by Len Lear
Alex Delcourt, 27, who lives in Chestnut Hill with his companion, Desiree Cappuccio, grew up in Galluis, a small village in north central France, about 30 minutes from Paris. Although his parents are both engineers, he was always interested in music, particularly rock and funk music. After high school he studied at a music school in Paris for two years but insists he still “wasn’t sure how to become a better musician” until by chance he met Steve Beskrone, a Philadelphia bass player who just happened to be on tour in Europe at the time.
“He was my first real mentor,” Alex recalled. “He even gave me bass lessons on Skype. He is the real reason I came to Philly.”
Alex had started playing bass when he was 14, and because of his new-found friend and mentor, he applied to the University of the Arts (UArts) in downtown Philly, even though he spoke no English and despite the anxiety and trepidation of his parents. Alex rolled the dice and won, obtaining a full four-year scholarship to UArts, which he grabbed like a ripe strawberry, coming here in 2013.
“I had to push myself out of my comfort zone,” said Alex, who moved in with six American students, not foreign students, “because that way I would be forced to communicate in English and learn the language.”
Although he sat in classes as a freshman not understanding the teachers’ language (at first), Alex joined a big band, which won awards and earned them an invitation to play at Next Generation Jazz Festival, an annual event since 1958 in Monterey, California, that showcases more than 1,000 of the nation’s top student musicians. Alex’s band won the top prize.
To put some icing on the musical cake, Alex proceeded to win the Presidential Award at UArts for accomplishments in music, which is only given to one student in each graduating class. As a result, Alex was offered an assistant teacher’s job at UArts for the graduate program for one year.
So every part of his life was in perfect harmony, except for the fact that Alex’s work visa will be up at the end of this month. (He had a student visa before that.) There are no guarantees, of course, but Alex is hoping to secure an “artist’s visa,” which would give Alex three more years here and the possibility of renewal and an eventual path to citizenship. But it is a steep hill to climb.
According to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services website, in order to qualify for an artist’s visa, “the beneficiary must demonstrate extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim … a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered in the field of arts.”
But Alex just may meet the tough criteria. He formed his own band three years ago, which is unusual for a bass player, usually considered a sideman. In the past year, since graduating from UArts, Alex has played several times at Paris Bistro Jazz Cafe in Chestnut Hill with the Hot Club of Philadelphia and other local musicians. He plays gospel music every Sunday at Tyree Baptist Church in West Philly in a group, where he is the only white guy. And Alex goes to sessions all over town five or six nights a week to meet other musicians, play with them and learn from them.
“The music scene in Philly is so rich and diverse and at such a high level,” Alex said. “For example, every week I play Cuban music with Arturo Stable, a great drummer from Cuba who started a concert series, ‘Not So Latin,’ in South Philly. I’m always trying to learn other types of music, like South American gospel and all different styles of jazz.”
Alex has also gone up to New York several times to play in sessions with great musicians there, but he actually prefers Philly’s music scene.
“It is way more competitive in New York,” he said. “They all want to show that they are the best. It is much more of a community feel here. The musicians here genuinely want to help each other get better. And it’s incredible that one can actually make a living in Philly playing jazz. There are not many places in the world where it’s possible to do that.
“Here everyone is so welcoming. I went to Ortleib’s, for example, right before they closed. I was on stage and so scared that I could not play one note right. Mike Boone, a bass player, yelled at me, but it was to push me and get me back on track. The next morning he came to my place to give me a lesson. That’s the way it is here because the musicians really care. The next time they gave me feedback – work on this, work on that. They help you get better.”
Alex has also put together a talented ensemble – Elliot Bild, trumpet; Henry Tirfe, saxophone; John Swana, valve trombone; Zion Fritzinger, guitar; Nathaniel Hawk, piano, and Steven Perry, drums – who play together every week and just released their first CD, “Alex Delcourt: To My Brothers,” which is a gift to the ear of any jazz buff. It contains two French songs and six other pieces composed by Alex.
“When I was a kid, I loved American music and hated French music,” said Alex, who visits his family in France once a year, “but after I moved here, I realized that French music is also special.”
For more information, visit AlexDelcourt.com or email email@example.com