North Central: Philadelphia Celebrates Its Rich Jazz History

When Faye Anderson first saw Leroy Neiman’s painting “Big Band” at the National Museum of American History, she was struck by the musicians featured.

“It’s a fantasy jam session featuring 18 jazz giants,” Anderson said. “Four of the 18 have Philadelphia roots – John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan and Dizzy Gillespie.”

The director of All That Philly Jazz project is more than familiar with Philadelphia’s extensive jazz history, but time and time again, she’s found that the city’s citizens are often unaware of its contributions.

With All That Philly Jazz, Anderson hopes to provide documentation of the city’s extensive jazz history through mapping venues, noting landmarks and telling stories that haven’t been heard before.

“It’s about telling the stories,” she added, “but it’s also about cultural heritage preservation.”

Anderson is just one of the many individuals in the city fighting to preserve the history of Philadelphia’s contributions to jazz, which run deep, tangled in the city’s roots.

The audience waits to hear the Bootsie Barnes Quartet play jazz at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American collection at Temple University.

Philadelphia’s History with Jazz

The city’s affair with jazz began during the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban regions, which started as early as 1910. The jazz heyday in Philadelphia was between the 1930s and 1960s, Anderson said.

During this time, the city boasted three jazz corridors: South Street in South Philadelphia, 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, and Columbia Avenue – now known as Cecil B. Moore Avenue – in North Philadelphia.

“These [clubs] are boasting jazz legends who have Philly roots and obviously inspired a lot of people along the way,” said Pamela Yau, the special projects coordinator at the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.

“Of the three jazz corridors, North Philadelphia’s Columbia Avenue was probably the most significant,” Anderson said.

Block after block, she added, jazz clubs, cafes and societies stretched down Columbia Avenue, running from 9th Street all the way to 21st or 22nd streets. In addition to the clubs along Columbia, there were numerous spots along Ridge Avenue, Anderson said, like Blue Note at 15th Street and Ridge Avenue, as well as the Checker Club.

During the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, North Philadelphia was an epicenter of jazz, as well as a “safe haven from the racial indignities of the time,” Anderson said.

By the 1960s, Temple University had become part of the jazz scene too, in its own way.

“When they say jazz was everywhere, they do mean everywhere,” Anderson said. “And Temple is a part of that story.”

John Coltrane, the famous jazz musician who grew up at 12th Street between Master and Thompson streets, Anderson said, played his last Philadelphia concert right in Temple’s Mitten Hall.

As time went on, the jazz scene began to change. Riots throughout the ’60s destroyed businesses along Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia, particularly the 1964 riot. As jazz became more accepted by mainstream society, the genre moved into Center City at clubs like Chris’ Jazz Cafe and Time.

Growth of Jazz and the City’s Role

Gregory Kettinger, an alumnus and adjunct professor in Temple’s jazz studies program, has been in the city since starting his undergraduate degree in 1983. By the end of his first semester, Kettinger found himself playing jazz guitar gigs three or four nights a week.

Today, Kettinger hears “a lot of older musicians cry the blues about remembering the way things were.” But when Kettinger thinks back, he remembers small venues and difficulty finding jazz music as a fan and musician.

“Now, it’s almost part of the cultural mix of the area,” he said. “One night you go to the ballet, the next night you go see a movie, next night you see a jazz show. And that’s not a bad thing. I’m selling jazz for a living, so I want as many people to come out as possible.”

“The city has helped,” Kettinger added. “Jazz is more celebrated, it’s more acknowledged academically, it’s become legit.”

One particular initiative is Philly Celebrates Jazz, a month-long celebration coinciding with national Jazz Appreciation Month. The city has been organizing it for six years now. Last year, Yau said there were about 40 events – this year, there are more than 100.

“The most important thing during this month is that we want to celebrate jazz throughout Philadelphia, everything from the Kimmel Center to the local jazz clubs to smaller venues,” Yau said.

But, Yau added, jazz is happening in Philadelphia all the time and all across the city. With Philly Celebrates Jazz, the city is just making “people aware jazz is all around us.”

And that music is helping the city in return. Musicians stick around, Yau said – they perform, they teach, they volunteer and they educate. There are nearly 49,000 jobs in the creative sector – all arts-related industries – putting it fourth on the list of job suppliers in the city. The creative sector brought in $2.7 billion in direct employee earnings from 2001-2011 and has seen 6.3 percent job growth since 2011, according to research done by the city.

SOUTH, a new restaurant and jazz club, recently opened on North Broad Street, and venues like the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation regularly feature jazz artists in their lineup, Yau said.

“I think it’s a pretty exciting time for jazz in Philadelphia,” she added.

A drummer plays during a performance of the Bootsie Barnes Quartet at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.

Future of Jazz in Philadelphia

For Kettinger, the future of jazz “looks great” with new venue openings.

“The caliber of venues and the location of venues, they’re bigger, they’re cleaner, they’re in better and hipper neighborhoods,” he said.

But for Anderson, the revitalization and continuation of jazz is directly related to tying it back to the community.

“We really don’t want it to go the way of classic music, the music of the 1 percent,” she said. “Jazz never was that. It was the music of the community.”

The history of jazz music and the communities it built or supplemented are stories that exist – and simply need to be re-found and retold.

“The history now resides in the memories of those who were there, and they’re not getting any younger,” Anderson said. “If we don’t capture those stories now, they’ll be gone.”

– Text, photos and video by Victoria Mier


  1. Good job, Victoria! Stories like this expose new audiences to jazz. I hope some readers will be inspired to discover the rich jazz heritage hidden in their neighborhood.

    Faye Anderson
    All That Philly Jazz

  2. Hey, all music is for everyone. Classical music is not the music of the 1 percent. Jazz is not just Black music. You weant to kill an art, then turn it into an ethnic enclave. Trump and his buddies will do the rest

  3. John Coltrane did NOT grow up in Philly. He was 18 years-old when he, his first “Cousin Mary” Lyerly Alexander and their mothers moved to North Philadelphia from their family home in North Carolina. I am one of the remaining founders of the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society who worked with Cousin Mary and others to promote his legacy. Get the facts straight!

  4. Trane was taught and heavily influenced by Little Jimmy Oliver who always gets left out..
    Only in Philadelphia…

  5. Greetings! My name is Dave Radolovic and I curate CHOPS – a live jazz event every Wednesday at Fabrika in Fishtown. Summer has been truly great, we’ve some seriously legendary talent come through and play (Tim Warfield, Dick Oatts, Terrell Stafford, Mike Boone, John Swana, Eric Wyatt to name a few), but we need to get the word out and bring attention to this event. It’s a beautiful room with top-notch sound, and a great place to see jazz. We are working with other surrounding venues that do weekly jazz nights to form a sort of jazz support network. Let me know if you’d be interesting in doing a story! See below a dropbox link to some images from throughout the summer.

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