After watching everything they own go up in flames, most people's first instinct would not be to drop in at a jazz jam session. But the day after her Abington home burned to the ground in December, Michelle Lordi was back on stage at the Vintage Bar & Grill, wearing the only articles of clothing she still had to her name.
"I showed up and everyone I knew was here," Lordi says. "I thought maybe I'd died and it was my wake. Someone had set up the sound, nobody was sitting where we were supposed to be playing, a whole crew of musicians came and played."
Fortunately, Lordi, her husband, and her three children all escaped safely from the devastating fire, which took place one day after Christmas and the day before her youngest son's first birthday. The family finally moved into a new home this week, once again just three minutes from Lordi's weekly gig at Vintage, where she rejoins her loose-knit but devoted jazz family every Wednesday.
The Vintage Bar & Grill seems an unlikely place for a local jazz scene to thrive. Just last week, as Lordi tenderly sang "The Very Thought of You," the omnipresent Phillies game fought against the atmosphere while a group at the other end of the bar toasted with shots accompanied by their own barely coherent verse.
Lordi wasn't convinced when a mutual friend introduced her to the bar owners. "I came here for the first time and was like, 'No. This is a sports bar. They're going to kill me when I turn off the TV.' There's no stage; sometimes we have to wait 15 minutes for the last table to clear out so we can play. But it built and built and we couldn't stop it."
For Lordi, it was an opportunity to share the stage regularly with some of her heroes. In the early days, she was joined nearly every week by two local legends, guitarist Sonny Troy and saxophonist Larry McKenna. "I didn't go to school for music," she says. "So I figured, what better way to learn than to hire Sonny and Larry?"
The network of musicians has expanded since then, with Lordi now helping to mentor a younger generation. Students from Temple and UArts frequent the sessions, which last week was led by 19-year-old bassist Dylan Reis, a regular since he was 16, who enjoyed the rare privilege of fronting a band with Philly veterans Byron Landham and John Swana.
Just as important as the music, though, has been the community Lordi has formed. More than one regular at the bar compared the atmosphere to Cheers, a place, as the theme song reminded viewers every week, where everybody knows your name.
Most weeks, you'll find Charlie and Rhoda, the widowed octogenarians who found love under the spell of Lordi's bewitching ballads; Leonard, Rhoda's brother, pushing 90 and delighting in spirited, teasing arguments with Charlie; Gene Hurwitz, the retired wedding photographer turned self-appointed documenter of Lordi's performances; and multigenerational tables full of friends, some of them lifelong, other locals who happened in on a Wednesday night and kept coming back, and who become volunteers to help out with gig logistics or celebrating birthdays among the crowd.
"Every week, some connection will happen," Lordi says. "Everytime I think to myself, 'OK, this rodeo was fun, but I'm done now,' something magical will happen and I just can't leave."
More recently, Lordi has begun taking the show — and the community — on the road. With her Bandwagon Excursions events, she transports a crew of Philly jazz lovers to New York and other cities where she or other local artists can be heard. On Sunday, the bus will head to the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Manhattan's Tompkins Square Park, where pianist Orrin Evans — a frequent collaborator who produced Lordi's 2015 album Drive — will perform as a member of the Bad Plus.
Also on the bill are the great saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Amina Claudine Myers, and a project called UNHEARD featuring Philly native Immanuel Wilkins.
"I don't want to be just considered 'regional,' " Lordi says. "So in August 2017, I got a gig at Birdland and was worried about getting people out on a Thursday night in New York. I mentioned it to a couple of people. All of a sudden we needed two cars, then we needed a van, and finally it became a bus. Bandwagon grew out of that idea of supporting Philly artists when they make the leap to another city, specifically New York."
En route to the Greenwich Village club Mezzrow in April, the Bandwagon bus felt a lot like Vintage on wheels. Many of the same crew were aboard, passing around a cheese plate and crudités. Lordi played hostess, making introductions and fueling conversation with wine poured into plastic cups.
"I've never cared much about where I live," Lordi concludes. "I just want to be near the people I love. That's another reason I can't quit this. If someone's feeling lonely or down, or you can say just wants to play music with somebody, you can come out to Vintage."