This Is How Jazz Heavyweights Are Planning To Save Chris' Jazz Café In Philadelphia

Jan 8, 2021

The call to rescue Chris’ Jazz Café has sounded, and some of the biggest names in jazz have responded.

Like Kurt Rosenwinkel, the Philly native, CAPA alum, and musically omnivorous guitarist now living in Germany. He was three dates into an eight-city tour of Sweden back in mid-March when his entire spring calendar was scrapped—including stops on the West Coast, at Carnegie Hall, and in Antigua to play Eric Clapton’s birthday party. He’s spent the pandemic confined mostly to his Berlin home and recording studio.

Kurt Rosenwinkel
Credit Lourdes Delgado

But thanks to the miracles of modern technology, Rosenwinkel will be able to play an integral role in JazzAid, the weeklong virtual jazz festival and fundraiser starting on Saturday, January 9th, intended to help Mark DeNinno, Chris’ Jazz Café’s owner and head chef, keep the lights on at the iconic Center City jazz club.
 
“Kurt Rosenwinkel, G-d bless him, is such an amazing musician; he was one of the very first to call and offer to help,” said DeNinno, who nostalgically recalls Rosenwinkel playing Chris’ stage 20 years ago. “He wasn’t the international superstar he is now.”
 
While the GoFundMe we reported on in December is about paying the talent—the musicians and engineers without whom the livestreams could not be—the money generated by JazzAid will go toward everyday expenses.
 
“Right now, we’re just hemorrhaging money,” DeNinno said. “This weeklong jazz-a-thon is to keep the lights on at the club, pay the rent, and other bills that have been accumulating.”

Rosenwinkel’s performance, recorded in Germany specifically for this event, figures to highlight the festival’s second day (January 10th), when Chris’ web platforms will provide 24 consecutive hours of jazz programming.
 

J.D. Walter
Credit Peter Breslow Consulting and Public Relations

JazzAid has been organized and its star-studded lineup curated by vocalist and PA native JD Walter, who held a weekly residency at Chris’ when he taught at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in the late ’90s. “My goal,” said Walter, “is to unite the diverse Philly jazz community in order to keep this iconic treasure alive.”
 
Marshaling Philly’s Jazz Resources

Uniting a jazz community of such scope is no easy task, but Walter’s been a cross between Charlie summoning back all his angels and Field of Dreams’ Ray Kinsella.

He’s built it, and those who make Philadelphia’s jazz footprint one that’s both deep and wide are coming: the homegrown and the transplants, the expats and lifers, the diaspora’s mega-stars and the local jam session stalwarts who exemplify working musicianship.

From Saturday evening, Jan. 9th through Saturday evening, Jan. 16th, over 60 jazz artists, most with Philly roots in one form or another, will play live from Chris’ stage to pay-what-you-wish audiences watching remotely.

Audiences can expect two sets nightly (7 PM and 9 PM) from the festival’s opening through Thursday evening; Friday and Saturday nights will consist of three sets each—6 PM 8 PM, and 10 PM.
 
The outlier will be JazzAid’s second day. It will be the only day without live(streaming) music; it will also be the only day where the music literally will not stop. On that Sunday for your streaming pleasure: 24 hours of past performances from Chris’ stage, headlined, as it were, by Rosenwinkel’s video tribute from Berlin.

Many more—from nationally touring A-listers to hometown heroes—are scheduled to perform live from Chris’ stage, including but not limited to: pianists George Burton and Jim Ridl and their respective trios, saxophonists Grant Stewart and Victor North and their respective quintets, drummers Rodney Green, Jonathan Blake, and Joe Farnsworth (who will be playing in the Peter Bernstein Quartet), vocalists Milton Suggs, Denise King, and Lucy Yeghiazaryan (who will co-lead a quintet with Grant Stewart). And a Mark DeNinno favorite, drummer Ari Hoenig, whom I’m told should expect one of the better meals of crab cakes and crawfish he’s ever had.

JazzAid’s Lineup: Who’s Playing and When
 

Christian McBride
Credit Peter Breslow Consulting and Public Relations

It will be Hoenig and his quartet, along with bassist Anthony Tidd, who will open the week’s festivities on Saturday night at 7 PM. Two nights later, also at 7 PM, the world’s most celebrated jazz bassist, Christian McBride, brings his band to Chris’ stage. The saying goes “like father, like son,” but on this occasion it’ll be the other way around; McBride’s father, bassist Lee Smith, will follow his son, playing with legendary local drummer Webb Thomas and his Superband for the 9 PM session.
 

Mike Boone
Credit Courtesy of the artist

West Chester-raised bassist and Clef Club alum Alex Claffy and his New York All Stars will play Tuesday night at 7 PM, while bassist Mike Boone will live up to his reputation as the hardest working jazz musician in Philly by playing for for two different groups: On Friday night, his quintet feat. Tim Brey (piano), his son Mekhi, Elliot Bild (trumpet), and Hiruy Tirfe (saxophone) will follow Rodney Green’s Classic Trio, and to kick off JazzAid’s finale, he’ll anchor a formidable rhythm section featuring a couple of anything-but-average Joes—Block on piano and Farnsworth on drums—with guitarist Peter Bernstein’s quartet.

 
By the time JazzAid reaches its final set of the week on Saturday, January, 16th, Walter will be free to divorce himself from administrative responsibilities and simply focus on the music; he’ll join Byron “Wookie” Landham (drums) and Matthew Parrish (bass) as part of JazzAid’s concluding performance by the Orrin Evans Trio.

Immanuel Wilkins
Credit Courtesy of the artist

The penultimate performance is compelling as well, as a Jonathan Blake-led trio will feature Immanuel Wilkins, the locally reared alto saxophonist whose Blue Note debut, Omega, was recently declared the Best Jazz album of the Year by The New York Times. No surprise to those of us at WRTI; Omega was recognized as our Jazz Album of the Week back in September and lauded as “one of the most sophisticated and mature debut recordings in recent memory.”
 
Wilkins, like Claffey and Faulkner and Block and McBride and Rosenwinkel, traces roots back to Philly, back to the Clef Club, and ultimately back to Chris’.
 
It’s why the Boones will drive up from Delaware and the Blocks and Claffys of the world will drive down from New York. It’s why they’ll play when nothing’s guaranteed but a good meal and maybe a couple drinks. It’s why Rosenwinkel will send his molecules from Germany through cyberspace.
 
Because, as several have told me, there’s a good chance that, but for Chris’, they’d be doing something different professionally.
 
What Dreams May Come?

Chris’ just celebrated its 31st anniversary. Will it ever live to see 32? As Coolio said in the mid-’90s: the way things are going, I don’t know. With the federal stimulus bill recently signed into law, hope is on the horizon. Though for some of Chris’ peers, the horizon may as well be over the rainbow. And Chris’ needs to weather the storm as it exists not weeks or months from now but right now.
 
Chris’ ownership has gambled on cutting-edge sound and video equipment to, at least temporarily, keep the longest continuously operating jazz club in Philadelphia afloat. The virtual product itself is clean, crisp and artfully produced; it’s truly less like a televised concert and more like a cinematic experience.

If the club survives, it stands to reason this new livestreaming capability will only continue to grow in value as an asset; it provides Chris’ with the potential to not just be a player locally or even regionally but to tap into audiences abroad that are known to be jazz-loving. Because of the work Chris’ had put in during the pandemic, one could even foresee the club building a higher national profile for itself in a post-COVID landscape. But that’s a beyond-the-horizon type of conversation; they’ve got to survive first.
 
And in terms of survival, the largesse of jazz musicians has been indispensable and especially remarkable in a year that hasn’t done any favors for those who make a living performing in front of crowds. They’ve pledged their time and talent to save the club—yes, because they’ve always been made to feel like they belong there. And, of course, because DeNinno has a photographic memory for what the musicians like best to eat. And, taken one step further, if places like Chris’, in cities like Philadelphia, close, never to come back, what does that mean for the future viability of working musicians?

Larry McKenna
Credit Melissa Gilstrap

Not the giant label touring superstars like McBride and Evans, who dutifully rep the local scene from a rarefied standing they’ve earned every bit of, but the Boones and Webb Thomases and Larry McKennas—the guys who host the jam sessions and teach adjunct and lose no sleep over not being featured in Downbeat as long as they’re gigging regularly enough to live comfortably and with dignity, maintaining the freedom to play some semblance of the music they want, and possessing the will and want-to to keep getting better in a craft where if the learning’s stopped it’s because you’ve quit or you’ve died.

If places like Chris’, in cities like Philadelphia, close, never to come back, what does that mean for the future viability of working musicians?

That’s the life of the artist; it’s always been harder, and it will always be harder. The question becomes at what point does it become so hard that, for all practical purposes, it’s no longer doable.

“I worry more about [Mekhi] who’s 14 and definitely has a promising future, but what’s he gonna do, you know, if it’s like...” said Boone, trailing off while wondering aloud whether talent, in and of itself, is enough to make it in an economic climate—that without places like Chris’ becomes even more hostile to the dreams and aspirations of young jazz musicians.
 
“I would like to think music would always be around, that there will always be a need for musicians, that people would always want to hear that kind of artistry,” Boone continued. “Each generation, each 10-year increment, it seems like the kids just keep getting better and better. And these younger folks have good heads, they absorb the music, and pound for pound there are a lot more collegiate kids, even high school kids, who are really playing on a high level—much higher than they did when I was that age.
 
“But what are they gonna do? We’ve gotta find a way for at least some of these young [musicians] to get a chance to perform.”
 
JazzAid: A Weeklong, Pay-What-You-Wish Virtual Fundraiser for Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia runs from January 7th to January 16th; performances can be streamed live via chrisjazzcafe.com or Facebook.com/ChrisJazzCafe.