One of Philadelphia’s most revered jazz clubs closed two weeks ago. Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus in Northern Liberties was a haven for purists for more than two decades.
One of Philadelphia’s most revered jazz clubs closed down two weeks ago. Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus in Northern Liberties was a haven for purists for more than two decades.
Many say Ortlieb’s was not just one of the best places in town to hear jazz. It was the best.
“Ortlieb’s is pretty much the premiere venue in Philadelphia – and a lot of people might hate me for saying that,” says Byron Landum, who was the drummer in the house band for 16 years.
“Not to take anything away from what’s happening in Philadelphia with the other clubs – there’s some good clubs in Philadelphia,” says Landum. “But nobody has picked up the slack.”
The trio has now has a regular Tuesday gig at another jazz club in Old City.
“I actually learned how to play down there [at Ortlieb’s],” says Sid Simmons, the trio’s piano player. “I thought I knew how to play before, but from going down there and playing with the top-notch musicians, you learn that you got a lot to learn.”
Ortlieb’s was a rare harmony of talent and audience. Players often sat in on each other’s gigs to jam, pushing one another and learning from one another. Audiences listened closely – very closely.
Jazzhead Matt Feldman, who spins records for a community radio station in Germantown, says, at Ortlieb’s, you could get to know the musicians.
“It was a classy spot in its way,” says Feldman. “I went on, I think, two first dates to Ortlieb’s. It had that range of people there –People who were maybe going to Ortlieb’s because they thought it would impress the girl, and people dead serious on the music.”
Oddly, Ortlieb’s was, in some ways, a terrible place to play. It was long and narrow, like a railroad car, and the acoustics were notoriously erratic.
Richard Harner, a saxophone player, says the tables were practically on top of the stage.
“It was inconvenient,” says Harner. “If you wanted to be close to the music, you could have a table three feet from the trombone player – and watch out that you didn’t get tapped. It was not an ideal location.”
But the music was beyond good, so people came to hear it seven days a week. Why so good? In part because the club was started 23 years ago by a musician, saxophone player Pete Souder.
He says, when he started, most clubs treated jazz like furniture.
“They put the band over behind the potted plant, kind of thing,” says Souder. “And all the people stand there with their upscale martinis and talk with their backs to the band.”
Souder created the kind of place where he’d want to play. But after 20 years he was getting tired of running a club, and he worried about his health. So he sold it to a trio of young restaurant investors in 2007. Many people – both musicians and patrons – wondered if the new owners were in over their heads.
“These guys come in, and they didn’t have jazz understanding,” says bass player Mike Boon. “They didn’t know who people were. That’s an intangible that certainly factors in.”
Some Ortlieb loyalists say the new owners were not as friendly to musicians as the original owner.
But Pete Souder wonders if, on his watch, he might have coddled the musicians too much.
“You know, with comps, and things like that,” says Souder. “Or somebody took long of a break or something like that. I’d say, ‘hey, do you mind getting out there and starting the next set?’ I was pretty easy about that.”
The new owners did not return phone calls.
Some fans see other factors behind Ortlieb’s demise – the scene changed, the audiences changed.
Drummer Byron Landum says the formerly rough Northern Liberties neighborhood changed.
“I think people would rather go somewhere to a more yuppie-style place,” says Landum, “and just be able to eat and drink and not pay any cover to hear the music. People would just rather go around the corner and bowl. You used to worry about getting hit over the head, and now it’s like, you can’t find a parking space.”
There are other places to play – Chris’ Jazz Cafe downtown has live jazz six days a week. But Landum says the Ortlieb’s vibe is hard to re-create: it was like walking into the living room of your hep-cat friend.