The Eighth Annual Center City Jazz Festival Is Bigger and Younger Thanks To Ernest Stuart

Apr 22, 2019

When trombonist and Philly native Ernest Stuart created the Center City Jazz Festival back in 2012, he did so out of what he felt was necessity. “The scene was shrinking,” says Stuart, a 2008 graduate of Temple's renowned Jazz Studies program.

No doubt there was a time, not so long ago, when live jazz was on the wane in Philadephia; but it's now in the midst of a renaissance, in places both likely and not.

In what will be its eighth iteration, this year’s Center City Jazz Festival, on Saturday, April 27th from 1 to 7 PM, will be bigger and badder than ever: 20 bands spread across 12 venues. If you find yourself at Chris’ Jazz Café or Franky Bradley’s or Fergie’s or Maison 208 or Time on April 27th, you should expect to see these musicians.

Stuart used to headline the festival with some of the most established names in jazz. That turned out to be near disaster.

A few years back, Stuart was on the bandstand, playing with his own band, and his phone, perched precariously on his music stand, was literally blowing up with texts and calls—the headliner was “having problems” with the festival hotel—musicians. Then and there, Stuart vowed two things: never again play at his own festival and never have another headliner.

Stuart has kept his word, sort of—he’ll be back on stage playing his trombone, joined by Jason Fraticelli (bass) and Lionel Forrester, Jr. (drums). Their powers combine to form Threezus and, ironically enough, they’ll “headline” the proceedings at Time—but only insofar as headlining means playing last. They’ll go on at 6:15 PM.

There will, however, be no formal festival headliner; Stuart has opted for a more prospective, rather than retrospective, approach. Though it varies from year to year, this year’s crop of performers is heavy on musicians with Philly roots and is comprised of more young studs than seasoned vets—those, says Stuart, “who are out there every day trying to move the scene forward.”

Who is Ernest most excited to see perform? Ever the diplomat, Stuart answers coyly, “I’m excited about all of them equally.”

Though, when pressed gently, some thoughts arise. Arnetta Johnson, the young trumpeter from Camden featured on WRTI's VuHaus channel recently,  is "an example of a young musician doing it the right way," says Stuart.

Stuart’s also excited about Upper Darby-native and saxophonist Hiruy (Henry) Tirfe, with whom he maintains something of a big brother-little brother relationship.

“He [Tirfe] must’ve been in high school and he cornered me at Chris’ and was like ‘Hey, man—how can I get into the festival?’ recalls Stuart. “He was really raw at that point, like really raw. I told him to come back in five years,” says Stuart now, laughing.

Well, Tirfe has waited his turn and now he’s a saxophonist ready for his close-up. In what is, perhaps, no coincidence, Stuart will see that close-up up close. Tirfe will play at TIME directly in front of Stuart and Threezus, at 4:45 PM.

Check out the Center City Jazz Festival lineup here.