OutBeat,  billed as 'America's First Queer Jazz Festival,' opens Thursday and runs through Sunday at various venues in Philadelphia.

"LGBT people have had a huge impact on the history of jazz," notes Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Center, which is producing OutBeat  and hosting discussions, receptions and other events. The center was awarded a $220,000 Pew Center for Arts and Heritage grant to underwrite the festival (WRTI-FM's interview with Bartlett is here).

The OutBeat lineup includes pianist Fred Hersch; guitarist (and Philly native) Monnette Sudler; the Bill Stewart Quartet; and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and a diverse array of other performers. The Painted Bride, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, and Union Transfer -- site of Sunday's finale, featuring a dozen artists -- are among the venues.

An LGBT jazz festival may seem counterintuitive; ask someone, including someone who's gay, about  'gay music'  and you're likely to hear about classical, choral, cabaret and Broadway. Or disco and divas, operatic and otherwise (bless them all).

But beginning with the African Americans who invented this quintessential American art form more than a century ago, jazz has long offered a musical refuge to artists and audiences outside the mainstream. The music became the unofficial soundtrack of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Bartlett says it speaks to women, LGBT people, and all those who struggle for freedom. "There's something universal about jazz," he says.

--KEVIN RIORDAN