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A Place for Young Jazz Players in Philly

Suzanne Cloud on the talent incubator of a jazz scene of La Rose nightclub in Germantown section of Philadelphia

Bassist Bruce Ketterer and drummer Ben Singer at La Rose in Philadelphia
11-year-old drummer Nazir Zbo

In 1996, PBS interviewer Charlie Rose conducted an enlightening, and at times a racially wincing, interview; with author Albert L. Murray about jazz and the African-American experience. Murray immediately dove into an explanation that encapsulated what he feels drives art. He said, “Any aesthetic statement has to do with the basic attitude toward the experience of a given cultural configuration. In other words, a work of art is the ultimate extension, elaboration, a refinement of a survival technology” of a given culture.

Murray, a critic famous for his denunciations of overly simplistic attitudes about black and white relationships, elaborated on the importance of rituals, saying they take place in order to re-enact the survival technology to help cultural traditions survive. Many times these rituals are strictly supervised as in religion, but Murray emphasized there is also a playful aspect to these rituals, and to play one needs to combine individuality with collaboration, and “out of that playful re-enactment comes art.”

The Sunday evening jam sessions led by drummer Rob Henderson and jazz promoter Kim Tucker at the La Rose Jazz Club on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia for the past two years are the epitome of this playful re-enactment of traditional rites of passage between the young and the old, the neophyte and the old head, the apprentice and the master, the eager and the cautious.

Henderson, a jazz drummer since 1976 who cut his musical teeth (and school) hanging out with R&B musicians in the back of a jewelry store, told me, “When Ortliebs’ JazzHaus closed down and their Sunday sessions stopped, we needed a place for young people to play and network with older players. I thought it was my time. Music has always been very good to me and I learned to play this music on the scene, not in a classroom.”

He picked La Rose because of the acoustics and for their grand piano (Ortliebs’ was infamous for its awful piano-one thing no one misses). Henderson said the place reminds him of “the days of the old union halls, like the old Clef Club,” and indeed, La Rose has that homey Philly feel to it that says, “Come on in and play.”

Kim Tucker, daughter of the late Sue Ford, a Philadelphia musician and jazz advocate, is a jazz promoter very active on the scene, and she told me that she got involved early on with the Sunday Sessions at La Rose when she “stopped in and saw how positive it was. . . I’ve been promoting it for free ever since!” (In the spirit of full disclosure, Tucker is also on the board of Jazz Bridge, a nonprofit I founded).

But Tucker and Henderson found out quickly that promotion was easy through Facebook. Tucker said that reaching out to the “the young ones,” as she calls the young players who come in with their parents, was a cinch using social media. Facebook is word of mouth on steroids and has resulted in the up-and-coming, social-media-savvy teen musicians flocking to the place. Tucker said, “They learn microphone skills, how to act on the bandstand, which tunes they have to know in the Real Book – it’s the business of music in real time.”

Many of the “young ones” come from Cheltenham High School, University of the Arts, Temple University, and the Kimmel Center and Clef Club youth jazz ensembles. Some of the standouts are 19-year-old saxophonist Dahi Divine; 16-year-old pianist Jordan Williams; 11-year-old drummer Nazir Zbo, the little brother of Philly phenom Justin Faulkner; 17-year-old bassist Bruce Ketterer (whose father drives him in from Reading, PA); drummer Ben Singer; and 17-year-old violinist Ben Sutin, whose band has appeared at Chris’ Jazz Café, one of the few remaining jazz clubs in Philadelphia. Photographers L. David Hinton and Anthony Dean make it a point to be present to document these early moments of what could be the next generation of young lions.

La Rose is an incubator for jazz babies who hunger to learn about playing music for a living, and at this special place, they learn it from the likes of Philly mainstays such as bassist Mike Boone, formerly with the Buddy Rich band; bassist Steve Beskrone, an alumnus of the Pat Martino band; pianist Orrin Evans, featured in the current issue of JazzTimes; and more importantly, celebrated drummers 86-year-old Earl Curry (who regularly played with Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday) and 91-year-old Charlie Rice (a veteran of Louis Jordan’s band and the Chet Baker Quartet).

La Rose is just one Chehaw Station where writer Ralph Ellison’s little man is definitely behind the stove, where art demands that you play your heart out because there is usually someone listening that knows the music. This is where jazz begins and how the tradition continues in Philadelphia. Like Albert Murray’s blues hero, the lessons learned span lifetimes; the rituals the old heads consistently teach insist that while you may not always nail every solo, you’re definitely going to go down swinging, ready to jump up and start it all again.

The La Rose Jazz Club is located at 5531 Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, and the Sunday Sessions run from 6 – 10 p.m. The club has no website. For information, call Rob Henderson 267-231-6779.

Originally Published