Think of the cities most associated with jazz, and what comes to mind? New Orleans is its birthplace, and it remains a hub for traditional jazz. New York is the mecca of the genre, the place where aspiring musicians go to test their mettle alongside its greatest practitioners. Where does Philadelphia fall in that hierarchy?
It's both a historically important jazz city and a hot current breeding ground for jazz, says Gerald Veasley, a prominent bassist, lifelong Philadelphian, and president of the new organization Jazz Philadelphia. "There's no place that has a richer tradition."
"When I go to New Orleans or New York or abroad, I'm just as proud of my city and the people who practice the music here," he says. "There's a unique opportunity to celebrate our music and musicians in the same way that other places do, and now's the time to do that."
Jazz Philadelphia was founded to do it. Formed via a Wyncote Foundation grant, the organization's mission is to help support the local jazz community while spreading the word about the city's historic and current importance to the genre. Its first major effort in that direction is the Jazz Philadelphia Summit, taking place Friday and Saturday at the Kimmel Center and the University of the Arts.
The summit will gather many of the city's most prominent jazz voices for a series of workshops, panels, networking opportunities, and performances.
Speakers include bassist Derrick Hodge and Jean and Marcus Baylor of the Baylor Project; jazz presenters John Ernesto of the Berks Jazz Festival and Mark Christman of Ars Nova Workshop; radio personalities including Michael Tozzi of WJJZ and Bill Johnson of WRTI, and an assortment of jazz advocates, industry professionals, arts and culture leaders, city officials, and journalists. (Full disclosure: I will be participating in some of those panels.)
Subjects include advice on funding and professional opportunities for musicians, presenting music in nontraditional spaces, and the history of jazz in Philly.
Most important, the summit will bring together many of the people who've been working to support jazz in Philadelphia for many years, often in isolation from one another.
"We have many jazz organizations in town," says Jazz Philadelphia executive director Heather Blakeslee. "A lot of them are smaller grassroots organizations that have been doing amazing work at the community level for a really long time, but nobody has been resourced in any way to pull everything together and tell a collective story abut what's happening here."
The schedule includes a 1:45 p.m. performance by the UArts "Z" Big Band on Friday, and Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon will give the keynote address at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.
But Jazz Philadelphia doesn't intend to present music, preferring to support the efforts of established venues and presenters.
It will conclude each day's sessions by encouraging attendees to catch some of the performances happening in town, from Tony Bennett at the Academy of Music on Friday to vibraphonist Tony Miceli (Friday) or pianist Joey Calderazzo of the Branford Marsalis Quartet (Saturday) at Chris' Jazz Cafe, singers Lee Mo (Friday) or Laurin Talese (Saturday) at the South Jazz Club to the Django Festival All-Stars at the Kimmel Center on Friday.
The sessions are planned to provide information and advice to artists and professionals, but Blakeslee and Veasley expect them to be engaging and accessible enough for the public. They hope jazz fans will take away as much as practitioners to help build enthusiasm for the music.
No higher purpose
"There's no higher or better purpose for our time than literally getting people in a room together," Blakeslee says. "Building goodwill, offering people valuable information, resources, and exposure to individuals and professionals that they may not have access to in other ways, these are all part of what we want to do.
"But I think we also need to create a sense of inspiration and urgency that we can invest in this community to make good things happen."
Veasley picks up on that idea in his goals for the summit. "I think the key word is inspiration. As somebody who's lived here my whole life and been fortunate enough to make a living, I'm passionate about seeing this next generation be able to have a sustainable career in jazz.
"I want to see not just the summit but our work in general create more of those individuals who will create this music and presenters who will be able to sustain this great art form. I'm hoping this can be a spark."