Reinvented West Oak Lane Jazz Festival draws modest (but appreciative) crowd

The Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC) reincarnated the shuttered West Oak Lane Jazz Festival on Saturday with a smaller six-hour concert which doubled as a ticketed fundraising event at the Keswick Theater in Glenside.

The three-day free music festival had an eight-year run in the community, but was cancelled in 2012 because funding dried up.

This year, OARC brought back the music, tying it in with Thursday’s Night Market street fair, held for the first time in West Oak Lane. OARC officals said it was part of the organization’s new branding effort.

“For as long as I am the CEO and president … our motto is going to be ‘Keeping Communities Alive,’ because that’s what we do,” said Jack Kitchen of OARC.

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Attendance cresendo

Bracelets allowed concert attendees the chance to freely enter and exit the theater to dine and shop in the adjacent Keswick Village, keeping with a festival-like free movement atmosphere.

An early crowd of around 200 people slowly grew to the point where attendees filled roughly half of the 1,300-seat venue by show’s end.

Local party band Urban Guerrilla Orchestra kicked things off with an energetic set of funk cover tunes which had the audience quickly on their feet and dancing.

Local songstress Carol Riddick wowed the crowd with soaring neo-soul vocals.

Warren Oree, of Life Line Music Coalition, Inc., was the festival’s music producer.

He told attendees that providing a public stage for future generations of jazz musicians, like the concert’s second act, the Philadelphia Clef Club’s Senior Youth Band, is an important festival tradition.

Highlighting the festival’s legacy

It was a first-time West Oak Lane Jazz Festival appearance for renowned jazz flautist, Bobbi Humphrey.

Humphrey said she was pleased to participate.

“It’s a great concept,” she said, noting that music and the arts make a difference in communities. “It’s the life blood.”

On stage, Humphrey thrilled with her trills, witty banter and a rocking rendition of the Rolling Stone’s “Miss You.” She got emotional during her solo performance in a cover of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.”

“Music rules. That’s all I can say,” she said, wiping away tears.

No stranger to the jazz festival, headliner Roy Ayers delivered hits like “Searching” and a scorching version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia”.

The 72-year-old vibraphonist said he’s glad to return because of Philadelphia’s support and appreciation of jazz.

“They [OARC] present the best in jazz,” he said. “They’ve done it for years. As long as they continue to do this, I’ll continue to play it.”

Cause of light turnout?

Some audience members said they were surprised about the modest turnout. They speculated that resentment towards having to pay $43 per ticket for what had traditionally been a free event may have played a role.

OARC’s Chief Operating Officer John Ungar said the organization did not expect to sell out this time around because of adjustment to the event’s new presentation. He said he is still figuring out how to bring back the music for good.

Hosting a smaller-scale festival is more feasible in terms of keeping ticket prices affordable and attaining sponsors, a necessity now that the organization has to put on the event without public funding, he said.

It cost an estimated $40,000 to put on this year’s scaled-back festival, according to state Rep. Dwight Evans. Sponsors included AmeriHealth Mercy, Masjidullah Inc., PECO, Seravalli Contractors and Sugarhouse Casino. The amount of money brought in was still being tabulated, Kitchen said.

It is unclear whether the Keswick Theater will become its new home. A lack of a sizable venue in Northwest Philadelphia is a factor, Evans said.

With OARC’s desire to see both the Night Market and jazz fest return, Evans said now will be the time to examine the outcomes of both to determine what might be possible for the future.

“Sometimes when you can’t do it through one door, you do it through another door,” said Oree, the event producer. “The point is that you do it.”

Positive reviews

Leah Fletcher, an East Falls resident who went to the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival since its inception, said the cancellation disappointed her, but she was happy to see a rebirth.

“It still mirrors and mimics the outdoor festival,” said Fletcher, noting that she and other true followers wouldn’t miss the festival’s resurrection, no matter the form. “It’s a fantastic show. I think it will grow.”

Sarah Mitchell, of Elkins Park, is also a festival regular. She said she preferred the indoor air-conditioned venue because it is more relaxing and comfortable than the hot, crowded street festival.

The Sanders brothers — Larry, Kenny and Tyrone — arrived just in time to catch Humphrey and Ayers.

Kenny Sanders, from Overbrook, said he would like to see the jazz festival return outdoors to West Oak Lane because “it blossomed there” and has a different meaning to the culture from which it came.

Larry, who lives in Cedarbrook, said he sees advantages to both venues: Fresh air vs. no concerns about weather.

Tyrone, of East Oak Lane, said he’d like to see the festival travel to different venues in a variety of neighborhoods, not unlike the Night Market model.

“That way, everyone gets a chance,” he said.

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