John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, Stanley Clarke.
Philadelphia has been called home by many jazz greats. However, whether transplant or native, jazz musicians have had trouble keeping their feet – and instruments – planted in the city.
“Philadelphia is pretty well known as an incubator for talent,” said trombone player Ernest Stuart, founder and creative director of the upcoming Center City Jazz Festival which celebrates its eighth season on April 27. “Talent develops here. But it certainly doesn't stay here, not as much as other places.”
It was a problem that Stuart himself faced as more jazz venues closed, including Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus in 2010, the club where he played his first Philly gig. While the spot reopened as Ortlieb’s Lounge in 2012, it was still a devastating blow to musicians in search of jazz-centric spots to play. The closure also underscored the city’s problematic history with the American music genre that originated in the Black community during the early 20th century.
“[Other jazz musicians and I] would sit around complaining at bars that this place shut down and that place shut down, and there is no more music over here now,” said Stuart, who later moved to New York City. “Eventually, I stopped complaining and tried to put something together.”
That something would come in 2012 with the Center City Jazz Festival: a one-day event, where attendees could hop around different venues and listen to various acts.
This year’s event includes an all-access pass to experience 20 bands at five different venues. The clubs, all within walking distance of one another, are Franky Bradley’s (1320 Chancellor St.), Chris' Jazz Cafe (1421 Sansom St.), Fergie’s Pub (Upstairs, 1214 Sansom St.), Maison 208 (Upstairs, 208 S. 13th St.) and TIME Restaurant (1315 Sansom St.).
The lineup of musical acts features Eric Wortham, The Marc Cary Trio, Camila Meza, Mike and Mekhi Boone, and Adi Meyerson. Philly natives include Vertical Current, Threezus, Marcus Myers & Ode to Omni and Lee Mo.
“Philadelphia is pretty well known as an incubator for talent. Talent develops here. But it certainly doesn't stay here, not as much as other places. [Other jazz musicians and I] would sit around complaining at bars that this place shut down and that place shut down, and there is no more music over here now. Eventually, I stopped complaining and tried to put something together.”
– Trombone player Ernest Stuart, founder and creative director of the Center City Jazz Festival.
Aligned with Philadelphia’s annual Jazz Appreciation Month, the Center City Jazz Festival is yet another opportunity in April to celebrate the music genre that is styled with signature improvised and unexpected beats. As a part of the citywide Jazz Appreciation Month, The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy will host Philly Celebrates Jazz Neighborhood Series, free neighborhood events that showcase concerts, dance lessons, art exhibits and film screenings. In addition, City Hall currently hosting two exhibits in its building: a Jazz Listening Lounge in the Art Gallery, which runs through April 30, and Reflections, an interactive display running well into May that contains music, books, photographs and other jazz-related paraphernalia on the second floor.
As opposed to the rest of the month’s jazz events, the Center City Jazz Festival affords music aficionados and jazz lovers a back-to-back night of concerts and curious listeners a crash course in today’s underserved sounds.
“A lot of the people at the festival are people that I don't see any other day of the year. I'm sure these are people who consider themselves music lovers but maybe aren't too familiar with jazz,” explained Stuart, who has performed with the likes of John Legend, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Seal, Aretha Franklin and Philly’s own, The Legendary Roots Crew. “The great thing about it is that they can just hop around and see whoever they like, and if there is something that doesn't strike their fancy, they can go to another venue.”
In its initial year, Stuart raised $17,000 for the festival through a Kickstarter campaign. Even though he said the jazz fest has continually sold-out well in advance, it is still a struggle to secure funding each year. A grassroots endeavor, Stuart has raised funds through grants, ticket sales and community partnerships. But Stuart said he wished the festival could attract a corporate partner to alleviate some of the financial burdens.
“Every year it’s kind of baffling, asking myself, ‘Where is the money coming from this year?’” said Stuart, who started the festival in his 20s but now has the added responsibilities and time commitments as a father and husband. “Until recently, I wasn't sure that I was even going to be able to do it this year. It can be difficult at times.”
From a young age, Stuart steeped himself into the world of jazz music legends, like Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey and John Coltrane. Without telling his parents about his extracurricular activities, Stuart signed up for band classes and paid for his trombone with the money he made from his after-school job.
Stuart received his first taste of the Philly jazz scene when he took high school summer courses at the University of the Arts. As a then aspiring musician, Stuart remembers fondly of the days where he would hop into a friend’s car, walk South Street, listen to the music and try to talk to women. He later attended Temple University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in jazz performance.
Currently, Stuart works as a soloist and is a member of the Brooklyn bhangra band, Red Baraat.
Praising jazz for its various styles, Stuart is a fan of current artists Robert Glasper, Christian Scott and Brad Mehldau, particularly for how they have “done a lot to push the genre forward.”Stuart explained his passion for jazz comes in part from its ability to be self-reflective.
“Jazz is, in many ways, like a mirror,” he said. “When you look at it, hopefully, you see yourself reflected back.”
Jazz Center City Festival | April 27. 1-7pm. $20. Locations vary. ccjazzfest.com