Redemption of Philly jazz scene starting in the Northwest

     From left: Richard Drueding, Rob Sanders and Jim Hamilton are shown performing at Rittenhouse Soundworks, a venue that is playing a part in Philly's jazz revival. (Image courtesy of Matthew Hamilton.)

    From left: Richard Drueding, Rob Sanders and Jim Hamilton are shown performing at Rittenhouse Soundworks, a venue that is playing a part in Philly's jazz revival. (Image courtesy of Matthew Hamilton.)

    I didn’t move to Northwest Philadelphia for the jazz. I came for the Wissahickon Woods and the bohemian, multicultural vibe. When I first settled in the neighborhood in 1996, the local music scene was limited to an eclectic mix at the Mermaid Inn which, on any given night, featured a Grateful Dead cover band, blues, Celtic sea shanties or an open mic.  If I wanted to hear jazz, I had to go to Chris Jazz Café in Center City or Ortleib’s in Northern Liberties. Just thinking about parking and traffic was enough to keep me on my sofa.

    Then North By Northwest opened in Mt Airy. The music wasn’t strictly jazz, but it was close enough. Around the same time, Paul Roller, chef/owner of Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill, started presenting live jazz. That’s where I heard legendary Mississippi blues pianist and singer Mose Allison. The last time I had heard Allison was at Pep’s Bar on Lombard Street, one of over 30 Philly jazz clubs that closed its doors in the 1970s, only to be replaced by rock venues such as the Electric Factory, Keswick and Tower Theater.

    North By Northwest eventually closed and recently reopened as the 7165, offering jazz brunch on Sundays. Meanwhile, Reverend Chris Marsceill plays New Orleans-style piano on Friday nights at Tavern on the Hill in Chestnut Hill. For the Chardonnay-and-pearls set, Woodmere Museum launched a Friday Night Jazz series.

    Then came the Bynum brothers, owners of Warmdaddy’s, Relish, South, and the now defunct Zanzibar Blue. When they announced the opening of Paris Bistro Jazz Café in Chestnut Hill in 2014, I was skeptical. Were they really going to create an authentic jazz venue or will it be just one more missed opportunity? Zanzibar Blue had been my favorite jazz hangout in its intimate location on South 11th Street, but when they relocated it in a cavernous space in the Bellevue Hyatt, I lost interest. Apparently, so did the owners.

    But when I entered Paris Bistro, with my mental score, they had me at “Bonjour.” I passed through a noisy, brightly lit main dining room and descended a flight of stairs into a 1930s-style jazz lounge with red banquettes, mirrored walls, and retro wall sconces. There were only a dozen seats at the semi-circular bar. So far, so good.  

    The menu was standard Parisian bistro fare. But the main course wasn’t anything on the menu. It was the music — from formidable local groups like the Hot Club of Philadelphia with vocalist Phyllis Chapell performing Django Rheinhardt-style gypsy jazz. Other nights, the lineup includes the same songbirds who appear at the other Bynum cabarets: Brenda Smith, Anna Cecilia and Michelle Lordi. With just a $5 cover, I sat at the bar, sipping a prosecco cocktail and thought, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

    But it does.

    This fall, Philly percussionist Jim Hamilton launched a jazz series at Rittenhouse Soundworks, his 15,000-square-foot recording studio and performing arts space in Germantown. There’s no signage. Just a metal door marked 219 on Rittenhouse Street next to the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. That’s part of the mystique. I missed the first two concerts but caught the third one in November featuring 10 acts, including The Jost Project with vibraphonist Tony Miceli, vocalist Paul Jost, bassist Kevin MacConnel and drummer Doug Hirlinger. The performance space is nothing short of dynamic. Its size, however, doesn’t detract from the quality of sound or comfort.

    Many well known musicians were among the over 150 attendees hooting, whistling and applauding. The ambience was electric. No French food or pretense. No bartenders or hovering waiters. Just unmatched chairs, pretzels, soda, wine and beer. And world class jazz. All for 10 bucks suggested donation. And, oh yeah, free parking. Musicians performing in January include legendary neo-soul trombonist Jeff Bradshaw, vocalist Phyllis Chapell, and vibraphonist David Friedman. Embracing a build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy, Hamilton envisions establishing a much-needed straight-ahead jazz radio station, an art gallery and tap dance performance space.  

    So why is Northwest Philly, rather than Center City or the Main Line, turning into a jazz wonderland? Maybe it’s the cultural diversity that’s always been here. Or the fact that so many musicians live in the area. Whatever the reason, if the ghosts of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Nina Simone were to stumble into a jam session at Rittenhouse Soundworks, they’d feel right at home.

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