Philadelphia’s OutBeat Festival Celebrates Jazz’s LGBT Legacy

Humble beginnings, full of heart

Pianist Fred Hersch performs with his trio at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in Sept. 2014, as part of the OutBeat Jazz Festival. Photo courtesy of OutBeat Jazz Festival
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Patricia Barber
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Bill Stewart
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Assessing the impact of an occasion as important as the OutBeat Jazz Festival is challenging. The four-day event, hosted in Philadelphia Sept. 18-21, was the first of its kind in the United States, because it celebrated the contributions of jazz’s LGBT musicians. But even if the intentions were pure and ambitious and the performances were excellent, attendance at certain events made OutBeat’s debut both historic and humble.

As a gay music journalist and-full disclosure-someone who moderated two panels at OutBeat, I had high hopes. The festival did have a promising start though. On Friday night I caught a mesmerizing performance by the Fred Hersch Trio at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as the Philadelphia Jazz Project’s touching tribute to Billy Strayhorn at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Both of those performances sold out.

Audiences for Saturday’s performances, including drummer Bill Stewart at the Painted Bride Art Center and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington at Chris’ Jazz Café, were a bit problematic in terms of attendance and engagement, respectively. Stewart’s enthralling set deserved a bigger audience. And while it was hopeful to see Carrington play two sets to a packed house at Chris’, the noisy, garruolous crowd became so disrespectful that she had to verbalize her frustration.

Sunday’s all-day extravangaza at Union Transfer garnered the most dismal turnout. With a lineup that included Carrington, saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo and singer-pianists Andy Bey, Dena DeRose and Patricia Barber, it certainly had star power. But for those artists or attendees who didn’t see the bigger numbers the two nights prior, it was hard not to sense discouragement.

Nevertheless, word of the festival had already traveled wide. Wolfram Knauer of the Jazzinstitut traveled from Darmstadt, Germany, to witness it. “I was curious about how it would feel to be in an environment clearly open and conscious of the importance of one’s own sexuality, no matter what, for the creation but also for the perception of jazz,” Knauer said. “Music, and especially jazz, after all, is about deep, intimate emotion, about the ability of the artists to express their own inner feelings as open and ‘out’ as possible, no matter who they are.”

Indeed, it was powerful to hear artists such as Barber and D’Angelo tell their stories on and off the bandstand. During a panel discussion, Barber talked about the harassment she received when she publicly came out and started singing originals, such as “Devil’s Food” and “Narcissus,” that gave voice to her sexual orientation. On the bandstand, D’Angelo recalled how his record label refused to use Gay Disco as the title of one of his CDs, so he came up with Skadra Degis as code. In the middle of his rip-roaring set, he introduced his tune “Norman” and gave some backstory, saying it was inspired by the time his nephew introduced his transgender partner at a family gathering. Musicians being able to share like this, without a specter of shame and self-loathing, are crucial to the further acceptance of LGBT jazz artists. And for gay people with a passing curiosity about jazz, or an aspiring gay musician struggling with coming out, hearing narratives of trial and triumph like those told at the festival are absolutely vital.

Without a safe platform such as the OutBeat Jazz Festival, those stories and many others may not have been so easily discussed with candor. While the jazz community and the world at large aren’t as frightening for gay people as they once were, there is still a lingering desire to suppress stories dealing specifically with our experiences. Even during the panel discussions, it was noticeable how some participants wrestled with questions related to if and how musicians should effectively communicate sexuality, or interpret and incorporate the works of other gay artistic figures. Some arguments, such as “It should only be about the music,” or “Jazz has a universal appeal so those issues are moot,” I believe to be copouts; they force the music to be considered only as an aesthetic abstraction, minimizing its social functions and eliminating its potential to combat social injustices.

A week prior to the festival, revelers in Philly’s Center City viciously beat a gay couple following a verbal exchange-an incident that certainly appears to be a hate crime, although current Pennsylvania law doesn’t extend the definition of hate crimes to include gender identity and sexual orientation. That horrific event alone underscores how necessary the OutBeat Jazz Festival is, especially if we continue to dole out maxims about jazz’s democratic nature, how the music stands for individual freedom and how the music can help ignite positive change.

So with that in mind, I raise my martini glass in a toast to the festival’s facilitators and volunteers. I appreciate how they had to overcome so many hurdles and face financial and possibly physical risks to embark on this unique endeavor. I also understand that sometimes the full impact of such pioneering events may not give way to booming initial results but rather rippling effects that will influence, engage and inform generations to come.