North Philly’s New Barber’s Hall hosts ‘Matinee Jams,’ celebrating the city’s jazz legacy

Aqueelah Jamal hosts live jazz jams in North Philly every 2nd Saturday, 3-7 p.m.

Jazz musicians performing live on stage

Marion Salaam performs on the saxophone at the Matinee Jams event on Sat., Feb., 10, 2024 at New Barber's Hall in North Philadelphia. (Mariyum Raina Rizwan/WHYY)

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It’s easy to look past the unassuming building near the corner of Broad and Oxford Streets. Yet, New Barber’s Hall is a historic fixture for the surrounding community where old and new friends meet to enjoy drinks, live jazz music and arguably the best fried chicken wings in the city.

Every second Saturday from 3-7 p.m., the North Philly bar houses Aqueelah Jamal’s “Matinee Jams” live jazz event. With no cover charge, live music and the nostalgia that embodies New Barber’s Hall, the event welcomes all. Still, it primarily appeals to older Black Philadelphians who love jazz and the legacy the genre has left in the community.

“We are passionately known as the old heads,” Jamal said. “I have no problems with that.”

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For the last 45 years, Jamal has been active in radio, music, and the entertainment industry, producing live music events. She has been with WURD radio for 18 years, focusing on jazz and what she calls the “prenatal sounds of jazz.”

The energy from the audience was undeniable when Napoleon Black and the 61st Street Band, Marion Salaam, and Tony Smith took the stage. Blue and purple lights served as the only illumination in the dim bar as onlookers leaned forward, anticipating the first note from Black.

Jazz musicians performing live on stage
Napoleon Black of the 61st Street Band performs on the drums at the Matinee Jams event on Sat., Feb., 10, 2024 at New Barber’s Hall in North Philadelphia. (Mariyum Raina Rizwan/WHYY)

Riffing off each other effortlessly, one would think the men have all performed together for years. Yet, Smith’s first time playing with Salaam and Black’s band came this month. The Delaware native and trumpet player says musicians can sit in with anybody when they get to a certain level.

“People will think that you’re actually part of the band,” Smith says.

Performing with Napoleon Black and the 61st Street Band is a familiar rhythmic dance for Salaam. The self-proclaimed “straw that stirs the drink” is a saxophonist, vocalist, and lyricist who has been playing since the 1960s.

“These guys, no, we’re old friends,” Salaam said, gesturing to the stage. “We’re colleagues, and our connection is a long and precious one.”

Jazz began to emerge as its own musical style in the early 1900s, merging two vernacular African American musical styles — ragtime and blues — with some elements of popular music. By the middle of the twentieth century, Philadelphia had emerged as a hub boasting numerous influential jazz musicians. The city is the birthplace of Billie Holiday and home to iconic artists, including Lee Morgan, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Trudy Pitts, Sun Ra Arkestra and the Heath Brothers.

“We have lost so many jazz legends in the last couple of years,” Jamal said. “However, the ones you saw last week are the current legends of jazz.”

Smith, Salaam, Black and the rest of the 61st Street Band are seasoned veteran performers still honing their craft even after many years in the industry.

Establishments like Barber’s Hall are vital for preserving Black culture in Philly. The bar is nestled between businesses catering to students in what has become an expansive part of Temple University’s campus. Yet, the owner, Jake Adams, has no intention of selling.

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“The establishments don’t seem to have the same passion for the older crowd like it did back then,” Jamal said. “Whereas today, they’re more concerned with trying to bring in the younger crowd.”

For Renee Albritton, Barber’s Hall is a reminder of her father, who would frequent the bar.

“This place has been here in North Philadelphia,” Albritton said. “It’s been a mainstay for our community for years. I love it here.”

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