Over the four years that the Lifeline Music Coalition has produced the music for the West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival, which starts today, artistic director Warren Oree has worked against that hometown neglect.
Though the names that stand out largest on the advertising are those of national (and, for the most part, non-jazz) headliners like the Ohio Players, War and Roy Ayers, Oree has always seen those marquee acts as bait to lure eyes and ears toward the Philly musicians who fill the fest's four stages for the remainder of its three days.
"There's just something about playing in your hometown, where you're not considered important or significant," Oree said of the "local" stigma.
"It even goes beyond music sometimes; I think it's just a natural, human thing. But I do see this festival as helping to remove some of it."
Of course, in his other role - as bassist and leader of the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble - Oree is one of those musicians who benefit from the heightened exposure. But he'd be the first to 'fess up to that additional motivation.
"I'm about hustling, man, so if there ain't nobody giving the work, I'm about creating the work," he said with a laugh. "You might say the jazz scene is really rough, but you can't wait for the situation to develop, you have to develop the situation. That's not always easy, but sometimes it's necessary."
"Musicians will find a way," echoed alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel. His avant-garde big band, the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, teams Zankel with a number of younger musicians, a situation that provides mentoring for them and a vessel for the leader to get his music heard.
"The business is so bad that it levels the playing field in a way that's democratizing," Zankel said.
on West Oak Lane
The festival itself has evolved in subtle ways over its four-year history. Produced by the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., the event grew out of the long-running Super Saturday Street Fair to showcase the neighborhood's cosmetic and commercial turnaround.
Along with the music, which takes place on four stages positioned along the avenue, the streets will also be lined with artists and vendors. There's a food court and children's activities.
This year, opening festivities have been expanded, with performances by Pieces of a Dream and Roy Ayers on the main stage this evening, after which a number of venues will feature music and poetry late into the night.
Despite the sheer number of musicians on the bill, Oree boasted that the city's diversity is represented by the fact that only about 30 percent are returning from last year's festival.
Also, the presence of guitarist Pat Martino in the lineup expands Oree's Philly vision to include nationally renowned artists with local roots. "These guys to me should be the real headliners," he said, mentioning Martino along with future prospects like pianist McCoy Tyner or saxophonist Benny Golson. "But I know they're not going to bring in the people like the Ohio Players or War. That's unfortunate, but it's real."
Saxophonist Odean Pope, who earned fame during stints with jazz legends like drummer Max Roach and who will lead his Saxophone Choir in the festival, is glad that an event of this stature is located in his own neighborhood of West Oak Lane.
"The festival is right in the community," Pope said, "and it's accessible for people to come from all over, as opposed to Center City, where it's very congested and not conducive for a lot of people to attend.
"From some of my travels in the last few years, a lot of people are beginning to talk about it," Pope said. "Not only in Philadelphia and New York, but as far as Europe and Japan. I think it's really beginning to take another direction."
Creating musical community
In a sense, that idea of expanded community coincides with the concept of finding new outlets for some of Philly's younger musicians, especially as venues such as Zanzibar Blue and New York's Tonic close.
Kevin Diehl, whose avant-jazz-meets-Afro-Cuban percussion group Sonic Liberation Front plays the festival for the first time this year, pointed to local presenting organizations like Ars Nova Workshop and Bowerbird, saying, "I think some older musicians are still used to this idea of something called a 'jazz club.' But they're not physical places anymore, they're e-mail lists or communities. We musicians should step it up and create more opportunities."
Bassist Keith DeStefano, whose new-jazz sextet the Puzzlebox Experiment also debuts at West Oak Lane this year, points out the difficulty in reconciling those artistic and business aspects.
"With jazz in general, you have the artist side, where you just want to perfect your craft and be great at what you're doing, and then there's the side where you have to promote yourself and get out there and get exposure. It's hard to get the two together in one person."
Drummer Tony Deangelis, another festival first-timer, also bemoaned that dichotomy.
"Jazz musicians play jazz for the love of jazz, not for the love of money," he said. "But I'm married, I have a kid, and nobody knows who I am, so it's really hard. As far as the festival goes, I think it's a good thing to bring jazz to the limelight for a change and show that there's a lot of talent in this city and a lot of different styles of jazz. I just wish there were more clubs around to help keep this stuff happening."
But speaking from the veteran's vantage point, tenor sax player Barnes insisted that the current state of affairs is nothing new.
"Jazz has never been dead in Philadelphia like people say. The tourist bureau doesn't talk about all the places that jazz is really being played, but jazz has always been played all around. Every corner bar may have a band. I haven't stopped working yet, so I don't see how jazz is dead at all." *
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