THE FIRST NIGHT Mike Dennis went to the Black Lily performing-arts series at the Five Spot, he saw a 13-year-old girl take the stage, start her set with a snippet of a gospel song and, with the crowd behind her, proceed to blow the roof off the now-defunct Old City club.
Her name was Jazmine Sullivan, and she would later have a No. 1 hit with "Need U Bad." Dennis and his partner, Daryl Debrest, continued to chronicle Black Lily, a weekly performance series that ran from 2000 to 2005 and was geared toward letting women have the mic. Black Lily flourished at a time when the music industry turned its eye to Philly to find the next big thing in neo-soul, a genre that gave rise to Jill Scott, Lady Alma and Jaguar Wright.
Tomorrow, Dennis will show off at International House some of the footage he collected from the Black Lily. Proceeds from the screening and DVD sales will help finance his long-awaited concert film, "Last Night at the Five Spot," which chronicles the goings-on at the Bank Street club. It burned down in 2007. Dennis said he plans to submit "Last Night" to festivals like Sundance and will screen it next year. "It was the most happening thing in Philly at the time," Dennis said. "I just happened to have a camera."
At Tuesday's show, Dennis will show his 20-minute documentary "Jazzyfatnastees In Process," about the group anchored by Black Lily co-founders Tracey Moore and Mercedes Martinez. In the documentary, Black Lily co-founder Nou Ra says the series began when they were "at an open mic in New York and guys kept hogging the mic." So the ladies decided to start their own night, hosted by DJ Ryva Parker. In "Jazzyfatnastees In Process," a young Jill Scott talks about the importance of Black Lily on her career. "You came in as an amateur, you left as a professional," Scott says.
To fill out the night, Dennis dug deep into his archives to find some rarely seen performance clips from some of Black Lily's all-stars, such as Floetry and Kindred the Family Soul.
"I didn't know at the time I was going through the same thing as the musicians who used Black Lily as their launching pad, as a way to and get better at their craft," said Dennis, who was working at Video Library on Germantown Avenue when Debrest invited him down to Black Lily for the first time. "I didn't know that going week after week and filming and editing the clips, I was doing my own apprenticeship."
Dennis lamented the end of a performance space where artists can just get up there and do their thing. Artists now are getting exposure on YouTube rather than honing their chops in a live setting. The closest thing to Black Lily he sees now in Philly is The Harvest, a monthly spoken-word and open-mic night held at World Cafe Live (the next event is June 13).
"It was an important time," Dennis said of Black Lily. "The artists that we're showing in the film still have their stories to tell. We're just trying to use this as an opportunity to look at back at where they were and remind people of how good it was." n
International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 7 p.m. Tuesday, $7-$9, 215-387-5125, ihousephilly.org.