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Trumpeter Charles Tolliver Headlines a Jazz October to Remember

Jimmy Katz
Charles Tolliver

September presented jazz enthusiasts in Philadelphia with a full calendar, with so many events in planetary orbit around the sun that was John Coltrane's 93rd birthday celebration. But September’s got nothing on October.

Once again we’ve got several satellites revolving around a single musical lodestar, this time in the form of self-taught trumpet and compositional virtuoso Charles Tolliver.

In what will be the month’s most high-profile event, Tolliver will receive this year’s Living Legacy Jazz Award from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation (MAAF)on Friday evening October 11th.

This is a big deal.

It’s the 25th anniversary of an award with several notable Philadelphians among its past recipients, from Odean Pope and Kenny Barron, to Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Shirely Scott, and Reggie Workman. In other words, a veritable Mt. Rushmore of Philadelphia’s finest.

And it’s coming home.

This year marks the first time in the award’s quarter-century history that the Living Legacy will be presented in Philadelphia, as it ends a years-long relationship with the Kennedy Center in D.C. and begins one with our crown-jewel venue, the Kimmel Center.

This year’s Living Legacy Jazz Award ceremony is doubly special because it will serve as the kickoff event for the Kimmel Center’s 2019/2020 jazz season, with performances by acclaimed jazz-pianist Marcus Roberts and the Modern Jazz Generation Band, as well as a special guest-appearance by last year’s Living Legacy honoree, the legendary 89-year-old pianist, Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Tolliver who by his own admission “likes to rumble” and “take the most difficult routes for improvisation…by trying something [new] out right from the jump,” will have to cool his heels here and relish being the evening’s guest of honor.

He will, however, have the opportunity to play his heart out the next evening at the Clef Club, where his “4tet” featuring Lenny White (drums), Buster Williams (bass), and Victor Gould (piano) will not only play their rear ends off for two hours beginning at 7:30, but will also, simultaneously, function in several ceremonial capacities.

Tolliver’s 4tet will, on one hand, be celebrating the 50th anniversary of their leader’s landmark debut recording Paper Man, an album that featured legendary sidemen like Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Gary Bartz, and they’ll also be kicking off the second season of the Clef Club’s Jazz Cultural Voices series.

Like a college history course that’s cross-referenced as a political science course and an anthropology course, too, seeing Tolliver’s 4tet will also net you credit for catching the culminating event of Jazz Philadelphia’s Summit 2019.

And while you’re at the Clef Club that Saturday evening, be sure to take note of the memorial celebration that will be taking place two days later, on Monday October 14th, in honor of “Cousin” Mary Alexander, John Coltrane’s late cousin Mary who was his artistic muse and among the best ambassadors for jazz music that Philadelphia has known.

This event will be a musical celebration of Mary’s life, and several well-known musicians are expected to perform. The lineup has not been finalized, but among those you might reasonably expect to perform are poet and spoken word artist Pheralyn Dove, vocalist Barbara Walker, Philly saxophonists Bootsie Barnes and Carl Grubbs, and pianists Doug Carne and Aaron Graves. While those names are subject to change, there’s no doubt the feeling at the Clef Club, in celebration of such a giant, will be extraordinary.

Now you might be thinking: Hey! Let’s rewind a bit. What was that piece about Jazz Philadelphia’s Summit 2019? We know Tolliver’s performance at the Clef Club is serving as Summit 2019’s culmination, but what about those who want to hop on board the Summit 2019 train as it’s first pulling out of the station?

I’m glad you asked. This Thursday night at South Jazz Kitchen is the place to start; pianist Sumi Tonooka will be unofficially kicking off Summit 2019 by performing as part of bassist Gerald Veasley’s Unscripted Series. Veasley is the president of Jazz Philadelphia, so, you see, this really will be the official unofficial kickoff.

Got all that?


The next morning, at the Kimmel Center, Terell Stafford, every bit a Philadelphia jazz living legend in his own right, will be offically kicking off Jazz Philadelphia’s Summit 2019 with a keynote address on “The 21st Century Jazz Musician.”

The great Philadelphia saxophonist Odean Pope, MAAF’s 2017 Living Legacy honoree, will keep things going into Friday afternoon, leading a discussion on jazz’s history and facilitating educated speculation about its future, before giving way to the day’s closing event, a celebration of the late, great Philadelphia saxophonist, Grover Washington, Jr.

By that point Odean Pope’s weekend will just be getting started. The next evening—Saturday October 12th—Pope will premier an ambitious new project he’s calling Sounds of the Circle at La Rose Jazz Club in Germantown.

Pope, who grew up in Philadelphia and was influenced by everyone here from Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to Jimmy Smith, the Heath brothers, Benny Golson, and Lee Morgan (and almost too many more to name), aims to pay tribute to seemingly everyone who played a role in shaping his musicality and musicianship. Pope’s goal seems to be to somehow re-manifest not just the sound but the feeling of the North Philadelphia jazz scene in the middle of the 20th century.

It’s hard to talk about a project so wide in scope in anything but broad strokes, but, rest assured, it will be ambitious. And compelling. Odean might show up at La Rose with a time machine, prepared to bring all the folks mentioned above back from the past. All I know is that I can’t afford to miss it.

And then, as if the foregoing weren’t sufficiently mind-blowing and face-melting—here comes the revolution! The October Revolution, and not the very bloody one you may have learned about in school. In this version of the October Revolution, Princess Anastasia is safe and sound and grooving to the music of cosmic transcendence, free jazz.

The October Revolution is the Ars Nova Workshop’s marquee event and it best represents what artistic director Mark Christman and the Workshop stand for. The New York Times has called the event “a State of the Union for free improvisation and avant-garde composition.” In other words, if Odean Pope’s Sounds of the Circle doesn’t sufficiently transport you in space and time, perhaps, like Lenin, the October Revolution is what you’ve been building to all along.

This revolution will not be televised but it will go on throughout October, with 13 different performers and ensembles playing venues throughout Philadelphia. Fans of The Bad Plus might look forward to reuniting with Ethan Iverson, who manned with the piano for 17 years as one-third of the Minneapolis-based genre-bending super-group. Iverson will appear with trumpet great Tom Harrell, Ben Street (bass), and Eric McPherson on Thursday October 17th at the Caplan Recital Hall at UArts.

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.