Two women dressed in designer coats, silk blouses and four-inch heels walk in unison and huddle close together to fight the chill of the wind. For a Thursday evening, their formal attire is quite different from most of the people they pass by in West Oak Lane.
They’re going to Relish, a restaurant that combines modern cuisine with live jazz on Ogontz Avenue.
A short decade ago, the only places to eat in West Oak Lane were mostly take out. Now, a taste of Center City, or even New York City, has landed along Ogontz Avenue.
“We’ve gotten everything from ‘I thought I was in New York’ to ‘We’re so happy you’re here,’” says Sherri Lee Stevens, head of special events and marketing at Relish.
Shamika Phoenix takes the small stage in the corner in the room dedicated to live music. A bar lines one side of the room and each stool along the counter is occupied. Waitresses dressed in all black move delicately through the intimate 10-table room.
Phoenix, a local musician on the rise, belts out her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman.” Patrons eat or enjoy a drink at their candle-lit tables.
Lee Stevens excuses herself to check on each table just to make sure that they are enjoying their experience. Her title pegs her as public relations specialists, however she is doing everything in her power to make the Relish experience a positive experience.
“The neighborhood wants us here. They get something that they would find in Center City in their backyards,” Lee Stevens says. “There are so many great local artists here in West Oak Lane and we provide a venue for them,”
Music is a big player in West Oak Lane. The success of the first upscale jazz and dining establishment proves that music, jazz specifically, is deeply rooted in this community.
“Jazz is just…all American,” explains Lee Stevens.
The love that community holds for jazz is spread throughout various establishments. From the frosted glass windows at Relish to the Philadelphia Center for Arts (PCAT) and Technology, people in the neighborhood are invested in music.
“There is always a high interest in music,” says Steven Robertson, assistant director at PCAT. “Kids always want to be, for example, their favorite rapper. But, we know that not everyone is going to be the star so we show them how they can be involved in music in other ways.”
It might not be a student’s greatest desire to sit with mom as she has a glass of wine and enjoys live jazz at Relish, kids and teenagers can take hands on music classes at PCAT. Classes available are Orchestrating Leadership, where students learn musical leadership and Music Means Business, where students learn the more behind-the-scenes side of the music industry.
Just a short stroll north from Relish there is the Eva Donaldson School of Music, where the organization follows the motto that music is the universal language. The school offers private music lessons, music theory, ballet and even a summer music camp.
To celebrate the holiday season students of the Eva Donaldson School of Music sang at the lighting ceremony located at 72nd and Ogontz avenues. Just across the street from the community Christmas tree is the West Oak Lane Senior Center. Sharlene Waller, director of the center, makes sure that everyone knows about the holiday jazz concert.
“Make sure you tell your friends,” she orders. “You know Gerald Veasley? Well, he’s coming here!”
Veasley is a world-renowned contemporary jazz bassist from Philadelphia. But, this isn’t the first time that big names in jazz are making their way up to West Oak Lane.
The community is best known for its annual West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts festival. The festival is typically held in June and lasts three days. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd up and down Ogontz Avenue to hear live jazz, participate in crafts and eat from an international buffet.
The CEO of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., Jack Kitchen, created this festival that put the community on the map as an arts and culture hub in Philadelphia. But, as residents know, the music never stops.
Phoenix takes a break in between her two sets at Relish. Around the corner, in the more formal dining room, a mother sits with her children at table covered with crisp white linen. When Phoenix takes the stage again Lee Stevens stands tall, still in her heels even toward the end of the night, and observes.
“Goodnight, goodnight,” she says as patrons thank her on their way out. “I want everyone to come here so that I can love them up.”