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Philadelphia's Treasure Chest: Jazz

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When is the world going to wake up to one of the undiscovered treasure chests of jazz—Philadelphia? A few jazz histories take note of some of its early pioneers, usually focusing on the magnificent tenor sax work of John Coltrane and ignoring the early trailblazing work of two native born South Philly guys, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Both were considered the first internationally known jazz stars on their instruments— Lang on guitar and Venuti on violin. Their recordings, still available today, thank God, are truly treasures.

I confess to being one of the many ignorant of the fine jazz people who continue to provide Philadelphia with some of the finest jazz that can be heard today. I grew up in Manhattan in the golden years of jazz when you could go to Eddie Condon's, the Apollo, Birdland, The Royal Roost and even at giant film palaces on Times Square such as the Paramount Theater. That was back when jazz was still hip and not hop.

What I happily discovered upon moving to Philadelphia was that jazz still flourishes here as it always has if somewhat unsung in the national press. Tenor sax giant s such as Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna work local clubs providing the kind of awesome jazz excitement that made the now-famous Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts world famous.

Bootsie and Larry do it routinely whenever they play such established local jazz clubs as Chris’ Jazz Cafe and Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus. These are Philadelphia mainstays like the famed clubs on 52nd Street in New York from my youth. Zanzibar Blue might well be compared to Birdland as the somewhat more prestigious club featuring nationally known jazz talent. There are many others, of course, such as Natalie’s Lounge, The Clef Club and even the prestigious Kimmel Center and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which feature jazz, an American art form. . The posh confines of the Ritz Hotel on Broad Street every weekend has been offering the very fine sax stylings of Tony Williams, a long-time school teacher who demonstrates just how much fun jazz can be.

Recently, Chris' Jazz Cafe manager, Al McMahon, who does as much to promote jazz as anyone in Philly, announced the formation of a group called The Philly 5. This group of comparatively young local musicians could hold their own and even provide a few lessons to some of the more nationally known stars.

The Philly 5 is made up of John Swana, trumpet; Chris Farr, sax; Tony Miceli, vibes; Madison Rast, bass and Dan Monaghan on drums. They have released a CD called Looking East that demonstrates their marvelous work. Swana, someone I think of as something of a "Bop Bix," like Beiderbecke, defies categorization, but his playing which can be heard on dozens of CDs and at local clubs, is always exciting. All these guys are fun to hear. What they provides is a promising look at the future of jazz and further proof that this music will never really die.

There are dozens of other fine jazz musicians working in this town far too numerous to even mention here. This piece is just a reminder of what a joyful treasure we have in this city that sometimes seems to get ignored with all the focus on New York jazz, Chicago style jazz and the cool West Coast school.

Singers here are as remarkable as the musicians and sadly, often as ignored on the national scene. A young singer named Joanna Pascale recently issued her first CD, When Lights Are Low, that is something little short of astounding with her assured style and voice for one so young. She reminds me of such late greats as Lee Wiley and Connee Boswell. Two other young singers, Mary Ellen Desmond and Meg Clifton, friends of Ms Pascale, make up what I think of as the three little sisters of jazz singing in Philadelphia. They don’t sing as a group, but they are so close as friends and so different in vocal stylings, they are almost like sisters.

Star singers such as Denise King and Barbra Montgomery, he one I called the "ice cream blonde with the black coffee jazz voice," are just two more prizes. I left out dozens, including such fine male vocalists as the handsome Lou Lanza, who recently did a show featuring Sinatra songs or the sweet singing guitarist, Jimi Odell. Jimmy Bruno and Pat Martino could well be considered the spiritual off-spring of Eddie Lang.

The streets of Philadelphia were walked by Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. They ring with the sound of America's most indigenous cultural contribution to the world—Jazz!


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