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This Is What You Need To Know About The 2019 John Coltrane Celebration In Philadelphia

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
John Coltrane, circa 1959

There’s something about listening to John Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary” that feels like home. No doubt that’s how Coltrane felt about his real-life Cousin Mary (the composition’s inspiration) and the home he shared with her near 33rd and Oxford during his brief but formative residency in Philadelphia.

It was during a time (1952-1958) where there was just something about jazz in Philadelphia… in the way there was just something about art in 15th-century Florence.

With Cousin Mary’s recent passing, this year’s Philadelphia celebration of Coltrane’s birthday, his 93rd, means a little bit more. Events celebrating the man and the music are happening all over town, with several close enough to Coltrane House so as to celebrate the physical space artist and muse occupied together.

The biggest of these events is the Philadelphia Jazz Project’sCelebrate Coltrane 2019. Comprising 10 distinct musical performances across four stages in Fairmount Park, Celebrate Coltrane will be ten hours of free music, a free screening of 2016’s Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, as well as events like cider tasting in the historic estates of Fairmount Park and instrument making for the kids.

Among this year’s musical acts will be the Force for Good Sax Quartet, which will number one more this year, as drummer Chad Taylor will join saxophonists Mark Allen, Ole Mathisen, Jaleel Shaw and Bobby Zankel. Zankel, the forward thinking alto saxophonist and long-time favorite of listeners to The Bridge, recently appeared, along with Taylor, in WRTI’s Performance Studio as part of a live-stream broadcast that served as the unofficial kickoff to Celebrate Coltrane 2019.

That live session, hosted by J. Michael Harrison, featured Taylor recounting a funny childhood anecdote about listening to Coltrane records in his mother’s religious household, as well as some killer playing.

Among the others you won’t want to miss at this year’s Celebrate Coltrane: Immanuel Wilkins, another Philly-based saxophonist who performed live from WRTI’s Performance Studio last year, is on the docket, as is Hiruy (Henry) Tirfe, who brought the house down playing alongside 12-year-old drumming wunderkind Mekhi Boone at May’s Center City Jazz Festival. Several others will be reiterating roles from the Coltrane at 90 celebration of three years past, including Zankel, pianist Alfie Pollitt, and drummer Alan Nelson. But don’t just take my word for it—tune-in to the September 20th edition of The Bridge, during which J. Michael Harrison will air an interview with Homer Jackson, Director of the Philadelphia Jazz Project, and several of the musicians playing this year’s Celebrate Coltrane.

If you plan on attending Celebrate Coltrane during the day on the 21st, or even if you don’t, you might as well take the Coltrane over to South Jazz Kitchen later in the evening. That’s where saxophonist Teodross Avery will be keeping the Coltrane encomia going late into the evening, playing two sets and sharing tunes from his new tribute album, After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane. One can only hope this doesn’t portend stormy weather for the day’s earlier events…. 

Festival weekends tend to skew high, calorically speaking. One way to offset mirthful eating and drinking is to take a long walk. Okay, that sounds kind of boring. But a more fun and educational spin on garden-variety ambulatory activity is a Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Walking Tour. Does such a thing even exist? It does now, thanks to All That Philly Jazz and public historian Faye Anderson, who’s curated the itinerary by referencing old editions of the The Negro Motorist Green Book, the crowd-sourced guide to services and places friendly to African-American road-trippers, including touring jazz musicians, during the era of both codified and de-facto segregation and discrimination prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

And yes, it’s the same Green Book from last year’s Oscar winner, though don’t expect to see Viggo Mortensen or Mahershala Ali. Do expect to learn much about the robust jazz scene—the lost and/or forgotten venues, the musicians who played there, etc.—that existed during the flashpoint of innovation in jazz that characterized the years leading up to and including the Coltrane-in-Philly-era.

La Rose Jazz Clubin Germantown will also celebrate Coltrane’s 93rd on Saturday, September 21st, from 2 to 5 PM, with performances from the legendary Philly tenor-man Bootsie Barnes (who, among others, played in Cousin Mary’s “backyard concerts” at the Coltrane House) and his quintet, saxophonist Nasir Dickerson and The Renaissance Messengers, and Charles Beasley’s Jazz Instinct, feat. Michal Beckham.

This year, John Coltrane’s birthday, September 23rd, coincides with the autumnal equinox, as it did on the day Coltrane was born in 1926. It was almost inevitable that one of Coltrane’s compositions would come to be called “Equinox.”

We can thank his first wife, Naima, who was into all manner of celestial goings-on, for that. During the autumnal equinox, the sun, viewed from the equator, rises due east and sets due west; day and night are of equal length, creating a rare point of equilibrium in the seasonal pendulum. Summer’s gone and, in a moment, the night will, once again, begin to take back the day.

But we’ve got that moment—the equinox—and what better way to celebrate that moment than by honoring the cosmically gifted adopted son of Philadelphia, John Coltrane.

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.