by Elizabeth Coady
He carried the idea inside him for years before he met the beautiful blonde that changed the trajectory of his life. And the first time Warren Oree touched her, he knew his life was changed permanently.
“I went over to her and touched her and held her, and I knew,” said Oree, 70, of Mt. Airy. “That’s when I knew this was going to be my life.”
“Kay” is the brand of upright bass that made Oree fall in love at first sight in a South Philly music store 47 years ago. It is the same bass he plays now leading his jazz quintet, the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble, which routinely performs to sellout crowds on Friday nights at Woodmere Art Museum.
Oree met “her” as a high school dropout and Vietnam vet who at the time was “running the streets like a crazy man” with a group of men he calls the “pirates.”
“Let’s just put it like this,” said Oree, who founded the quintet in 1979. “I was the kind of guy who maybe you’d be a little leery of if you saw me.”
The excitement of the rough-and-tumble streets appealed to Oree, who was raised in West Philadelphia by an aunt. “That’s the kind of lifestyle that I craved,” he said last week. “To me, it was exciting. That’s what my insides called for at the time.”
But that began to change when he encountered a man playing a spinet piano in a record store on 52nd Street in West Philly. Oree was passing and stopped to listen, and the man spotted him and called out, “Do you play an instrument?” Oree said no. The man said, “If you could play, what instrument would you play?”
Since Oree’s aunt, a jazz lover, had exposed him to Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, he had fantasized about playing the bass. He also remembers going to jazz clubs and “looking at the bass player and saying, ‘Man, that’s the coolest cat I ever saw.’ So I told him if I could play an instrument, I would play the bass. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘then why don’t you get one?’ And I said, ‘Look, if I wanted to play the bass, I wouldn’t even know where to get one.’ He said, ‘I’ll take you to a place in South Philly called DeLuca & Sons.’”
And it was at 12th and Federal Streets that Oree met Kay, the same bass instrument that he plays 45 years later. He had no idea how to play her and never took a class, but he plopped down a payment to put the $2,500 instrument on layaway. “My whole life changed,” said Oree. “All of that crazy stuff I was doing, I had no problem doing away with it.”
James Mitchell, the man who taunted him into buying the instrument, now taught him how to play, read and write music. And Oree has stuck with it ever since. “I just kept doing it, and I believed in myself,” said Oree, whose face becomes an instrument of expression when he’s performing. “I didn’t listen to all those people telling me, ‘You’re going to have to go to music school.’”
Oree played his first gig out in 1975 at a club in Logan for which he and his band members earned $25 each. To pay his bills, he worked as a counselor at a methadone clinic trying to direct addicts to a different way of life.
Over the years, he and his ensemble have performed in Brazil, Spain, Germany and the Caribbean. They routinely play up and down the East Coast from Boston to Atlanta. This week they’ll appear at the Cape May Jazz Festival, at the Iron Pier Craft House on April 13 and Carney’s Other Room on April 14.
Oree and his “cats” also have a regular gig performing at the Woodmere Art Museum’s “Friday Night Jazz,” where they have played the music of such diverse artists as Charlie Parker, Bessie Smith, The Beatles and Patsy Cline, as well as their own jazz stylings. The “cats” are Umar Raheem on the tenor, soprano and alto saxophones, Greg “JuJu” Jones on the drums, Doug “Pablo” Edwards on congas and percussion and Frank Butrey on guitar.
“We do their music in a jazzy way,” said Oree. “So we’re not a cover band, so to speak.” Playing others’ music, including those he once dismissed as “bubble-gum music,” has expanded his appreciation for other music types. “When I start playing their tunes and looking at their compositions and then arranging them, I’m like, ‘Wow, these cats were really serious dudes! It’s been a beautiful experience.’”
The ensemble is credited for boosting and diversifying the museum’s membership. “They’re a great place to partner with,” said Oree, who also heads up the Lifeline Music Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting jazz in Philadelphia.
Along the way, Oree met another woman who competed with Kay for his attention. He has been married for 34 years to his wife, Deborah, with whom he shares two sons, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Oree jokes that there might have been some tension between “Kay” and his wife when they first met. “My wife realized how much Kay means to me, how Kay is really my heartbeat, not to take anything from my wife, so now they get along a lot better.”
For details on upcoming themes of Friday Night Jazz, visit woodmereartmuseum.org