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Jeff Duperon: Building a Jazz Bridge for Musicians and the Community

Victor L. Schermer By

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[For almost fifteen years, Philadelphia's Jazz Bridge has been providing funds and services to professional jazz and blues musicians in need. On Sunday, June 3, 2018, Jazz Bridge will hold its annual fundraiser at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn's Landing. There will be food, drink, fun, and an opportunity to meet the musicians. The honorary chairperson for the event will be former Mayor Michael Nutter. Duane Eubanks will be providing the music. Jazz Bridge depends primarily on individual donations for so much of its work, so come on out and support this outstanding organization.]

As Jazz Bridge continues in its fourteenth year of lighting up the jazz scene in Philadelphia, Jeff Duperon is succeeding Suzanne Cloud as its Executive Director. Duperon, a New Orleans born and bred disc jockey and man about town, is revered in the Philadelphia region as the long time host of the eclectic jazz shows "In a Mellow Tone," "Jukebox Jazz," and "Nouveau Jazz Showcase" on Temple University's WRTI, 90.1 and affiliated radio stations as well as live streaming on wrti.org. As acknowledgment of his prodigies of service, he recently received the 2018 "Philly Celebrates Jazz Award" from the city's Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy.

Duperon gives unstintingly of his off-the-air time to help the jazz community and musicians. When he begins serving as Executive Director on June 3, he will succeed Suzanne Cloud, who has unstintingly brought it great achievements providing funding and services to struggling musicians. She has also curated ongoing concerts that feature the best musicians from Philadelphia and around the world at affordable ticket costs that make them accessible to everyone. Most recently, the "Philadelphia Real Book" concerts featuring musicians of Philadelphia background performing their original compositions has brought attention to how much of the music we cherish had come out of the City of Brotherly Love. Jazz Bridge has published a Real Book of these compositions for musicians to use on their gigs, and a second is on its way. Now that Cloud is pursuing other life goals, she will continue to participate in Jazz Bridge in less time-consuming capacities. We all wish Jeff Duperon great success in his new position. Jazz Bridge plays a vital role in the Philadelphia community and is a model for other organizations helping musicians in need. All About Jazz felt it would be important to speak with him about his new job, his intentions for the future of Jazz Bridge, and his thoughts about the jazz scene in Philadelphia today.

Getting Acquainted with Jazz Bridge

All About Jazz: For those who may be less familiar with Jazz Bridge, tells us about its purpose and a bit about its history and current status.

Jeff Duperon: The Jazz Bridge Project is a 501-C3 non-profit organization which started about 14 years ago with the primary purpose of helping professional jazz and blues musicians in crisis. Whether it's financial difficulties, health care and dental needs, housing, and so on, we try to assist musicians who have fallen on difficult times. Particularly for musicians who have been ill, we establish funds for them and ask the community to contribute to help them and their families in those trying times. Most of our funding comes from individual donations.

Many jazz musicians struggle financially. They work from gig to gig and may not have enough work to make ends meet. They don't have access to a 401K plan and often have no health care insurance. Like anyone else, they can encounter tough times. We help them with their expenses and serve as an advocate for them to gain access to services. Often, our musicians don't even know about the many services that are available, so we connect them with someone who can help. Often, we just need to point them in the right direction and enable them to independently find what's available in the community. We want them to have a sense of dignity in their lives.

AAJ: Tell us about some of the musicians in distress who have been helped by Jazz Bridge.

JD: We must maintain confidentiality for most of our long list of clients, but several of them have given us permission to familiarize the public with their stories. I can tell you, for example, about one of our first Jazz Bridge musicians, the late drummer Charlie Rice. Charlie was caught up in a state grand jury probe and they cast a wide net, catching an innocent man. The Jazz Bridge got him the best criminal defense attorney in South Jersey and we raised over $26,000 for his defense. We have also helped singer Barbara Walker with utility payments and dental care.

An interesting situation arose when legendary guitarist Charles Ellerbee's home was endangered by adjacent houses that were collapsing! Jazz Bridge advocated for him with the city to tear down the abandoned houses. We also helped with the necessary repairs on his home and got him a laptop to help him get some gigs by networking on the internet. We created a fund for singer Michelle Lordi and raised thousands of dollars for her after her house burned down. Guitarist Monette Sudler had a severe respiratory disease, and we helped defray some of her medical costs. Monette has made a full recovery. Not too long ago, guitarist Jimmy Bruno took a serious fall at his home, suffered a head trauma, and went into a coma. Jazz Bridge set up a fund to raise thousands of dollars to aid Jimmy and his family with medical costs, extended hospitalization, and loss of income.

We're grateful to have had the opportunity to help these wonderful musicians, and I'm going to do all I can to make such assistance available to many more musicians.

AAJ: Your basic purpose is to help musicians in need. Yet many of us know the Jazz Bridge from the wonderful neighborhood concerts you sponsor in the Philadelphia area.

JD: Yes, the other side of our coin is that we help the creative economy of the Philadelphia region by staging our neighborhood concert series. And just recently, we receoved a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to provide four Philadelphia Real Book concerts in 2017 in which Philadelphia musicians performed their original compositions for a live audience. Funding for continuing the series will come from ticket sales and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Musicians from Philadelphia have contributed many "originals" to the repertoire, and many have become "standards." We also have published a book of these compositions called the "Philadelphia Real Book Vol. 1" which can be used to access and perform these compositions. On an ongoing basis we also have our neighborhood concerts, which we stage in Cheltenham, Collingswood, and Roxborough. We bring the music into the neighborhoods so that the community can embrace something special right in their neck of the woods. And it also gives musicians jobs, which fits with our mission.

AAJ: Does the money that's raised from ticket sales go partly to help the musicians in need?

JD: Our tickets are inexpensive (often $10 and free for students) and mostly defray the cost of the concerts. But any money we raise beyond our costs does go back into our funds for musicians who need our assistance.

Jazz Radio Host Par Excellence

AAJ: You've been involved with the Jazz Bridge for quite a while, but most of us know you through your radio shows on WRTI. In addition to heading up the Jazz Bridge, will you continue your radio show?

JD: Yes, for sure! I'll be wearing both hats. My radio shows are on weekends, Friday 6-10, Saturdays 6-9, and Sundays from 9 to midnight. I may occasionally have someone fill in for me if I have a Jazz Bridge event to attend. Sometimes I'll just scoot from a Jazz Bridge event to the WRTI studio. After our June 3rd event in the afternoon, I'll go from the Independence Seaport Museum on Penn's Landing to the radio studio near Temple University to host my show.

AAJ: You're going to be a busy guy!

JD: I enjoy it! I've always shared time with different organizations. I worked in the health care industry over forty years. My last job was with Johnson and Johnson. I was a member of their health care economics team. We did a lot to optimize health care policies for the patients and providers. It gave me a lot of experience that may come in handy in helping our musicians. Additionally, my parallel career in broadcasting has lasted over thirty years! Interacting with the music and musicians has always been a labor of love for me.

AAJ: Your experience in both jazz and healthcare should be useful in your new position.

JD: A lot of the healthcare work I did had to do with community resources, which should come in handy for the work we do at Jazz Bridge. We want to know where the resources are for our musicians, whether medical care, housing, whatever help they might need. And, on the other side, my radio work has given me a lot of opportunity to get to know the musicians. I'm originally from New Orleans, so jazz and blues are in my blood. And coming to Philadelphia, I found lots of the music going on here.

AAJ: And you've participated actively on the Jazz Bridge board of directors for several years, so you're intimately familiar with its operations.

JD: Yes, I have served as board president for the last several years. Suzanne Cloud and I have planned my transition to Executive Director over the last 18 months. We will transition on June 3rd.

Looking Toward Jazz Bridge's Future

AAJ: So, you'll be taking over from Suzanne, who has done a wonderful job of making the Jazz Bridge thrive and realized some of her own dreams in the process. What are some of your own dreams and plans for the Jazz Bridge?

JD: I just want to build on what Suzanne has done. We've been in place for fourteen years. There's no reason for me to make any major changes because we've been very successful, and the model has worked very well for the community. What I do want to try to do is enhance some of our work. One thing I have in mind is jazz education. The jazz community really must reach out to young people to get them to embrace this art form. Unfortunately, for the most part, they don't know anything about jazz. They will be our future audiences and some of them will be patrons of the arts. We must teach them about the history of this music. I'd like to develop a program where we can go into schools and offer master classes by jazz musicians. Pianist Andy Kahn is already doing that at a local charter school and WRTI coordinates with Temple University's Comprehensive Music Education for Philadelphia Youth (CMSP) that provides a comprehensive program of jazz and classical music instruction for school-aged Philadelphia children who have limited financial means.

Rhenda Fearrington and I just recently presented a program of music and education to a group of 6th graders at a local Charter school. We created the ambience of a jazz club, Rhenda performed vocals including a request from a student to sing "Happy," and the audience was actively engaged. I'm hopeful that, in addition to what we're doing now, Jazz Bridge will initiate some programs in the schools.

AAJ: So, Jazz Bridge will then be involved with all ages, from the kids in school to the elderly musicians you've already helped so much.

JD: We've got to get these kids turned on to jazz. I recently met some students at the Settlement Music School who are already seriously learning their instruments, and maybe we can get some of them to become future jazz musicians. It's about building up the jazz community. I do a show on WRTI called "Juke Box Jazz" which connects popular music to jazz. The music of Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Earth Wind and Fire, Janelle Monáe, and Pharrell Williams is all related to the improvised music of jazz. We use the music the kids are already familiar with to help them appreciate jazz which they haven't been exposed to as much.

AAJ: Who are some of the key staff people you'll have working with you at Jazz Bridge?

JD: Our staff will remain basically the same. Kim Tucker is still our program director. She'll be working collaboratively with all our site directors for the Neighborhood Concert Series. Rhenda Fearrington and Dave Posmontier will continue as hosts of some of the concerts. Suzanne will remain on board as site host and curator for the Collingswood series. We will be looking to add a couple of new board members. We already have brought on Janet Parrish who has worked for the City of Philadelphia and Kevin Johnson from Comcast. I'm excited by the interest we've been getting, and we'll be looking around for some more board members as we go along.

JD: I'm very excited about our annual fundraiser at the Independence Seaport Museum on June 3. It's going to be chaired by former Mayor Michael Nutter, who happens to be a devoted jazz fan. Michelle Lordi will receive the Honorary Musician Advocate Award and speak on behalf of herself and others who have benefitted from Jazz Bridge assistance. Please come and join us. It'll be a great way to kick off the next year of Jazz Bridge. We want to build trust with our patrons and let them see the passion we have for our work.

The Philadelphia Jazz Scene

AAJ: To change the topic a bit, you've been an important personage in the Philly jazz scene for quite a while now. Philly has always been a great town for jazz, but in recent years, people have voiced frustrations about the shortage of clubs and opportunities for musicians to work and perform. And sometimes organizations clash, which is no help to anyone. What is your own take on the jazz scene in Philadelphia today and how the Jazz Bridge fits in with it?

JD: My own perception of jazz in Philadelphia is that it's alive and well. It's thriving. As with any city in my experience, jazz musicians can't remain stagnant. They must move to different places to become recognized on a global basis. The jazz community is constantly changing. There's a lot of good stuff going on. People are bringing the attention of jazz to the larger community. We have the City of Philadelphia Office of Culture and Creative Economy doing a lot of fine work in that regard. We have Councilman David Oh's PHL LIVE Center Stage, a music initiative highlighting Philly's top musical talent across multiple genres awarding cash and studio time to winners. We also have many groups, whether churches or civic organizations, that provide support and space for jazz concerts. It's true that we don't have as many clubs in Philadelphia as we had in years gone by. But we do have some excellent ones, including Chris' Jazz Café, South Jazz Club and some others like Time, Milk Boy and Franky Bradley's. There are several places around town that feature great jazz these days. And of course, WRTI has outstanding jazz programming, and we now have 24-hour jazz on the internet at wrti.org and on the WRTI Mobile App as well as in cars and homes equipped with HD radios.

The real issue we face in Philly is not access to the music. It's getting people to come out to support the music. And we need to honor the musicians. For instance, we're planning a program to honor the great vibraphonist Khan Jamal. The planning committee of Philadelphia area Jazz presenters will share more details soon. And we now have an organization called Jazz Philadelphia, which is going to produce a jazz festival led by Gerald Veasley planned for September 2019. We haven't had a major jazz festival in Philly since the Mellon Jazz Festival over twenty years ago, except for some smaller festivals in the area. Jazz Bridge produced several events in partnership with the City of Philadelphia in April during Jazz Appreciation Month. The city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy created the Benny Golson Award, just recently given to Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and I received the 2018 "Philadelphia Celebrates Jazz" Award. I was truly honored to be in the same company as Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts, and Monette Sudler. There's a lot going on, and we need to get the word out using social media, Instagram, Twitter, and other ways of bringing jazz to everyone's attention.

AAJ: A couple of questions for a wrap-up. First, will Jazz Bridge continue to develop the Real Book concerts and publications?

JD: We are continuing with that project. We have a second volume coming out that will be published by Temple University Press. And we'll continue the concerts that feature musicians from the Philadelphia area performing their own original compositions. We just recently featured Lee Smith at Roxborough United Methodist Church. And before that we had Adam Faulk. And coming up will be Larry McKenna.

AAJ: Finally, how would you like the community of fans, musicians, business people, the media, to help the Jazz Bridge fulfill its mission of helping jazz musicians in need?

JD: We have a great website. Check us out. Support our annual fundraiser. Donate. Attend our concerts. Purchase our jazz calendars and t-shirts. Most importantly, we hope you enjoy our concerts and keep coming back and tell others about your experience.

Photo: Courtesy of WRTI.

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