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City Places for City People
Philadelphia

by Genevieve Williams

Independence HallJohn Coltrane. Dizzy Gillespie. Sun Ra. Philly Jo Jones, who wore his city in his name. Though other cities--New York, Chicago, New Orleans--are often cited as the shining jewels of jazz history, it was to the City of Brotherly Love that many jazz musicians came to live and work.

Jazz is urban music. It's impossible to imagine it developing in the countryside, whether it's the backwoods of Virginia or the banks of the Mississippi. These places were the homeland of the blues, which influenced jazz in its rhythms, harmonies, and improvisatory nature, but jazz's rise in popularity, its emergence as a uniquely American musical form, took place in the cities. In Philadelphia, the spiritual and intellectual center of the American Revolution, musical revolutions took place regularly.

Philadelphia B.C. (Before Coltrane)

Philadelphia's jazz connection goes back much further than most people realize. Then again, as one of America's oldest and most distinguished cities, Philadelphia has a long and equally distinguished musical history. In the early days of the emergence of jazz, violinist Joe Venuti, who grew up in South Philly, worked with Eddie Lang, the genre's first internationally famous jazz guitarist. Lang was also a son of Philadelphia, and the two played and recorded together on numerous occasions until Lang's death in 1933. Although Venuti moved to New York in 1925, he never forgot his hometown; in the 1950s, at the height of his musical obscurity, he was still "The Mad Fiddler from Philly." He was known as much for his practical jokes as for his fiddling, and his most famous stunt involved calling in over two dozen tuba players to a non-existent gig. Many of his recordings with Lang are among the essentials of classic jazz; look up Venuti's Blue Four to hear a piece of jazz history. In The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Leonard Feather wrote of their collaborations: "They achieved a unique style, a tonal finesse and jazz-chamber music quality hitherto unknown in jazz."

Then there's Charlie Ventura, a saxophonist born in Philadelphia in 1916. He came to prominence during the bop heyday of the 1940s. His explosive style was perfectly suited to this music, with its edgy, complex improvisations, urgent tempos, and hurried rhythms. He recorded with Chicago's Gene Krupa, and his solos rank among the classics, with those for "Dark Eyes" and "Stompin' at the Savoy" emerging as particular standouts. Another sax player, one of the most popular in the entire history of jazz, was Stan Getz, who was born in Philadelphia and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, who joined Frankie Fairfax's band there. And though Gillespie later moved to New York to record with Teddy Hill, it was in Philadelphia that he can be said to have gotten his start.

Another trumpet player who contributed, albeit briefly, to Philadelphia's jazz scene was Clifford Brown. Born in 1930, he started playing trumpet at the age of 15, and within three years was a regular on the city's jazz circuit. During his short career, he played with some of jazz's leading lights, including Art Blakey and Max Roach. Just before his death at the age of 25, he turned up at a jam session at a music store in Philadelphia, which, as it happened, was recorded. Unusually, he was as inventive and creative when it came to improvising on slow ballads as on the more fast-paced, bop-styled music. He played on a large number of recording sessions, considering the brevity of his career, but it's The Beginning and the End that contains his final performance, with top-notch renditions of "A Night in Tunisia" and "Donna Lee."

Saxophonist Jimmy Heath is from Philadelphia as well, and was one of bop's foremost composers and bandleaders. Among those he worked with was an up-and-coming young tenor sax player named John Coltrane.

Chasing the Trane

John Coltrane is one of those musicians whose name, if not always his appeal, surpasses categorical boundaries. People who've never spun a jazz record in their lives have heard of him, even if they don't "get" him--if anyone does, or ever did. Arriving in Philadelphia after high school, he paid some dues in the local clubs, and returned there after his discharge from the navy in 1946. His career led him away from Philadelphia and back during the late 1940s and 1950s as he played with Eddie Vinson, Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. It was with Gillespie that Coltrane got his first recorded solo, on "We Love to Boogie."

With Davis, though, Coltrane recorded in marathon sessions, some of which appeared on 1955's The New Miles Davis Quintet. An on and off member of Davis' ensemble as he struggled with heroin addiction, Coltrane also appeared on 1958's Milestones, and the landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue. He recorded as a bandleader in the 1950s as well, including the classic album Blue Train, released in 1957, and working often with drummer Philly Joe Jones who, as the name implies, was also from Philadelphia and is still widely considered one of jazz's most inventive drummers. Although Coltrane's time in Philadelphia was mostly during his early career, he had a distinctive sound even then, with an urgency and vigor that was bop's hallmark. By the time of his death in 1967, Coltrane, along with his compatriots, had used that active, vigorous, emotionally charged style to change the face of jazz, and exercised a profound influence on all who would follow him.

The Other Side of the Sun

The City of Brotherly Love was an attractive place for Sun Ra to move his group in 1970, for reasons probably destined to remain obscure. Admirers of Coltrane liked to say that, as he was so far beyond them musically, he must be from another planet. Sun Ra, on the other hand, actually claimed to be. This, along with other idiosyncrasies including mythological costumes and an indifferent approach to documenting his recordings, made it easy to see him in an irreverent light, but whatever else he was (or may have been), Sun Ra was certainly an innovator. These days, you're not hip unless your music features the combination of at least two cultures that have nothing to do with each other; this kind of cross-genre innovation was as nothing to Sun Ra, who went seeking the music of other cultures early on. He also latched onto electronic keyboards before almost anyone else, adding them to his arsenal of pianos and organs. While his music was sometimes doomed to incomprehensibility, it was also subject to moments of brilliance, latter-day examples of which can be heard on 1970's The Solar Myth Approach, Vol. 2 and 1978's The Other Side of the Sun. One might wonder why a space-age musician who declared unearthly origins might choose to settle in Philadelphia; perhaps the city's epithet of the City of Brotherly Love attracted him.

In recent years, Philadelphia has remained a nexus point for jazz. Grover Washington, Jr., called Philadelphia his home until his death in 1999; guitarists Jimmy Bruno and Pat Martino, and tenor saxophonist Odean Pope (once of the Max Roach Quartet) have all come, or come back, to Philadelphia. Today, clubs like Ortlieb's and Zanzibar Blue keep the live scene going--who knows what future greatness might emerge from them?

Genevieve Williams is a freelance writer specializing in music, book reviews, and film. She is a former music editor for Amazon.com and a regular contributor to Blues Revue.