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Marking Pennsylvania History

Philly Jazz Connections

The roots of Philadelphia's popular music go back to the 1820s, farther even. But today's Philadelphia music scene rests on a rich immediate past. The last couple of musical generations have provided a meeting place for everything from classical opera to street-corner soul and cerebral jazz.

Let's roll back to the 1930s, when Clara Ward and the Ward Singers earned the first gold record for gospel; Leopold Stokowski shook up the Main Line Philadelphians with his daring programming at the Academy of Music and shook hands with Mickey Mouse on the Disney screen; and Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti took the guitar and violin to new heights of jazz improvisation. Local musicians could find work in the pit bands in the Royal on South Street at 16th, the Earle at 11th and Market Streets, or other of the city's entertainment palaces.

By the 1940s, such innovative South Philadelphia teacher players as Dennis Sandole were teaching music theory to John Coltrane and a host of other jazz men and women. In North Philadelphia, a nine-year-old boy named Solomon Burke was preaching and performing to packed houses in a church founded by his grandmother. Nightclubs sprouted citywide, and even though they were sometimes intimidated by the authorities into paying kickbacks, Philadelphia had a support system for local talent.

A number of music and nightlife enters were well established by the 1950s: in West Philadelphia, 52nd Street between Arch and Locust; in North Philadelphia, Columbia (now Cecil B.Moore) Avenue near Broad Street; in Center City; the side streets near City Hall and Broad and South Streets.

By the 1960s, jazz was in a slump locally and nationwide. Many musicians left town or took day jobs. Teachers like Bernard Pfeiffer (the French classical jazz pianist who settled in Chestnut Hill) and his bassist Al Stauffer kept the fires going for scores of younger jazz players. Classically trained bassist Stanley Clarke won fame with a jazz-rock fusion. Diehard jazz fans could see Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Bill Evans in intimate venues such as The Bijou Cafe on Lombard Street near Broad. With commercial success an admitted pipedream, players like McCoy Tyner and Sunny Murray were free to push at the limits of improvisation.

Philadelphia will never see the likes of John Coltrane again. And besides Coltrane, there are many whose Philadelphia connections add up to a long and proud jazz legacy here. Notables include: Rasheid Ali, Clifford Brown, Jimmy Bruno, Johnny Coles, Ted Curson, Kevin Eubanks, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Golson, Henry Grimes, Shafi Hadi, Jimmy Hamilton, "Philly" Joe Jones, Richie Kamuca, Billy Kyle, Byard Lancaster, Cal Massey, Lee Morgan, Gerry Mulligan, Herbie Nix, Tommy Potter, Sun Pa, Red Rodney, Mickey Roker, Shirley Scott, Archie Shepp, Evelyn Simms, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Bobby Timmons, Charlie Ventura, Sam Wooding, and many, many more.
- Excerpted from The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens' Manual.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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