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A Creative Oasis for Local Jazz Composers

Pianist Kendrah Butler and vocalist Shamika Byrd present their residency project, The presence of Jazz and Faith of the African American experience, at the Kimmel Center on June 11th at 8 PM

For a musician, the words “sanctuary,” “retreat,” and “haven” suggest attractive possibilities for creative expression. The Jazz Residency Program at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Artsisn’t based on the isolation these places evoke, but it does provide an environment conducive to a creative stream. The program is aimed at local jazz artists who can write music.

The first jazz residency projects started in Fall 2013 and, to date, artists spearheading seven original works have participated in the process. Over the course of eight to nine months, the residents perform and encourage a dialogue with audience members in the Kimmel's SEI Innovation Studio. There’s a “get acquainted” session in March. After than, a “work-in-progress” performance in May allows the composers to hear feedback on their composition ideas. Finally, in June, the pieces are premiered.

This year, pianist Kendrah Butler and vocalist Shamika Byrd will present their original work based on the mix of jazz and faith in the African-American experience. Saxophonist Korey Riker has undertaken a project to compose jazz pieces drawing on the beat and bass in Electronic Dance Music (EDM).

Composers with a commission can breathe a momentary sigh of financial, if not creative, relief. And even more so in the jazz community where there are few institutional safety nets for new and fledgling composers. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston learns how the Kimmel Center offers a regular forum for new works in the world of jazz.

Kimmel Center Artistic Director Jay Wahl and WRTI's Meridee Duddleston got together on a snowy day: March 4, 2016. Here’s Jay on the impetus behind the program, the two projects commissioned this year and their public component.

Radio script:

Meridee Duddleston: Part of what sweetens the celebration of jazz greats is nourishing new ones. That’s why Kimmel Center’s artistic director Jay Wahl decided to fill a need.

Jay Wahl: There’s not a plethora of jazz organizations in the city who are commissioning new work.

MUSIC: "About a Girl” — Korey Riker, composer and saxophonist, from Recognizance

MD: That’s the regular commission of new work – with financial support, a commission fee, and performance expenses . When the Kimmel’s annual jazz residency program for aspiring local composers started in 2013 Wahl says he didn’t know what to expect.

JW: And my first question was, well, who is the jazz community? You know you think to yourself, where are the musicians who are interested in doing this?’ You know I kind of assume there are a lot of them because we have such good talent here, but you don’t really know that until you ask the question.

MD: Forty aspiring local composers pitched their project ideas that first year and the number has held steady since – so far, with two to three commissions awarded each year – a serious boost for jazz artists who have to show that they can write music.

MUSIC: "Thank you" — Korey Riker, composer and saxophonist, from Recognizance

JW: For some musicians, you know it’s them putting a recording device next to a piano and they play and that’s great. This isn’t about whether you’re a sophisticated producer of records. This is about whether you’re a composer of jazz.

MD: ...who can pitch a musical idea captivating enough to sway high-powered ears from outside Philadelphia, including experts from the Kennedy Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. The annual residency culminates with a world premiere in June and provides coveted space to grow.

MUSIC:  “Hang My Hat” — Korey Riker, composer and saxophonist, from Recognizance