BILL CARNEY, better known as Mr. C, still remembers the day Trudy Pitts auditioned for his band. "A famous young man named John Coltrane and me carried an organ down to South Philly to her house," Carney recalled, "and died trying to get it through the narrow doorway."
Fifty-four years later, Pitts and Carney - married since 1958 - are still playing together, and will perform along with more than 500 others in the sixth annual West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival, today through Sunday.
The headliners include WAR, the Mingus Big Band and R&B legend Teena Marie. Philadelphia performers range from Bootsie Barnes to Odean Pope.
"There are great, great musicians in this area who nobody knows about," said Warren Oree, the festival's music producer and the bass player in Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble.
"Some people might say, 'Oh, what does that mean? The guy who works in the grocery store and plays the trumpet at night?' " He shook his head. "I'm talking about cats . . . who've played all over the world."
Oree's office is filled floor-to-ceiling with teetering piles of CDs - all from artists hoping to get a chance to play. But while headliners and other truly exceptional groups are flown in from all over, the West Oak Lane Festival is Philly's time to shine. "There are so many people . . . who make up the fabric of jazz in this city," Oree explained. "Why am I gonna bring in these cats from Chicago when Donald Williams is right down on 13th Street?"
The festival - which last year drew an estimated 500,000 attendees over the course of three days - has succeeded not only in showcasing Philly's jazz scene but also in drawing people into a Philly neighborhood they might not otherwise visit.
"Seven years ago, people didn't know West Oak Lane," said Jack Kitchen, president of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Committee, the festival's executive producer. "Now, people come back all throughout the year."
Ogontz Avenue, the neighborhood's main drag, is lined with tidy brick houses, restaurants, a gallery and a 2007 mural - "The Time, Our Place, The Sound" - that celebrates West Oak Lane as a center for jazz. For this weekend's festival, the wide, winding road will play host to four outdoor stages, five indoor venues, an international food court, an art pavilion - and massive crowds of jazz fans.
"If you live there [on Ogontz Avenue], you've got thousands and thousands of people converging on your house," said Oree. "There's such a beautiful warmth to something so huge."
Locals watch performances from their porches, set up lawn chairs and grill in the street. Last year, one resident even ran inside her house to get a fan for a performer who had been sweltering under the stage lights.
"It's a joyful neighborhood time," said Carney, who lives right in West Oak Lane. "You see people from all walks of life from Philadelphia gathering there."
"The community loves it [and] is very proud of it," said Kitchen, who originally conceived of the festival as a marketing tool for the neighborhood. "And I'm very thankful to the community, because it is a major inconvenience."
For a while, Kitchen was worried that even though the festival had grown tremendously each year, the financial crunch would make keeping it free a challenge. Some of the biggest acts charge more than $70,000 for a single performance.
"We had reservations," Kitchen admitted. "Do we go forward with this festival in this economy? But you know, everybody said you can't not do it."
In the end, OARC was able to attract enough sponsors not only to produce a full-scale festival but also to run a talent competition for the first time.
"It's like 'American Idol' for Philadelphia," Kitchen explained. The grand prize was $2,500 and a 30-minute set on a festival stage.
"We didn't enter for the money," said Timothy Ellison, the bassist in the winning band, the Solution, "but to play at the West Oak Lane Festival, to be with some of the stars."
For Oree, the festival is not about star power or money. It's about music and community, and it's especially important at a time like this.