be finding its place on the world map.

    Philadelphia has an important jazz history, having launched the careers of John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones. More recently, the experimental music scene is on the upswing and it may soon be finding its place on the world map.

    Piles of cassette tapes from rare Grateful Dead or Phish shows call to mind devoted music followers. The world of jazz has a similarly greedy appetite for the rare and underperformed. Mark Christman has made Philadelphia a performance hub for that music.

    Christman: “This is music that hasn’t been performed live in 30 years and it may be another thirty until it gets performed live again. Having a document of tonight’s performance might be really valuable to people down the road, or even tomorrow – to somebody in Japan, or something like that.”

    Christman founded Ars Nova Workshop in 2000. The nonprofit group organizes performances of old and new experimental music. In the coming months, he’ll be creating a record label to get the performances from the past decade out to the wider world of jazz lovers. Tonight, a full house has assembled at World Café Live to hear the music of Julius Hemphill. Hemphill created some cutting edge experimental music in the 1970s and 80s.

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    Jazz, avant garde, progressive or experimental music, whatever you call it, it’s not for everybody, though there are plenty of people in Philadelphia interested in listening to and playing this music. Starting in intimate venues nine years ago, Ars Nova has moved to spaces that can accommodate up to 400 people. And that activity is reverberating among artists, with more creative collaborations springing up. David Adler is a freelance music journalist who recently spent a year and a half in Philadelphia.

    Adler: “I think it will continue to develop in ways we can’t predict, but these people are natural collaborators, they seek out ways to play with each other, and the more people that keep coming up, the bigger the pool will be.”

    Adler points out that it would be impossible to quantify the jazz scene here because there are so many things going on and lots of activity is exactly what helps build a city’s reputation. After seeing Grammy-nominated musician John Hollenbeck perform, the music curator at the Painted Bride Art Center invited him to Philadelphia for a two-week residency. Hollenbeck has brought a dozen diverse Philadelphia musicians together for a project called Big Ears, where they practice improvisational music and let the audience in on the process.

    Hollenbeck: “There is a lotta support for the arts in New York, but compared to the size, Philadelphia is so much better.”

    If jazz musicians here are indebted to institutions like Ars Nova and The Painted Bride, they are equally indebted to those funding their visions. Beth Feldman Brandt has worked at several arts foundations in Philadelphia and now heads the arts-focused Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation.  She says part of the challenge with the arts is that it’s difficult to make them more efficient.

    Brandt: “If a Mozart symphony takes 38 players, it takes 38 players. In order to make the arts accessible to all kinds of people in the city, that means you’re never going to be able to charge as much as it costs to present those programs. Subsidy has to come from somewhere, and we’re lucky in Philadelphia that a lot of foundations step up to the plate.”

    Foundation money will end up funding the new Ars Nova record label as well. While it may be nice for Philadelphia’s name to get out there, through continuing support for celebrity residencies and new recording labels, the musicians living and playing here have other concerns. Saxophonist Bobby Zankel is one of the patriarchs of this city’s recent music history.

    Zankel: “This music has been going on in American since slavery. In the same way there are people in Philadelphia and all over America making music. Whether we get a grant or we don’t get a grant. The music will be written, played and happen one way or the other.”

    Click on the play button below or right click on this link and choose “Save Link As” to download. [audio: arts20090306jazz.mp3]

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