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Philadelphia Jazz: A Brief History

Jack McCarthy By

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Jan Savitt (real name Jacob Savetnick, 1907-48) played a more polished style of jazz. A Russian immigrant violin virtuoso, Savitt gave up a promising career with the Philadelphia Orchestra to lead a nationally popular swing band. Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters served for a time as the staff orchestra for KYW Radio, where one of their theme songs was "Quaker City Jazz." Savitt was one of the first major white bandleaders to hire an African American singer when he began featuring local singer George "Bon Bon" Tunnel (1912-75) in 1937. Another Philadelphia big band leader of Russian Jewish heritage was Howard Lanin (1897-1993), the "King of Society Music," who led popular ensembles for over seventy years, specializing in dance music and "sweet jazz" for Philadelphia high society.

During the heyday of Philadelphia jazz in the 1940s through 1960s, the city was alive with jazz clubs and home to many of the music's leading figures. There were jazz clubs and dance halls in many areas of the city, with particularly important concentrations in the area surrounding South Broad Street in South Philadelphia and along Columbia (later Cecile B. Moore) Avenue in North Philadelphia (the latter came to be known as "the Golden Strip"). Better-known touring bands played the theaters, either black theaters such as the Royal, Lincoln, or Pearl, or, in the case of the biggest name bands, both black and white, the Earle Theater, the ornate showplace at Eleventh and Market Streets. Many Philadelphia jazzmen who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s saw Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Benny Goodman (1909-86), and their other musical idols at the Earle Theater.

By the late 1960s, changes in public taste and the music business signaled an end to the golden age of jazz in Philadelphia. The city remained an important jazz hub into the late twentieth century, but was no longer the preeminent jazz center it had been. The local audience became smaller and more specialized and much of the work of presenting jazz was carried out by nonprofit organizations such as the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, Jazz Bridge, Philadelphia Jazz Project, Lifeline Music Coalition, and Ars Nova Workshop. Jazz clubs, long the lifeblood of the music but always subject to larger economic forces and shifting musical tastes, came and went in the changing landscape. Of the city's three major full-time jazz clubs of the 1990s-Ortlieb's Jazzhaus, Zanzibar Blue, and Chris' Jazz Café-only the latter was still operating as a jazz club in the mid-2010s. Others have since come on the scene, including Time, Relish, South, Paris Bistro, and Heritage, while longtime neighborhood stalwarts such as Bob and Barbara's, LaRose, and others regularly present live jazz and various restaurants and clubs present it on an occasional basis. Together, these venues and cultural organizations continue the rich tradition of jazz in Philadelphia.


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