by Beth Ann Downey
The Woodmere Art Museum prides itself in offering the select sector of Philadelphians who know it exists as a way to slow down from the pace of daily life. In a 19th century, stone Victorian mansion nestled away from a traffic-heavy corner of Germantown Avenue and East Bells Mill Road in Chestnut Hill, the museum showcases the work of a wide range of Philadelphia artists with both rotating exhibits and its permanent collection.
Visiting the Woodmere, which is surrounded by a well-manicured lawn and offers free parking, can be quite a different experience from stopping by one of the downtown institutes like The Barnes Foundation or the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But happen to stop by on a Friday night, and your experience might not be as tranquil as you would expect. Since 2011, the Woodmere has been putting on “Friday Night Jazz” programming which has not only revved up the museum experience but also the number of visitors and joining members.
“We have a much smaller, scaled-down classical program but seven of eight new memberships are all from jazz programming,” says Hildy Tow, Woodmere’s curator of education. “It’s increased our scope. Our audience reflects Philadelphia’s diversity, so that’s a wonderful thing.”
The decision to implement a jazz night stemmed from the Woodmere’s involvement in the integrated programming of the 2011 Pennsylvania International Festival of the Arts. The theme of the festival was derived from the burst of creativity that transpired in Paris early in the 20th century.
To complement their exhibits of Philadelphia artists who had lived in or had a presence in Paris, the Woodmere decided to host Parisian-themed jazz nights of everything from the music of Django Reinhart to Cole Porter.
“It was so successful,” says Tow. “We had 800 people for four concerts. It was enormous, and that was the first time we had ever done it. What it did was make us realize that, number one, we could have jazz here and it could be successful, and number two, we could be open late on Friday nights. It committed us to jazz programming.”
Members and guests are treated to wine, cheese and crackers and a program revolving around a different theme each time.
“When you’re sitting here and listening to music, it’s a much more natural, organic way to really appreciate what’s on the walls because you’re taking it in in a different way,” Tow says. “And it’s such a wonderful interaction between the music and looking around and being present in your world and hearing and seeing things.”
The Woodmere now hosts 26 concerts per year. Tow says they try to reach a broad range of jazz lovers while still aiming for the program to reflect something about the art on the walls at the time.
“Our mission is all about celebrating the art and artists of Philadelphia,” Tow says, “and Philadelphia has this amazing, legendary history of jazz musicians here. We’re able to celebrate American music with Philadelphia musicians in a museum that’s all about Philadelphia. It feels like it works on many, many levels.”
Though other performers are sometimes mixed in, the six-piece Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble acts as the house band at the Woodmere. Bass player Warren Oree Sr. also conducts educational youth programming here and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He’s glad that venues like the Woodmere are allowing people to experience the genre in an unexpected setting.
“With jazz, there are a lot of stereotypes, like that it is only performed in dark, smoky clubs,” Oree says. “I think museums are the new clubs. It’s ridiculous to have a city the size of Philly – and with the history of jazz that has come out of it – to have only really two major jazz clubs.”
Oree believes there is a special relationship between music and art. He points out that both mediums use some of the same terms, like harmony and rhythm. He regularly finds himself inspired by the “music on the walls” at the Woodmere.
“Sometimes I’m playing, and I look at some of the things they have on the walls, and I’m like, ‘Whoa,’” he says. “I believe in the interdisciplinary thing. Art, music, dance, drama? It’s all part of that same circle. If you broaden out a little bit, you can find that there’s a connection. Putting them together is just a natural thing.”
Sponsoring interdisciplinary programming like “Friday Night Jazz” is important to continue to bolster the reputation of the Woodmere, says Tow.
“What people say to us in general when they come is, ‘Wow, this is such a jewel. I never knew about this place,’” she says. “Compared to a lot of the Philly museums and certainly the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we’re much smaller. We can provide a much more intimate experience.”