Experts at Town Meeting Address Long-Standing Philadelphia Jazz Issues

It was billed as a “Town Meeting,” where the Philadelphia jazz community aired their many and varied issues in front of a panel of experts, and members of the recently-formed Philadelphia Jazz Coalition.

The Jazz Bridge-sponsored event, held at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and the Performing Arts, represented one of the largest gatherings of the area jazz community in recent memory. The evening was extraordinary, and while there were no bonafide solutions to the many problems the community has long faced, some fine ideas and suggestions were bandied about by jazz community members and a panel of experts. And if just one of those ideas were successfully implemented, the improvement would be noticeable.

The issues that jazz musicians in this city face are the same ones being faced for years: Not enough gigs, often despicable pay, no health care or any other benefits, lack of coverage by the media, dealing with changing technologies, the question of city funding, and the general lack of awareness of jazz and its Philadelphia legacy.

Veteran author, critic and Jazz Journalist’s Association President Howard Mandel tried to make one and all feel better about their lot by saying that most cities have, and have had the same problems we have. He believed it was imperative for the community at large to become immersed in the new technologies, social and otherwise, as this is our “new media.”

Other suggestions by the panel included letting hotel concierges know where jazz is being played in the city, contacting highly visible restaurateurs like Stephen Starr and organizations like the Restaurant Association about the viability of booking jazz in their venues, and developing alternative locales—i.e.,, places other than clubs—as places to perform. Musician Bobby Zankel, also a Coalition member, spoke eloquently about attitude: “If you don’t want to play for the door, then don’t play for the door,” he said. “Just don’t be a victim.”

One of the more insightful comments again came from Graziella D’Amelio of LifeLine Music Coalition, Inc., who said that what Philadelphia needs is a “world class jazz festival. Smaller cities are hosting them, why can’t we?” she commented.

This struck a nerve in the audience, especially those who “remember when.”

During the years of the Mellon Jazz Festival, which began under the aegis of George Wein in 1982 as the “Kool Jazz Festival,” jazz was on television, radio and in all the newspapers on a daily basis during the duration of the week-long—and sometimes longer-- fest.

When the festival packed up its shop in Philadelphia around 10 years ago, the local mass media, by and large, forgot about jazz. It may be time to approach Mr. Wein and/or his company again and let him know that times have changed here. For the better.

Right now, the Philadelphia Jazz Coalition is a work in progress, but it's clear that they are dedicated to the future of jazz in the city. There’s no doubt about that. At the Town Meeting, they heard the voices of the community and we heard theirs. All would agree that it’s now time to take positive action.

“Positive" is the key word here, and at the evening's end, there was little doubt that the community at large--and not just the players--can come together and can work together. If it happened on July 31st, it can happen any time.

After the event, along with legendary Philadelphia audio engineer Al Powell, I repaired to my usual Tuesday night hangout, the jam session at the 23rd Street Café, now in its 24th year of operation. Things were rather slow, given the hot, July night, but on stage and backed by a nice rhythm section was a young trumpet player named Geoffrey Gallante, who played beautifully in an understated, Chet Baker vein.

We spoke on the break about Baker the musician and the man and Gallante had a good knowledge and understanding of both. We talked about other trumpet players, and he mentioned that when he was five years old, he got to play with one of his heroes, Maynard Ferguson at the famed club, Blues Alley. A year earlier, this certifiable prodigy was the subject of a CBS television news story.

I forgot to mention that young Mr. Gallante is now 11 years of age.

This only reinforced the general feeling of the evening that there is a future for jazz. In Philadelphia and elsewhere.

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Bruce Klauber