The 2010 West Oak Lane Jazz Festival: How Jazz Helped Change a Community
Can jazz revitalize an urban neighborhood? In the northwest Philadelphia neighborhood of West Oak Lane it certainly has played a large part. For the seventh year, the neighborhood residents, along with the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC) and the office of State Representative Dwight Evans, have joined together, closing the main avenue for a weekend and hosting local and internationally known jazz groups. This year's lineup included Preservation Hall, Esperanza Spalding, David Sanborn, and Al Jarreau, among others, along with a wide array of arts and street food. Over a half-million people came to the area for the three-day festival to hear the free concerts and enjoy the community spirit it has created at this yearly summer event. Each year, positive changes can be seen in the neighborhood with new businesses and streetscapes enhancing this once declining area. The community spirit around the festival is palpable with ultra friendly jazz and arts lovers welcoming all who come to enjoy the music and the neighborhood that host it.
Preservation Hall's Second LinePhilly Style!
Two stages on either end of Ogontz Avenue presented continuous music, as listeners with camp chairs moved back and forth between stages to hear their favorite groups perform. On their way, they'd pass the food vendors, art dealers and community service tents that give this event its festive feel. The smaller Philadelphia Tribune stage hosted twenty-three mostly local acts that this year included the high spirited jazz vocals of Barbara Walker, the wall of sound of Honey Mountain Mob, and the Blues Messenger. One treat at the Tribune stage was a young group headlined by eighteen year-old saxophone prodigy Dahi Devine, with Jason Matthews on piano, Alex Claffy on bass, Mike Burton on trumpet. One great surprise in this group was ten year-old drummer Nazir Ebo. The baby-faced Ebo, who has not even reached the five-foot mark yet, was astounding on the drums. His inspiration was his 18 year old brother Justin Faulkner who is presently touring with Branford Marsalis. Certainly Ebo was learning from his older brother as he moved deftly around the drum set to the astonishment of those watching. Young Ebo will be one to watch in the future, as will the others in the group who will no doubt carry jazz into its future.
The headliners at the larger Shop-Rite stage drew thousands for their late afternoon and evening concerts. Friday featured the soulful sounds of Breakwater, and then moved to the New Orleans rhythms of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Their brass band funk sound had the audience up and dancing as the horn players impressed the listeners with several of the highest notes most have heard on a saxophone. Saturday featured Philly saxophone legend Odean Pope directing his saxophone choir. The band featured about a dozen sax players who played beautiful harmonies and impressive solos.
New Orleans own Preservation Hall Jazz Band took to the stage on Saturday afternoon with their usual joyous traditional set. Fresh off their highly praised Preservation CD that featured new and legendary artist sitting in with the band, Preservation Hall inspired the cheering crowd with their high spirited tunes. This was a special performance with the presence of the hall's founder and Philadelphia native Sandra Jaffe. Almost fifty years later, Ms Jaffe seems as enthused about the music and the joy it brings to the crowd as ever as she danced to the band, now lead by her son, Benjamin, on the tuba, as her late husband Alan did for so many years. The set ended when the band left the stage and led a traditional second line down part of Ogontz Avenue with dozens of fans dancing behind them.
The evening ended with a very special performance by jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding. This new jazz darling certainly deserves the moniker as she wooed the audience with her beautiful voice, her skillful playing, and her gift for weaving her show into a story. At 25, she is a true emerging talent who will no doubt have a long career and a loyal following if the crowd at this festival is any indication.
Sunday featured the Freedom Jazz Orchestra led by the festivals co-producer bassist Warren Oree. Oree seemed proud to be conducting this true jazz orchestra featuring a large horn section, piano, guitar, a harp, and four drummers, including one South African and one South American throwing down some impressive international beats. They were followed by Philadelphia organist Joey DeFrancesco and saxophone great David Sanborn who combined their talents to play several Ray Charles/David "Fathead" Newman duets. The passionate playing of Sanborn combined with the DeFrancesco's excellent command of the Hammond B-3 and bluesy voice made for an rollicking version of "Let the good times roll."
The crowd swelled as the final evening concert approached when the George Duke Trio took the stage with Al Jarreau. Fans of Duke and Jarreau were lined up for blocks and down the side streets in West Oak Lane to get a peek at these true legends of jazz. Duke's trio played several high energy tunes before being joined by his former partner Jarreau. The seventy year old Jarreau, though moving a bit slower, looked happy to entertain the crowd with his classic tunes and his signature scatting. The festival ended in a roar as Duke and Jarreau teamed up for a high energy blues version of "C.C. Rider" to the delight of the thousands at the festival.
But the real story here may be how the festival has helped change the neighborhood. OARC was founded fifteen years ago by Representative Evans with the mission to stimulate business and economic development, cleaning and greening the area, working with the education system, and bringing arts and culture to the area. The mission seems to be working in this neighborhood of now attractive, well-kept row homes. OARC boast changes in the last five years including increased property values, a decrease in abandoned homes from 300 units to 70 units, new and innovative businesses, and new streetscapes making the area attractive for business and residents alike.
In 2004, in an effort to showcase the changes and make the area a destination neighborhood, OARC CEO Jack Kitchen contacted music production company Lifeline Music Coalition and co- producers Oree and Graziella D'Amelio to discuss hosting a large jazz and arts festival. "They said it couldn't be done." according to Oree. "They said that we could not hire this many local musicians and get support from the community. The headliners are shocked when they get on the stage and see so many people in front of them. They expect to see a small community audience, and instead they see thousands. To have something of this magnitude supported by the community is really something."
And it is really something. The West Oak Lane Jazz Festival benefits jazz lovers as well as the community that host it. The sense of pride of the local residents who volunteer for the event, as well as those who host annual parties for families and friends on their front lawns, is quite evident as one walks along Ogontz Avenue. The neighborhood now feels safe, clean, and alive with activity. The West Oak Lane residents, along with OARC and Representative Evans, have done a commendable job of working together to change this neighborhood and bring about a sense of community. And to host a jazz festival to show off their work is a stroke of geniusan effort that has now re-branded the area as a cleaner, safer, and business friendly area to live and work. This is a successful renewal project that hopefully can be replicated in many neighborhoods in major cities. And hopefully those who follow this model will include a signature jazz event that can prove to be as successful as the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival.