Last month, word spread in the Philadelphia jazz community that Chris’ Jazz Café, the city’s longest-running jazz club, might be in danger of closing. Determined not to lose a local institution, more than 60 musicians have now banded together with the club for JazzAid, a weeklong virtual festival to benefit the venue.
Kicking off on Saturday night with performances by drummer, Philly native and Chris’ regular Ari Hoenig, the festival will be streamed live from the Chris’ stage nightly through Jan. 16, with musicians playing to an empty house. All proceeds from pay-what-you-wish tickets will go toward covering the club’s operating expenses until the second round of PPP funding comes through.
Artists scheduled for the week include bassist Christian McBride, guitarist Peter Bernstein, vocalist Denise King, saxophonist Grant Stewart, pianist George Burton, and drummer Johnathan Blake, among others.
“All the musicians got together and said, ‘How are you going to survive?’” said Chris’ owner Mark DeNinno. “We’re waiting on the new round of stimulus to trickle down to us, and I think that once we get that, we’ll be in really good shape.”
That’s a promising outlook given the toll that the pandemic has taken on the jazz community nationwide. Nine months of mostly empty stages have already seen revered venues like New York’s Jazz Standard and Los Angeles’ Blue Whale shuttered for good.
Chris’ has adapted by converting to livestreaming, though DeNinno says online ticketing can’t compensate for the lost revenue from in-person ticket sales and dining.
JazzAid will be hosted by New York-based vocalist JD Walter, who also curated the event and will close out the festival on Saturday, Jan. 16, backed by pianist Orrin Evans’ trio. Walter will introduce each night’s artists and host interviews after their sets. “I decided to take this endeavor on because of what jazz means to Philly, what music means to people, [and] what the club means to musicians,” Walter said. “If we lose this, we lose a piece of ourselves — a piece of what makes Philly great!”
While the majority of the week’s music will take place live, this Sunday’s programming will be a 24-hour stream of past Chris’ performances, interspersed with new pre-taped contributions by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and pianist Uri Caine. Both musicians, now among the most renowned in modern jazz, spent their formative years at the club.
“Chris’ deserves all of our support in these difficult times,” Caine said. “Clubs like Chris’ have kept the music live and alive for many years. Streaming and recordings are great, but hearing and seeing music being created right before your eyes in the moment at its best is the most thrilling, both for musicians and listeners. During the pandemic, this has been one of the things I miss most — hearing live music.”
Of course, COVID-19 poses logistical issues, even for an event on this modest of a scale. Usually limited to one group per night, the club will feature two and, next weekend, three bands, per evening — a juggling act when the space is limited to 11 people inside at a time.
“We have the bands coming in at a certain time and we told them, ‘Please do not be late and please do not be early,’” DeNinno explained. “We can’t let anyone into the space until the first band leaves, so after their sets, they’ve got 20 minutes to gather their stuff, grab a to-go box of whatever I cooked that night, and exit the space.
“I’m going to put some tables outside in case they want to relax a bit, check out the next show. I really don’t want it to be, ‘Thanks a lot for doing this wonderful benefit for us, what’s your hurry, here’s your hat.’”