With ‘dream team’ of musicians, Philly Jazz Orchestra ready to heat up Kimmel

Terell Stafford assembled his 17-piece orchestra for a rehearsal Monday afternoon at Temple University’s Klein Recital Hall.

But first, a little pep talk.

“I’m excited,” Stafford told the 16 players in front of him (the drummer was late). “I saw Wynton [Marsalis] the night before last. He’s geeked up to be here.”


Marsalis will be part of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia Comin’ Home show Tuesday at the Kimmel Center.

Stafford consulted with the mighty Marsalis — music legend and co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center — about how to put together an ensemble like this. Stafford has had plenty of experience arranging, recording, and touring with his own quintet, as well as teaching students as director of jazz studies at Temple’s Boyer College of Music and Dance.

But a nonprofit, mission-based ensemble designed to represent Philadelphia jazz to the world?

“I’ve never put together any such thing. I don’t know where to begin,” said Stafford. “[Marsalis] said, ‘You know, when you put together an orchestra like this, just do one thing: find only the best musicians.”

At the rehearsal in Klein Hall, bassist Lee Smith locked his upright around the piano chords of Josh Richman. Smith is literally a patriarch of Philadelphia jazz — his son is the Grammy-winning Christian McBride — while Richman, 28, is part of the upcoming generation of musicians.

The horn section is a who’s who of Philadelphia jazz. Most of the players are faculty at Temple or the University of the Arts.

Stafford discovered that finding the best musicians was the easy part. Last year, he took his assigned seat on a flight to Portland, Oregon, and imagined his dream team of musicians. He didn’t have much time before the pilot would ask him to shut off his cell phone.

“I started to call — or rather send texts,” remembered Stafford. “Fifteen minutes later, I got 17 responses, and then 15 minutes after that, I got 17 commitments.”

Everyone, it seems, shared the same thought. Philadelphia has a rich history of jazz, and vibrant scene now, but no ensemble dedicated to presenting that legacy. “I was thumbing through a magazine and I saw an ad for the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra,” said Deena Adler, who co-founded the Orchestra with Stafford. “I thought … Cleveland? Why not Philadelphia?”

The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia is a nonprofit organization (via Cultureworks) with an educational mission to present and preserve Philadelphia’s contributions to jazz. The program at the Kimmel Center concert will feature compositions highlighting that heritage.

“I believe there are two Ellington pieces on the program, but all the other music is by Philadelphia jazz people,” said Adler. “McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, Odean Pope, Jimmy Heath — it’s all about Philadelphia and it’s all about Philadelphia jazz.”

The concert at the Kimmel Center is a fundraiser — the musicians have waived their usual fees and Stafford said the Kimmel donated the hall. Funds from ticket sales will go toward future concerts and programs of the new ensemble.

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