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Tuesday Night Jazz Jam Sessions at 23rd Street Cafe: Still Going Strong After 25 Years

Word of mouth is the way most people hear about the weekly jazz jam sessions at the 23rd St. Café in Center City."

Herman DeJong is an architect who came to Philadelphia from Holland in the mid 1960s. He played the bass and started connecting with local jazz enthusiasts. He wanted to find a place to invite them to jam. 

Eventually, in April 1990, the Tuesday night sessions began at the 23rd Street Café, thanks to the owners. Over the years, locals and people from around the country and the world have stopped in.

Hal Rutenberg is a cardiologist by day...but on Tuesday nights he often takes out his sax and heads over to the 23rd Street Cafe.

There was the British Airways pilot who carried his flute across the ocean.  An elderly man from Cherry Hill showed up with a trumpet in a burlap bag. Two young men – a drummer and a bass player - stationed at Ft. Dix spent time playing in between flying tanker planes over Saudi Arabia.  A trumpet player let lose two white doves on the night he received a marriage proposal on the bandstand. Jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson once mesmerized the Tuesday nighters, and local saxophonist Bootsie Barnes would come just to listen and have a good time.   

The 23rd Street Café celebrates 25 years of jamming this week.

Radio script:

It’s Live Jazz week at WRTI and there’s a secret place near the Schuylkill River where live jazz jams still live. WRTI's Meridee Duddleston finds out.

MD: The 23rd St. Café is tucked on North 23rd St. in Philadelphia, just south of the Vine Street Expressway.  It’s Tuesday night and the weekly jam session starts with a piano, drums and bass. It’s Kenny Gates on piano, George Livanos on bass and “Big Jim” Dofton on drums,  and after their opening number the evening takes off.

HD: The trio might be complemented with five, six, seven or eight different horns. A couple of saxophones a couple trumpets.  They all play the melody and they do a little arranging. It’s not like a big band arrangement – it’s like organized chaos. 

MD: Organized chaos as synonym for a jam session. Architect Herman DeJong -  an amateur bass player - initiated the Tuesday night sessions at the 23rd Street Café back in 1990.  There are regulars: acardiologist who plays masterful saxophone. A multi-talented cornet player.  There’s an equalitarian approach to abilities and ages.

HD:  ‘You’ve heard the traumatic stories of  ‘a kid goes up to the bandstand and has a trumpet and gets totally humiliated by the band, or by the audience.’  Everybody gets a chance. Everybody gets chance. 

MD: It's not as quiet as a church, DeJong says, but improvising on Tuesdays at the 23rd St Café really is the main event. And there’s a fun sense of possibility that comes with not knowing who will walk through the door, or how the night will unfold – musically or otherwise.

Listen to find out more about the 23rd Street Cafe's long history of jazz jamming.