This Is The Coolest Jazz Venue in Philadelphia You've Never Heard Of
Picture this: a retrofitted warehouse turned acoustically perfect urban loft, that doubles as a listening room for piano jazz and a man’s home. No sign betrays the goings-on inside.
The fashionably repurposed barn-door permitting entrance is opened circumspectly even by those who’ve come to be in the know—because regardless of how many times you’ve been there, it’s still hard to believe this place is real. It will feel like a secret society for those with ears finely tuned for jazz and tastes in interior design tending toward high-concept Scandanavian-minimalism.
And the biggest, most well-kept secret: it’s open to everyone.
A decade ago, this would have been dismissed as the kind of hipster fantasy only possible some 90-odd miles due Northeast in Brooklyn or Greenwich Village.
But that’s not today’s Philadelphia, where live jazz has rebounded from an early-millenium ebb. In the city that nurtured the careers of Lee Morgan and John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, live jazz, once again, thrives—in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, in Center City and Northern Liberties, and on N. Broad St. And, yes, even in one man’s immaculately appointed, acoustically optimal, converted warehouse loft just steps from the EL, in the middle of Kensington.
Matt Yaple has been a Philadelphian since 1974, when he moved from the Midwest to pursue an MFA in film from Temple University. He is originally, however, from rural Illinois, from the type of place that evokes the puritanical town in Footloose—probably not a lot of dancing, definitely not a lot of jazz.
But a lot of good can come from having a musician for a father.
Yaple’s father played the double bass. Interestingly, his father’s bass sits about 20 yards from me and Matt as we talk at his handmade kitchen table of reclaimed wood long enough to host a state dinner, the bass occupying the space between the full drum set and the Steinway grand piano.
The instruments sit quietly in elegant repose on a rug that looks expensive, possibly Persian, the rug doing a very hip impression of a bandstand. This makeshift bandstand backs up to a white-brick wall, the bricks signed by the musicians who’ve played here. Many of the signatures are those of some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz—Terell Stafford, Tamir Hendelman, Victor North, Mike Boone.
All instruments have a story, some more interesting than others. The story of this bass, Matt’s father’s bass, it’s provenance, is in the rarefied category of most interesting.
Matt’s father, the man who’d introduce him to jazz, served in the military during World War II. He was captured by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge and held in a POW camp. The Germans came to learn that Matt’s father was a musician, that he played the bass. And as Matt tells it, “they [the Nazi commandants at the POW camp] found one [a bass] and scrounged up a guitar and a violin for a couple of the other prisoners and they would play every night for the German mess.”
When Matt’s father was liberated from the Nazi POW camp, he didn’t neglect to liberate the bass. Which undoubtedly required no small amount of probity and care and sheer physical effort. If you’ve never before done it, you might consider the unwieldy nature of extricating an upright bass from a war zone. Especially when the man emancipating the largest, and undoubtedly most cumbersome, string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra from Nazi possession is almost certainly in something less than top physical form from having served as a Nazi POW.
So you can understand why Matt Yaple takes music, and particularly jazz, seriously—if not for music, he literally might not be here.
This is how a white boy from a rural, puritanical region of Central Illinois comes to learn about and become enamored of and transfixed by jazz. His war-hero of a father takes him to the Illinois State Fair. And between the cornfields in Springfield, Illinois, the son sees Pops and Duke and Billy Strayhorn, and Count Basie’s band, Tommy Dorsey’s Band, and Glenn Miller’s Band.
And it’s where a young man can come to realize that not only is jazz the pinnacle of cool (ask Matt about Duke Ellington, and he reverts to the fanboy he was in 1963: “Duke, he was the most refined…the way he moved, the way he spoke, he was just the most stylish, the most erudite, he was just as cool as cool can be”), it can also serve as a set of guiding principles, an ethos, something akin to a religion—that jazz’s values correspond very neatly with the best of American values: where individual expression and interdependence are not thought of as competing ideals, but rather as indispensable to one another, as two sides of the same coin.
It’s this ethos that is the engine for @exuberance, the jazz salon that brings some of the best-known names of jazz’s present and some of the brightest young musicians of jazz’s future to play music for up to 80 invited guests in the middle of Matt Yaple’s home—yes, the acoustically perfect, immaculately curated, converted warehouse loft-space referenced above.
These ideals are memorialized on the @exuberance website in what Yaple calls his “manifesto for what this place is about”—a mission statement, or manifesto, he’s titled “The United States of Jazz.”
It’s about civics and jazz and community, and it’s also about diversity, a concept Yaple believes a necessary component to what he’s trying to accomplish with the @exuberance series.
This means that the @exuberance venue has a policy of race and gender diversity in the ensembles. Yaple doesn’t want to be misunderstood; he’s adamant that he’d never tell any musicians with whom he or she should or should not play. But, he’ll tell you very matter-of-factly: “I have an agenda here in this room to cultivate an audience that looks like America, and I don’t see how to do that without having ensembles that look like America…. Segregation is back on the rise everywhere—housing, education…we have to stand against that. Some people march, I’m not a marcher, but I can do my piece here, which I intend to do.”
So, this is part of what you can expect when you’re “invited” to a show at Yaple’s home on N. Mascher St. in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Note: all that is necessary to secure an “invite” is to RSVP to the “invitation” on the @exuberance website, which consists of a thorough description of the music and musicians you’re RSVP’ing to come see. Note, also: the “invitation” expires after 85 people have RSVP’d, so if there’s an act you really want to catch, act quickly.
Twenty-five dollars at the door goes to pay the musicians and cover the cost of refreshments (price of admission comes with two drink tickets). Yaple keeps none of the proceeds. It’s a totally not-for-profit enterprise; this is something about which he strives to be as transparent as possible. He’ll gladly open up his books for anyone interested. Not someone who would understand books even if they were showed to me, I politely declined, but did appreciate the offer.
A few other things you should expect, or not expect, when attending an @exuberance performance. Don’t expect atonal, avant-garde or fusion influences to predominate. It’s Yaple’s house, and the groups he hosts fulfill his stated social agenda and play, for the most part, the type of jazz he prefers: straight ahead, melodic bop and post-bop.
Which is to say, those acts whose musical forebears trace back to Duke, Count, Miles, Trane, Art Blakey & the Messengers, etc. Yaple will tell you that, to date, these conditions have not proven unduly burdensome or stifled the growth of his “experiment.”
“So far I’ve programmed the music that I love and that I want to hear, and from a programming standpoint, that brings a reliability to the undertaking. If what I like becomes too old and people stop coming, that will be the end of it…. Meanwhile it seems we’re on the ascent.”
One last thing to keep in mind if you expect to take in a show @exuberance: Put your phone away, lest you get on the wrong side of your otherwise good-natured host. Texting, checking e-mail, referencing your mobile device in any way during a performance is verboten. The master of the house is unabashedly curmudgeonly on this point. He’ll toss you out onto Mascher St. I’ve seen it. So do yourself a favor and disconnect for a bit. Just pretend you’re on an airplane with the absolute best, most elegant in-flight entertainment.
The compromise is small when you consider that, less than a decade ago, jazz in its natural habitat appeared seriously threatened in Philly. Now it seems the jazz ecosystem—in one of jazz’s most important cities—is just about at homeostasis. And the renaissance has not been restricted to the clubs. Matt Yaple has turned his home into an optimal venue for live jazz—and the musicians, they have come. Orrin Evans and Josh Lawrence, the Curtis brothers, Tootie Heath, Russell Malone…the list literally goes on and on.
It’s no longer a question of whether Matt Yaple’s little “experiment” will yield encouraging results. The question now is: How long will @exuberance remain the best-kept secret in Philadelphia’s live-music scene?
Matt Silver is a writer, radio host, recovering J.D., and jazz fanatic whose own saxophone playing can most aptly be described as somewhere between not altogether hopeless and delightfully adequate. He lives and works in Philadelphia.