Time is always a fluid concept in jazz, but celebrating a club’s 30th anniversary just three years after its 25th may be taking that idea to an extreme. Longtime owner and chef Mark DeNinno finally cleared up the club’s opening date with original owner and namesake Chris Dmitri recently, making this month’s party right on time.
Whichever timeline you adhere to, Chris’ tenure on Sansom Street makes it the doyen of local jazz clubs. Prior to South opening its doors in 2015, Chris’ spent a lonely few years as the only full-time jazz room in the city. The scene has since rebounded, with the two clubs supplemented by thriving jam sessions at spaces like Time and Heritage, along with the marquee names that stop into the Kimmel and the Annenberg, or are hosted by roaming presenters like Ars Nova Workshop and Jazz Bridge.
DeNinno insists that he doesn’t view any of those venues as competition, instead welcoming a broader network for jazz. “Without other clubs in the city doing live music, there wouldn't be enough shows for the local talent,” he explained. “They’d be leaving for New York or Pittsburgh or wherever they could go to find gigs. I love the fact that there’s other clubs in the city, and we all have our different roles.”
To celebrate the close of its third decade, Chris’ will zoom out to provide audiences a history-spanning perspective. Longtime booking agent Alan McMahon filled the calendar with what he calls a “past, present and future” roster of performers. Stalwarts like pianist Orrin Evans and trumpeter John Swana will present all-star bands, while up-and-coming regulars including vocalist Chelsea Reed and pianist Joseph Block will lead their own young bands with special guests sitting in. The month culminates with a performance by trad-jazz sensations the Hot Sardines.
Evans, who has spent most of his time recently on the road with The Bad Plus, has long considered Chris’ a home base. He launched his Grammy-nominated Captain Black Big Band there in 2009 and has performed with countless collaborators over the years. On Sept. 13 and 14 he’ll lead a band that combines legendary mentors (saxophonist Bobby Watson, bassist Buster Williams) and illustrious peers (trumpeter Sean Jones, drummer Nasheet Waits).
“Chris’ is doing a good job of keeping the energy of a musicians’ club alive,” Evans said. “That used to be Ortlieb’s: a place where the musicians always felt comfortable. Those moments where it turns into a great hang are what I really hold dear and try to recreate with whoever I bring in there.”
Block, preparing to enter his third year at Juilliard, began playing Chris’ with a big band he founded with fellow students from the Clef Club. He’ll lead a quintet on Sept. 6 with Clef Club alum Jaleel Shaw on saxophone. “Chris’ does a really good job of having a mix of local acts, students like myself and my peers, and national touring groups. It’s invaluable for working out your music in front of a live audience, but it’s also a great place to hang out, congregate, and listen to music.”
Interaction with both peers and elders is an invaluable asset for a young artist just honing their craft. Reed began frequenting Chris’ as a Temple student, and on Sept. 7 Temple’s director of jazz studies, trumpet great Terell Stafford, will join the singer’s swing dance band the Fair Weather Five.
“You can stop into the early sets to see one of your idols,” Reed said. “Then they often stick around for the late sets [when students and younger performers play]. In Philadelphia the jazz community is very open and there’s definitely a lot of mentorship going on in that space.”
DeNinno recently signed a new 10-year lease, with an eye to improving the club on the way to its 40th. A new mural will greet visitors by the end of September, and expansion is on the horizon as Johnny Dougherty’s Franklin Towne Charter School vacates the building for new digs.
“I see us as the headliner club in Philadelphia,” DeNinno said. “We’re the institution. We believe in nurturing the art, whether it’s the art on the stage, the art on the walls, the culinary arts, or the art of hospitality.”