Annette John-Hall: Couple keep the music going despite a jazz festival's death

Rosalind and Raymond Wood work in their backyard garden, scene of the annual Community Jazz Concert.
Rosalind and Raymond Wood work in their backyard garden, scene of the annual Community Jazz Concert.
Posted: July 20, 2010

For all of you jazz lovers who were planning to claim a spot in Raymond and Rosalind Wood's backyard for their annual Community Jazz Concert Sunday, hold on to that lawn chair for a minute. Or a month. Or two.

The free concert, which the Woods pay for through community support, has been rescheduled for Sept. 12.

That's because recent storms did a number on the Woods' Germantown property. Some branches fell from the bountiful peach tree. The lush vegetable garden where Rosalind grows her collards flooded. And when your backyard serves as the concert venue, you can't depend on a grounds crew to spruce things up. You are the grounds crew.

That's the way it's always been for Rosalind, 59, and her husband, Raymond, 77, the driving forces behind the TraneStop Resource Institute Inc., a nonprofit group for jazz preservation, education, and advocacy named after the great jazz master John Coltrane.

When the couple bought the old Allentown Steel mansion at 500 E. Washington Lane 18 years ago, the neighborhood was a mess, full of boarded-up, graffiti-marred houses and drug dealing, not to mention the vacant Roosevelt Middle School, which sat across the street.

None of that intimidated Raymond, a self-described "urban entrepreneur." He may be a wisp of a guy, but he single-handedly gutted and renovated the half-acre, weed-infested property. What had been the neighborhood's dumping ground was now its showplace.

"This was a throwaway community. I came here to turn it around," Raymond says. "I worked with the drug folk and the gangs and the graffiti kids. We were able to conquer all that."

With the neighborhood safe again, the Woods figured what better place than their own backyard (which they've lovingly named Felicia's Gardens in honor of their niece, who has multiple handicaps because of cerebral palsy) to merge their two loves - culture and community. The idea gave rise to the Community Jazz Concert, where, for 14 years, they have provided good music by local artists and fresh food from the grill and Rosalind's garden.

In 2001, they dedicated their annual concert to Coltrane, but the Woods wanted to do more to honor the saxophonist's great legacy.

"Philly is the only place where Coltrane made his home and there was nothing to honor him," Rosalind says.

So they took a giant step. In September 2006, just in time to commemorate what would have been Coltrane's 80th birthday, they created the John Coltrane Jazz Festival, a two-day jazz and blues extravaganza.

The festival was held at the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown - which, in an unintended stroke of marketing genius, sits across the path from the train station on Washington Lane.

It was the TraneStop for real.

Thousands of jazz lovers came out. Just the name Coltrane brought out top artists such as Archie Shepp, Odean Pope, and Jerry Butler. The festival generated publicity from as far away as Japan.

The festival thrived in 2006 and 2007. But, in a move that saddened festival goers and embittered the organizers, the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., the nonprofit group founded by State Rep. Dwight Evans, withheld $10,000 in funding for the 2008 festival.

Now, you would think $10,000 would be just a drop in the bucket, especially for OARC, whose mission is to support arts and culture throughout Northwest Philadelphia, and which also sponsors the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival at a cost of $1 million every year.

But OARC president Jack Kitchen says TraneStop could not account for some of the grant money, and "the state requires line-item accountability" for all funds, he says. He said he'd be willing to reconsider funding if TraneStop "got its house in order."

TraneStop disputes Kitchen's allegations and says OARC's intention all along was to direct most of its funding to the jazz festival in West Oak Lane, home to Evans, who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

It's too bad there won't be a Coltrane festival once again. With the closing of dedicated jazz spots throughout the city, events like these are more important than ever.

Regardless, the Woods say, they're ready to move on. And nobody can take away their Community Jazz Festival, a labor of love that they piece together by selling ads and T-shirts to raise money to pay the musicians.

"We find a way," Rosalind says. Though she's a Harvard-educated lawyer, "we have never really lived [conventionally]," she says. "Our health plan is prayers. Our retirement plan is death. But we have inner peace because we're passionate about what we do."


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read her work: http://go.philly.com/annette.

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