As the city honors its history of jazz music this month, Germantown’s jazz schedule looks no different than usual. Jazz Appreciation Month highlights what Germantown appreciates every month and even every week.
“I think we need more than a month,” drummer Robert Henderson said. “Since they picked April, you know, we’ll take that for now, but jazz is appreciated all year long.”
The LaRose Jazz Club, located at 5531 Germantown Ave., hosts the regular jazz jam sessions year round, lead by Henderson on Sundays. The club also hosts alto saxophone player Tony Williams’s band on Mondays.
“It’s great to see the musicians getting together, club owners getting together, picking this specific month to hire guys,” Henderson said. “Last week, we had a great big photo shoot sponsored by the city in front of the John Coltrane house where we had over a hundred jazz musicians get together.”
Nearby music venues like Relish in West Oak Lane and the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill also host weekly shows.
The event always starts with a pianist and bassist accompanying Henderson. This week’s event featured pianist Paul Pelusi and bassist Jordan Berger.
Jazz promoter Kim Tucker documents the musicians who come to the LaRose jam session. She has kept a book of all the performers’ names for the last three years ever since pianist Orrin Evans told her Henderson was looking to start a weekly Sunday session.
When asked about Germantown’s jazz past, Tucker named numerous jazz musicians from the area. She recalled growing up with drummer Eric Gravitt of Weather Report, who lived behind her home in Mount Airy.
Other musicians Tucker mentioned included vocalist Michelle Bechkham and the jazz trio, Pieces of a Dream, which includes Tony Williams on alto saxophone, James Lloyd on piano and Curtis Harman on drums. Henderson added other names to the list, including John Gilmore, Odean Pope, Eddie Jones, Bootsie Barnes, Renard Samuels, Orrin Evans and Warren Orrin.
Tucker remembered saxophonist Byard Lancaster as the “gentleman walking up and down Upsal Street early in the morning playing the piccolo.” She said the multi-instrumentalist has never moved away from Germantown even though “he’s traveled the world.”
Lancaster, a Germantown resident, made headlines when he was arrested in July 2001 for playing on a subway concourse. He sued in federal court for his First Amendment rights and settled the case with SEPTA out of court in 2002. City Council subsequently passed a resolution declaring him a “cultural treasure” and affirmed his right to perform on the streets.
Lancaster organized jazz jam sessions at LaRose before it was even called LaRose. When Lancaster held shows at the venue in the early ’70s, it was called Mama Rosa’s.
“I believe it started with Philly Jim Jones, the great drummer that played with Miles Davis, who lived in Germantown,” Henderson said. “He used to play at a club at 333 Queen Lane called Trey’s. He played there maybe four or five nights a week. Seeing that made people want to bring jazz to their places.”
Henderson said people also used to play jazz at the Band Box, which used to be at Armant Street and Maplewood Avenue, and Elaine’s, which used to be on Chelten Avenue and Morton Street.
Henderson said Lancaster’s decision came as a result of other venues making jazz popular. He said people realized that “jazz can make money. I hate to say it, but I guess they said, ‘Let’s take a chance on jazz.’ I wish we’d would see more jazz clubs and I wish that more of the clubs in this area would present jazz.”
Over the years, many Germantown jazz musicians have grabbed headlines.
In 1993, jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks, a graduate of Germantown High School and Berklee School of Music, joined The Tonight Show band.
Radio broadcaster Bob Perkins, a Germantown resident, earned the Mellon Jazz Community award in 2002.
Germantown jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley performed at former Gov. Ed Rendell’s inauguration in 2003. Stanley Clarke, a jazz bassist who grew up in Germantown, received the first Mann Center for the Performing Arts Jazz lifetime achievement award in 2004.
In the 1990s, Grammy-winning saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. taught at the Germantown branch of Settlement Music School.
Tony Williams, whose band performs at LaRose on Mondays started an organization around teaching music in a fashion similar to Washington.
Tucker said in the early ’80s, Williams formed the Mt. Airy Cultural Center to teach kids to play music on Saturdays, but they never got a permanent building. Every Labor Day weekend, the Tony Williams Scholarship Jazz Festival hosts bands to raise scholarship money for kids who want to go to college. This year the event will include Bill Cosby & The Bill Cosby Reunion Band, Bootsie Barnes, John Blake and many other jazz musicians.
Despite its tradition of jazz musicians since the late ’60s, Germantown has not had many jazz venues of its own.
Tucker listed venues that Germantown jazz musicians performed at over the years, including “Gerts, Peps, Showboat, the Earle Theater and Downbeat Club,” but she said there were few clubs in Germantown for jazz. Clubs in Germantown she remembered that have since shut down included Morgan’s, The Rendez-Vous and Slim Cooper’s. She said her mother and Thelma Anderson organized an annual outdoor jazz festival at Cliveden, which she took over after her mother died.
Eugene Stackhouse, the former president of the Germantown Historical Society, explained why Germantown does not have as long a history of hosting jazz venues as other parts of the city.
Stackhouse said that when jazz music emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, it did not fit the lifestyles of the Quakers and Mennonites who populated Germantown up until the 1960s.
“Most jazz music was being played in Center City at clubs or it was associated with speakeasies at that time,” Stackhouse said. “Germantown’s population was mostly white and they were mostly temperance movement teetotalers.”
Stackhouse also moved to Germantown during this time because of the low prices of houses. “It was cheaper than living in a white neighborhood,” he said. “I’m not prejudiced, so I wasn’t afraid to move in.”
Jazz pianist Sun Ra seized the opportunity of lower rent when he moved his band, the Arkestra, from New York City to Germantown in 1968. Sun Ra lived in a three-story rowhome at 5626 Morton St. Next Friday, the Woodmere Art Museum will host the Arkestra led by original member Marshall Allen.
While the Germantown Historical Society lacks many documents of jazz history in Germantown, Stackhouse recalled having barbecue and beer behind the Historical Society’s building with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. performing. Stackhouse and Washington’s portraits hang next to each other on the Germantown Historical Society’s Hall of Fame photos.
Even without a consistent venue for jazz, Germantown has hosted many jazz shows over the years.
Frank Jones used to host a People’s Concert in Vernon Park. The Cliveden Carriage House in Germantown held a “Salute to Women in Jazz” event in 2006. Tucker said her mother and Thelma Anderson organized an annual outdoor jazz festival at Cliveden, which she took over after her mother passed away.
In 2007, Germantown hosted the Coltrane Jazz Festival at Awbury Arborteum, commemorating the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane’s death. Coltrane incidentally is the only jazz musician in the city whose home has a historic marker.
Last March, jazz violinist John Blake premiered the piece, The Good Raised Up: A Story of Community, Integrity, and the Road to Freedom, at Germantown’s Johnson House Historic Site, bringing to life a night in the 1850s when a Quaker family in Germantown protected escaped slaves from capture.