MUSIC DOESN'T just soothe the savage breast, it makes us civil and open to one another. And that goes double for jazz. Often cited as the original all-American music form and first to be integrated on bandstands and in audiences, jazz is being celebrated with two socially conscious and embracing music festivals in Philly this weekend.
Headlined by the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra (still helmed by 89-year-old Marshall Allen), the Philadelphia United Jazz Festival will be free for all to meet and share tomorrow afternoon and early evening on musically historic South Street between Broad and 16th Street.
The somewhat competing (or maybe not) OutBeat Jazz Festival will spotlight talents like the well-seasoned, though shockingly under-recognized baritone vocal master Andy Bey, nu-tradition keyboard stylist Fred Hersch, playfully sophisticated band leader/drummer Teri Lynn Carrington and the urbane jazz-pop singer/songwriter/keyboardist Patricia Barber, performing at such locations as the Philadelphia Museum of Art tonight (Hersch), Chris' Jazz Cafe tomorrow (Carrington) and with a really big show at Union Transfer (Bey, Barber, Carrington, more) on Sunday. (See sidebar for details.)
Philadelphia United Jazz Fest is so named because "we're trying to bring the different camps of local jazz together, giving voice to fringe artists as well as mainstream," said organizer and seasoned musician Warren Oree.
On an even larger unifying level, UJ Fest is doubling as a major component of Peace Day Philly, our local, multiday elaboration on the United Nations-sponsored International Day of Peace.
Also going for a global hug will be such cutting-edge United Jazz Fest talents as the Elliott Levin Trio, Oree's own gospel- and blues-tinged Arpeggio Freedom Jazz Orchestra and a tribute to local musical explorer John Coltrane's still-out-there "Interstellar Space" album project, featuring musicians Bobby Zankel and Muhammad Ali.
OutBeat is America's first ever (!) music festival focused on jazz-centric artists from the LGBTQ community, claims the brain trust at the William Way LGBT Community Center, which is putting on the event with financial support from the Pew Foundation and booking input by the hipsters of Ars Nova.
OutBeat aims to sharpen focus on "the key role" that LGBT-identifying artists have had on "the creation and propagation" of "this great American art form," said Community Center executive director Chris Bartlett. You can catch the beat as early as this afternoon (at the Arts Bank), with a scene-setting discussion harkening back to the early 1940s and the bravely "out" Billy Strayhorn, of Duke Ellington Orchestra fame and composer of such tunes as "Lush Life" and "Take the A-Train."
While not without its own historic stresses (racism, sexism), jazz has long functioned as a missionary for peace and understanding, testified Oree. In 1973, this then 25-year-old "hooligan" first saw the light and "stopped hanging with the pirates" after an encouraging record-store owner on 52nd Street turned him on to jazz and an instrument shop in South Philadelphia pressed a standup bass into his arms.
It was "love at first sight," he recalled.
"I've seen the magic work time and again, music bringing people together," said Oree, a globe-hopping artist and for eight years also coproducer of the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival. "We'd have 50 policemen gathered on one corner at the festival, 50 corner boys across the street, looking dangerous. But soon after the music started they'd be interacting - laughing, shaking hands, having a great time together."
For better and bitter, OutBeat has been subtitled "America's First Queer Jazz Festival," using an "out of the box" hot-button word that, Bartlett said, "used to be used in a hateful way and has evolved to have a more powerful, inclusive meaning."
He hopes keeping it real will trigger heated discussions about the history of prejudice and the evolution of acceptance in the music world, and also connect attendees to the history of innovation that comes "in many art forms with a large LGBT participation. . . . Recognizing things are not exactly as they seem is a wonderful way to come at life as an artist."
Smoky songstress Patricia Barber clearly embraces her gayness as a lyrical theme and audience grabber on seductive songs like "Devil's Food": "Boy meets boy/Girl meets girl/Given any chance to fall in love/They do do do do do."
But Fred Hersch recently groused to a reporter that he found the "Q" word in the Philly jazz-festival billing off-putting, off-topic.
Hersch came out in the early 1990s after a diagnosis of AIDS, with the belief that his days were numbered and his next tour could be his last. Subsequent treatment breakthroughs have happily proven the man wrong, allowing Hersch to continue making a lovely, lyrical mainstream style of piano jazz that is all about building on great jazz tradition (think Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson) and nothing in particular about being gay, he said.