Jamming For Dollars
With a "haus" band that at times included Shirley Scott and Mickey Roker backing visiting national names, the place was wildly successful. What helped put Ortlieb's on the map was the Tuesday night jam session, a spot where amateurs, students and pros on their nights off could come together on the stage and play some jazz. Not too long after, a Sunday jam was added, which did as well as the Tuesdays.
Eventually, Souders sold Ortliebs and it continued under new owners. It should have lasted longer and the city was saddened by its eventual closing. But several months ago, a "new" Ortleibs opened, with a different type of entertainment booked for each night of the week. The new proprietors brought Sounders back to host a "new" Tuesday night jam session, and it was packed from night one. As in years past, there is talk of adding a Sunday jam to the mix.
A year later, a Dutch architect/amateur bassist named Herman DeJong, saw the winner that Ortliebs had on its hands, and put together his own session. DeJong's concept differed from Souders.' DeJong owned no club and there were few, if any, professional players involved. DeJong just wanted a place where his friends could playwith him on bass, naturallywhich at that time included a speech therapist who once played trombone with Woody Herman, an amateur alto saxophonist who was a cardiologist by day, a veterinarian who loved to play Dixie-styled clarinet, a piano-playing antiques dealer, a drummer who owned a chain of women's shoe stores, and a one-time pro singer who left the business years ago to raise her family.
It was quite a crew, and ever the entrepreneur, DeJong soon found a center city hotel interested in booking the session onguess when?Tuesday nights.
Just based on word-of-mouth, the early sessions did well enough to move the shebang to bigger quarters a few blocks away in the form of the 23rd Street Café, where it's still held on Tuesday nights (actually the only night that the Café is open) 24 years after its inception. Eventually, the jam attracted the cream of veteran Philadelphia players and singers, youngsters who wanted to blow with the pros and maybe learn something in the process and jazz-loving amateurs who hadn't played in years. Just like the Ortlieb's jam. Unlike Ortlieb's, there was no house trio, and the quality of the music depended upon just who walked in the door and how good they were.
Today, the format remains pretty much the same, except there is, thankfully, a paid house trio, with pianist "Father John" D'Amico, bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer/session producer "Big" Jim Dofton. The evening starts with a set by the trio, and after a break, the sitters-in, who have all signed up to play, are brought to the stage either singly or in some type of hopefully workable combination. For reasons that have more to do with tradition than anything else, the core group of horn players, and a few have been around since the sessions' beginnings, remain on stage and play along with the guests. The stage is often jammed and the songs are sometimes long.
Those versed in what is now called "jam session etiquette" know when to lay out. Some don't and virtually nothing stops them.
That's to be expected in this environment, and if one is seeking musical perfection or anything close to it, you've come to the wrong place. As singer Joy Adams frequently said, "That's why they call it playing."
After DeJong tired of the grind, he handed over the "directorship reigns" to Adams and yours truly. Given that the 23rd Street Café was one of two events of its kind within a 90-mile radius, running the highly-populated event often wasn't easy. We were sometimes traffic cops, sometimes social workers, sometimes music teachers, and sometimes junior Norman Granz's, hoping to put together the right musical combinations and the right accompaniment for the many singers who wanted to perform. We sometimes had in the neighborhood of 40 players and singers who wanted to show their stuff during the three-to-four-hour session.
The results? Like composer Johnny Mandel once said of the Duke Ellington band, "It was sometimes sublime and sometimes awful." But there wasn't anyone who didn't have fun in the course of the night. The eight years of our stewardship, though a tremendous amount of work, was not without its satisfactions. A number of young players got their starts on our stage and moved on to better things. Others told us that being on stage, playing or singing was, for them, "a musical 'make a wish foundation.'"
I'm particularly proud of one precedent we set: That the house rhythm section be paid.
The fun goes on at the 23rd Street Café. Last night, a one-hundred degree summer evening in Philadelphia, the session played host to eight drummers, four guitarists, three bassists, three pianists, four singers, a clarinetist, trombonist and conga drummer.