CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Bird Lives in a Cemetery

Ars Nova Workshop presents an early-morning concert in Philadelphia that celebrates Charlie Parker—and birding

Bobby Zankel Quartet
Bobby Zankel (saxophone), Sumi Tonooka (piano), Richard Hill (bass), and Nazir Ebo (drums) perform a concert celebrating Charlie “Bird” Parker at the Woodlands cemetery in Philadelphia, Pa. (photo: Ryan Collerd)

These days, any live gig with an actual in-person audience gets our attention here at JazzTimes. Still, we were sure that there was a typo in the notice we received about a concert by the Bobby Zankel Quartet on August 29. The performance was scheduled to take place outdoors at the Woodlands cemetery in Philadelphia with social distancing in place. Check. The Philly-based alto saxophonist would be doing a tribute to Charlie “Bird” Parker on what would have been his 100th birthday. Check. The concert would start at 7 a.m. Wait, 7 what? To paraphrase one of the veteran jazz musicians in the documentary Great Day in Harlem, we didn’t know there was more than one 7 o’clock. Has there ever been a jazz concert that started at 7 a.m.? Sure, there are jazz brunches, but the earliest they begin is at 10, when hungover musicians in ill-fitting black suits shuffle into a restaurant to softly play standards while post-coital couples coo to each other.

But no, the time on the notice wasn’t a typo. In fact, this event actually began at 6 a.m., with a session of birdwatching before the show. Well, that part made sense because birders are good at getting up—the early birder watches the early bird catch the worm. However, Bird listening after birdwatching very early on a Saturday morning seems a stretch, at least for the jazz audience.

We called Mark Christman, the promoter behind this unusual booking, to figure out the method to his madness. Christman has directed the jazz and creative-music presenting organization Ars Nova Workshop in Philadelphia since 2000. Using various venues around the city, Ars Nova has put on concerts by artists such as Nels Cline, David Murray, and the Sun Ra Arkestra; it also organized the critically acclaimed October Revolution festival. All in all, very serious. So what gives with the upside-down scheduling of this particular concert?

Christman says that this is all part of a multi-year program to present jazz at the Woodlands and other public spaces. “Over the years, we’ve done a lot of site-specific things,” he explains, “presenting concerts at Bartram’s Garden, which is the birthplace of American botany, and dozens of other places at which we’ve brought music to interesting locations and even investigated the context for the stories behind those places.”

Ars Nova received a grant from the William Penn Foundation to do some special events at the Woodlands, a cemetery with 54 acres of natural beauty located in the middle of a very urban West Philadelphia neighborhood. The bucolic setting is also a hotspot for birdwatching, which led to this uncommon pairing of two seemingly disparate avocations. “I thought, ‘Let’s see if we can connect with audiences that aren’t generally available or interested in a 9 p.m. Friday-night concert at the club,’” Christman says. “Bobby [Zankel] reached out and said he’d really like to do a 100th birthday concert for Bird. Bobby’s in West Philadelphia and he put together an amazing ensemble.” 

Bobby Zankel (saxophone), Sumi Tonooka (piano), and Richard Hill (bass) perform an early-morning concert celebrating Bird at the Woodlands cemetery in Philadelphia, Pa. (photo: Ryan Collerd)

Bird and birding. Why not, right? But of course, birders like to get up at the crack of dawn to observe birds. Hence the unusual start time. “I wanted the event to align with the interests of a non-jazz audience,” Christman says. “I wanted to respect the birdwatchers and I wanted a family-friendly environment.” The number of tickets for the event is limited, even with the outdoor setting, because the city isn’t allowing anyone to congregate more than 50 people.

Christman also wanted to focus on the West Philadelphia neighborhood that’s been a home base for his organization for the last 20 years. “It’s part of the same neighborhood where the architects of this music were born and raised: McCoy Tyner, Rashied Ali, Christian McBride, Questlove,” he says. “It’s also the home of the Empty Foxhole and 52nd Street and even American Bandstand, if you want to go that far back. It’s a culturally rich and historic area. It has more than just roots in some of the defining moments of this art form that Ars Nova presents and represents.” Thinking ahead, he imagines doing an Ethiopian jazz festival or a spiritual jazz festival to strengthen engagement with the local community. But for the moment, the pandemic has made outdoor events like this one just about the only option for a presenting organization.

Saxophonist Bobby Zankel performs an early morning concert celebrating Charlie “Bird” Parker near an appropriate gravestone at the Woodlands cemetery in Philadelphia, Pa. (photo: Ryan Collerd)

Jazz and creative music Christman knew very well, but birdwatching and birding were a new field, literally. He drew not only on the resources of the Woodlands staff, who host a lot of birdwatching events, but also on the knowledge and experience of Lamar Gore, manager of the nearby Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Philadelphia as well as a member of that relatively rare species, the Black birder. In the wake of the May incident in New York’s Central Park between a white woman walking her dog and Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, Christman is excited to work with Gore to develop unusual programs that connect the issues, the culture, and the community. “This is an ambitious opportunity for us to think about our audiences and how to connect to more diverse audiences, especially those in West and Southwest Philadelphia who are predominantly African-American,” Christman says. “And to create partnerships with non-arts organizations to bring jazz into the neighborhood in peculiar, interesting, and intimate ways. I’m good at bringing [artists] here, promoting it and getting people out to see the music. But we often don’t develop strong relationships with neighborhoods and a diversity of partners and communities. This has afforded us the ability to grow in capacity a little bit, plus some resources to share with the neighborhood and do some cool events in a cool place. So that’s what we’re doing.”

The event in August was scheduled for two consecutive mornings, but the second one was rained out and rescheduled for September 12. Nonetheless, Christman was pleased that the audience included not just birders but a few jazz people, including the drummer Justin Faulkner, best known for his long stint as a member of Branford Marsalis’ quartet and a resident of West Philadelphia. “We had an audience of all ages, race and gender,” Christman says. “And they were all there on time—and even early.”

You can learn more about Ars Nova’s programming at their website.