by Stacia Friedman
In the late 1960s, I could catch Nina Simone at Jules, Mose Allison at the Showboat or Yosef Lateef at Pep’s. Within 10 years, if I wanted to hear live jazz, I had to go to New York. Or Paris.
What killed the Philly jazz scene? Blame it on the Beatles, the Stones and a worldwide shift in popular culture. Goodbye, Coltrane; hello, Gamble and Huff. The intimate Latin Casino moved from a basement at Juniper and Walnut to a 1,500-seat, Vegas-style, dinner theater in Cherry Hill, featuring headliners like Ray Charles, The Supremes, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the ladies from Hadassah.
In the 1990s, jazz venues started reappearing. Maybe those of us who had grown up with jazz had outgrown the Grateful Dead; maybe had blown out our eardrums on heavy metal and were ready for a music venue more intimate than the Wells Fargo Center.
When the Bynum brothers, Robert and Benjamin, whose parents had owned the Cadillac Lounge in Germantown in the 1950s, opened Zanzibar Blue, a cozy jazz club on South 11th Street, in 1990, I’d go there to hear local songbirds like Brenda Smith and Denise King sing blues and sultry torch songs. As soon as they moved Zanzibar Blue to a larger, glitzier space in the Bellevue Hyatt on Broad Street (in 1996), the magic started to fade; Zanzibar Blue folded on April 29, 2007. (The Bynum brothers are graduates of Central High School and longtime residents of Mt. Airy.)
Other new jazz venues included Ortlieb’s in Northern Liberties, Chris’ Jazz Café on Sansom Street, and the Clef Club on South Broad, as well as the Bynum brothers’ blues joint, Warmdaddies, on Front Street. The Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill started to throw jazz into the mix, along with folk, rock and blues. Meanwhile, jazz aficionado Paul Roller, chef/owner of Flying Fish restaurant, also in Chestnut Hill, turned the second floor into an occasional venue for jazz legends and local musicians. That’s where I heard Mose Allison again, after a 40-year hiatus. North by Northwest in Mount Airy held lots of promise but somehow fizzled out. It’s not yet clear what kind of music will be played in its current reincarnation as Alma Mater.
In January 2014, when the Bynum brothers and chef Al Paris announced the opening of Paris Bistro Jazz Café next to the Chestnut Hill Hotel (where The Melting Pot used to be), I was skeptical. Were they really going to create an authentic jazz venue or will it be just one more missed opportunity? As it turned out, they had me at “Bonjour.” On my first visit I passed through a noisy, brightly lit main dining room and descended down a flight of stairs into a narrow, mirrored 1930s-style jazz club with red banquettes. There were only a dozen seats at the semicircular bar. The menu was standard Parisian bistro fare, but the main course wasn’t anything on the menu; it was the music. That night, it was the Hot Club of Philadelphia with multi-lingual vocalist Phyllis Chapell. The food was pricey. But with a $5 cover, I sat at the bar, sipping a prosecco cocktail and thought, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” But it does!
A few months ago, the Bynum brothers — think Stephen Starr on steroids — opened South, a restaurant and traditional jazz cafe at 600 N. Broad St. that local musicians say reminds of the “old days.” They got one thing right by separating the main dining room from the jazz café for those of us who are there to listen to the musical conversation, not what the folks at the next table think about City Council.
In the Fall of 2015, Rittenhouse Soundworks, a professional recording studio and performing arts space in Germantown, launched a new jazz series. I missed their first two concerts but caught the third, which featured 10 acts, including vibraphonist Tony Miceli, vocalist Paul Jost, bassist Kevin MacConnell and drummer Doug Herlinger. The ambiance was electric. I spotted several local jazz legends in the audience, including trombonist Jeff Bradshaw, who recently appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. No culinary fanfare — just world-class jazz and free parking, all for a $10 suggested donation.
Why has jazz finally returned to its Philly roots? Maybe because it’s the truest representation of our city’s musical heritage. (Sorry, Mummers.) Or maybe because the ghosts of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Jimmy Smith wanted to come back home.
Stacia Friedman is a Mt. Airy resident, freelance writer and novelist. She has contributed to the New York Times, Harlem Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Style, and Main Line Today. She has taught writing at Temple University, Rosemont College and Arcadia University and is the recipient of a Pennsylvania Council in the Arts Writing Fellowship, a Keystone Press Association Award for Investigative Journalism and the Set-in-Philadelphia Screenwriting Award.
* This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Broad Street Review.