From American history and science to food and art, Philadelphia is an epicenter for a great many things, and they all contribute to our unique identity and culture.
But there’s one cultural element that tends to get a little bit of a short shrift: Our influence — past and present — on jazz. After all, we were once home to John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and others, and we continue to be part of an East Coast jazz circuit that sees nationally and internationally influential jazz musicians of all stripes coming through regularly.
“Philadelphia has a history of being a place that nurtures musicians,” says Gerald Veasley, a prominent jazz bassist and president of Jazz Philadelphia. “Going back to the early part of the 20th century, Philadelphia was a place where jazz was really, really vibrant, and musicians had lots of places to perform.”
Combine that with great jazz programs at schools like Temple and Drexel — and the fact that we’re home to contemporary jazz musicians including Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco — Philadelphia a major jazz city. And despite the pandemic, which hit the arts — live performance in particular — hard, and closed some favorites, that’s still true. From traditional, large venues and jazz clubs to restaurants, churches, and museums, jazz continues to be a prominent part of the city’s cultural landscape.
“Philadelphia has it to offer,” Veasley says. “If you want an intimate listening experience, or a party atmosphere, or an outdoor setting, or an intense experience where there’s no distractions, there’s all kinds of sizes and types of venues.”
So, where can you go and hear some live jazz in Philly? While there’s plenty of places to choose from, we talked to musicians about the best spots, and here’s what they recommend:
At it since 1989, this intimate Center City spot is probably the best-known — and longest continuously running — jazz club in Philadelphia. The spot has live jazz Wednesday through Saturday, with performances from local, national, and international jazz musicians alike in its “bigger, but still intimate” performance space, says Kim Tucker, program director of local nonprofit Jazz Bridge. And the happy hour (held before shows) and menu — which features Southern-inspired fare from chef-owner Mark DeNinno (a Le Bec-Fin alum), is worth the trip, too.
This spot from Philly hospitality stalwarts Benjamin and Robert Bynum is another classic, even though it’s only been running since 2015. Here, you’ll find modernized Southern classics (think creole deviled eggs or rosemary turkey wings) served alongside live jazz Friday through Sunday in the restaurant’s cozy jazz parlor. One popular show is Veasley’s Unscripted Jazz Series, which showcases jazz across a range of styles from the likes of pianist Alex Bugnon and smooth jazz guitarist Nick Colionne.
With three bars, a huge whiskey selection (190-plus options), and live music Tuesday through Sunday, this Center City destination is something of a paradise for jazz and bourbon lovers alike. Regular performers include local staples like the Rit Mo Collective and the Tim Brey Trio, but keep an eye on their music calendar for one-off shows. And, as Center City Jazz Festival founder and trombonist Ernest Stuart puts it, this one has a more casual atmosphere than Chris’ or South, so feel free to unwind.
Jazz doesn’t necessarily have to be fancy, hifalutin, or academic — it can be down-to-earth, raucous fun, too. South Street staple bar Bob & Barbara’s does that in spades with its jazz programming throughout the week, which features organ trio Ethan Eubanks’ Detroit Grease the first Wednesday of the month starting at 8 p.m., organ jazz purveyors The Crowd Pleasers on Fridays at 9 p.m., and jazz, R&B, and soul outfit The 3 Notes on Saturdays at 9 p.m. The best part? No cover for any of them.
OK, yes, it’s a chain with other locations in cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston. But the fact remains that City Winery, located in the Fashion District, does bring in some pretty stellar national jazz acts throughout the year — including favorites like long-running jazz quartet the Bad Plus, renowned trumpeter Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, and acclaimed vocalist Lori Williams. Here, you’ll find two venues — the Main Stage (a larger, 250-seat room with a big stage and Meyer Sound system for the the audiophile) and The Loft (a more intimate, 140-seat space) — similar in vibe to Chris’s and South, so feel free to settle in for dinner and a show.
Originally founded in 1935 as the social club of Local No. 274, Philadelphia’s Black musicians union, the Clef Club today is an educational institution for developing jazz musicians that also brings in accomplished musicians for “wonderful concerts” in its intimate performance space, Veasley says. While sidelined recently by the pandemic, they typically hold six large concerts annually, with past performers including the likes of organist DeFrancesco, bassist McBride, and saxophonist Tia Fuller, and plan to resume shows in January 2022.
This Manayunk-based nonprofit helps Greater Philadelphia area jazz artists facing financial, health, housing, and other crises — and one way they do it is with live concerts throughout the area. Three venues — Cheltenham Center for the Arts (439 Ashburn Rd.) on first Wednesdays, Ridge Avenue United Methodist Church (7811 Ridge Ave.) on third Wednesdays, and, in Jersey, Collingswood Community Senior Center (30 W. Collings Ave.) on first Thursdays — host concerts from October to May. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door, and proof of vaccination — or a negative COVID-19 test — is required.
This community-focused jazz organization books shows throughout the Fairmount, Brewerytown, and Francisville neighborhoods in locations like Lemon Hill, Bar Hygge, Rybrew, and Corinthian Gardens — and, as Brey says, the “idea of it is music that people can see and not have to pay for,” so all of these are free. While the 2021 event series has wrapped up, performers included pianist Brey, bassist Nicholas Krolak, and vocalist and trombonist Hailey Brinnel, so keep an eye out for the 2022 lineup.
Located in the lobby of the Temple Performing Arts Center on Temple University’s main campus, the Rite of Swing is one of jazz’s “best kept secrets” in Philly, as pianist (and Temple alum) Tim Brey puts it. On Thursdays throughout the semester from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., head here to hear jazz from guest artists, faculty, and students at the Boyer College of Music and Dance — all with no admission fee or tickets required. And, plus, you might even be able to grab a drink, too.
📍 1837 N. Broad St., 📞 215-204-9860, 🌐 boyer.temple.edu/events/venues/temple-performing-arts-center, 🎟️ Free admission
It ain’t just paintings and sculptures at this Chestnut Hill museum — there’s some pretty hip jazz, too. Every Friday at 6 p.m., Woodmere plays host to a popular jazz sit-down jazz night, which requires tickets ($25, or $15 for members) and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend. But if you go, you’ll find themed nights and tributes to the likes of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk — as well as more mainstream artists like Whitney Houston and Tina Turner — from folks like pianist Adam Foulk and vocalist Jackie Gregg.
If you like a little jazz alongside your impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern art, the Barnes is your spot. On the first Friday of each month, check them out in the evening from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for a variety of musical offerings, including jazz. In addition to music, cocktails and light bites are available, and you can check out the art while you listen, too — but if you want a sit-down-and-listen experience, get there early, as seating is limited.
Everyone knows the Kimmel, especially if you’re a Broadway fan — but there’s also some great jazz programming held at its various venues throughout the year. Depending on the day, you can find performances from contemporary Canadian jazz artists like Bria Skonberg or Diana Krall, trumpet virtuoso Arnetta Johnson, or acclaimed jazz singer Dianne Reeves. Or, if a free show is more your thing, keep an eye on their Sittin’ In: Live Sessions series, which has featured artists like saxophonist Steve Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and trombonist Stuart.