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The 2013 Jazz Scene: In Review

Father John D'Amico passed away this year at age 74

This has been a swinging year, and a healthy one for jazz in these parts. The Kimmel Center is upping its commitment to jazz (see details below), non-profits like Jazz Bridge and The Jazz Sanctuary are presenting almost 100 concerts per season, museums have hosted jazz programs, mini-jazz fests are popping up all over, new and old jazz jam sessions are doing above average business, and restaurants and clubs that never used live music of any kind are now booking jazz. Destinations like The Prime Rib and Sullivan’s maintain a policy of booking jazz pianists seven nights a week. Even Atlantic City’s troubled Revel has gotten into the act, booking pianist Don Glanden and others nightly.

Despite the talk about CDs being phased out, singer Mary Ellen Desmond was able to raise over $10,000 for production of a new recording, and saxophonist Larry McKenna’s new effort has been on the charts for weeks and is now getting national play.

Yes, we do have only one club solely devoted to jazz, and we are sorely in need of a nationally-sponsored, week-long jazz festival. But by and large, there is more live jazz to be heard in this area then ever before.
To ensure continued growth, the jazz community must become more and more responsible for itself in terms of self-promotion and the creation of gigs that weren’t there before. No one is going to do it for you and it’s time to realize that, with rare exception, it’s a new day.
Wonder of wonders: Kimmel Center now has “a jazz season.” Kicking off 2014 is ground-breaking guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s New Quartet on January 16. A stellar program, Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60, comes to town on March 8, featuring artists like Philly native Randy Brecker, singer Karrin Allyson and various others. Other artists booked throughout the spring include Latin jazz exponent/multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste and Stay Human band on April 25, singer Concha Buika on April 10, and composer/playwright/singer Ethan Lipton and His Orchestra premiering a musical theater piece called No Place to Go on April 11 and 12.

Kimmel is dedicated to the area jazz community as well via presentation of impressive free events, including the monthly “Sittin’ In” jam sessions. Trombonist Jeff Bradshaw leads this month’s jam on December 11. And participants in Kimmel’s “Creative Music Program” for music students age 11 to 19, will present their annual winter concert on December 21.

It could be a new-found respect for jazz history and the jazz tradition, or that the publishing business has realized that “jazz sells.” Whatever the reason, there have been more books on jazz published this year than ever before. As the year ends, four more titles have been published. All represent important contributions to jazz scholarship, and through the decades, all of the artists referenced in these books appeared regularly in our area.

Louis Armstrong charted the course of jazz. Charlie “Yardbird” Parker changed its course forever. Along with Dizzy Gillespie and several others, Parker literally invented modern jazz. There have been many books about Bird published through the years, but his early, pre-1945 years have never been fully documented. Musicologist/critic Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (Harper Collins) has filled a major void in jazz history with this important work about Bird’s formative years. Crouch, a New York Daily News columnist and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, has been working on this, first in a projected two-volume set, for years. It shows.

There have been dozens of books published about Duke Ellington—including works by Duke’s son and an autobio by the man himself—with the first one written circa 1946. While the majority of these projects fell into the “very good” category, few captured the real Duke, a musical genius but an enigmatic character who played it close to the vest in terms of his private life and the inner-workings of his singular ensemble. Writer Terry Teachout, best known for his landmark bio of Louis Armstrong, has come very, very close to capturing the genuine article in Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham). Ellington worshippers and defenders, and there are still zillions of them, may take issue with some of what is presented in Duke, but Teachout’s research is impeccable and those who have always wanted to know the truth about Maestro will come close to knowing it after reading this. As for an area connection, Duke worked just about every venue in these parts that featured live music in a career that ran from the 1920s until his death in 1974. Truth be told, if the band had an open date, they would work just about anywhere. An example? Not too long before he passed, Ellington and his merry group of foul balls played a one-nighter at a long-defunct place called the Conestoga Valley Inn, near Berwyn, PA. Of the latter-day Ellington crew, it’s often been said “they were either wonderful or awful.” At the Conestoga Inn that night, the band was somewhere in-between.

Philadelphia guitarist Billy Bean was a shadowy legend, virtually unknown to the general public, but nonetheless tremendously influential. Bean, who passed away in 2012 after years of substance abuse, recorded only a few projects as a leader after his discovery by fellow Philadelphian Charlie Ventura, but those were enough to make an impact on players like Pat Martino and Larry Coryell (the latter wrote a song called “Billy Bean”). Bean’s life and music are chronicled with taste, accuracy and reverence by Seth Greenberg in a book called Billy Bean: The Life and Music of a Jazz Guitar Legend (SethGreenbergMusic.com).

There was a time when one record label had every major jazz player and singer in history under contract. The record label’s name was Verve, its owner/founder was Norman Granz, and the list of contractees included Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. And Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) live touring group, which appeared annually at the Academy of Music from the late 1940s until 1957, paved the way for the acceptance of jazz on the concert stage. The Granz Verve and JATP empire has been chronicled in Verve: The Sound of America, by Richard Havers (with an introduction by Herbie Hancock), published by Thames & Hudson. This phone book-sized coffee table project is a real stunner. It details, often day-by-day, the activities, artists, recording sessions, tour details of Verve, its imprints, and JATP tours, coupled with dozens of rare photographs that will have jazz fans salivating.
Philadelphia has long been home to the finest bassists and big bands in the country. Dylan Taylor is one those bassists and he will celebrate the release of a new CD, Sweeter for the Struggle, on December 13 at The Painted Bride Arts Center. Anybody who is anybody will on this outing, including legendary guitarist Larry Coryell. PaintedBride.org/events/DylanTaylor.

In “big band land,” don’t miss trombonist Brian Pastor’s show at the Casino Deli in Northeast Philadelphia on December 17 (BrianPastorBigBand.com), drummer Phil Giordano’s fabulous ensemble at South Philadelphia’s LaStanza Restaurant on December 18 (LaStanza.com), and the marvelous crew under the direction of bone man Rob Stoneback at Bethlehem’s Musikfest Café on December 19 (Artsquest.org). Note that these organizations and their leaders have worked with everyone from Sinatra to Basie, and just because the label reads “big band,” don’t expect warmed-over Glenn Miller. These are vital, contemporary ensembles that play modern, often exploratory orchestrations.
Many of the jazz-focused feature films produced through the years have been, shall we say, less than great. Certainly, pictures like Round Midnight and Bird had their moments, but let’s remember that Hollywood also produced charmers like The Gene Krupa Story. Still, Tinseltown won’t give up on jazz, and word has come that actor Don Cheadle will star/direct in a biopic about Miles Davis called Kill the Trumpet Player, for BiFrost Pictures. Many of those who knew and worked with Davis, also known as “The Prince of Darkness,” will just love the title.
Jazz has suffered a terrible loss with the recent death of pianist/composer/educator “Father John” D’Amico at the age of 74. A presence on the jazz scene for more than 40 years, and beloved by everyone, John was just one of those guys you thought—and hoped—would always be here. Read a full-length tribute to this giant of a man and artist


This article is from the December 2013 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.