Local trombonist with fresh vision creates Center City Jazz Festival

Ernest Stuart at 17, playing his trombone in 2001 as part of the Pennsauken High band. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer
Ernest Stuart at 17, playing his trombone in 2001 as part of the Pennsauken High band. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 24, 2012

Jazz trombonist Ernest Stuart had no idea that his fresh, dynamic project — one that he hoped would help rekindle the jazz scene in Philadelphia — would become the unlikely beneficiary of the demise of another jazz staple.

But that’s what happened. The West Oak Lane Jazz Festival, a popular fixture in Philadelphia for the last eight years, died just as Stuart’s dream for an inaugural Center City Jazz Festival was becoming a reality.

Such is the serendipitous nature of fate. You just have to roll with it, kind of like an improvisational riff.

Which is what Stuart, only 28, did in planning the Center City festival. The one-day jazz extravaganza features 50 artists and begins in four clubs — Chris’ Jazz Cafe, Fergie’s Pub, MilkBoy Philadelphia, and Time Restaurant — across five blocks over 10 hours starting Saturday afternoon.

“I think it’s a great and noble undertaking for a young man of his age to, rather than wait for something to happen, make something happen,” says vocalist Denise King, a Philadelphia mainstay who opens the festival at Chris’ on Saturday. “Jazz is in need of a new way to reach out to new audiences and bring the music to the forefront. Right now it’s on the back burner, simmering.”

Stuart, a native of Pennsauken, calls himself a Philly guy, being a Temple alum and staying in the city after graduation. He did make the serious jazzman’s trek to New York, where he lived for a year. But his heart was always in Philly.

He moved back and watched in distress. Yet another jazz club closed. The musicians he idolized as a kid got sick and died.

Stuart felt compelled to do more.

Creative contribution

The recording of Stuart’s first album, Solitary Walker, released last month, and the comradery that came with creating with other artists inspired him to come up with the idea for the festival.

“It was beautiful to see the musicians [such as Tim Warfield, Orrin Evans, Mike Boone, Leon Jordan Jr., Masami Kuroki and Justin Faulkner] hanging out in the studio, playing music,” Stuart says. “I think that helped push me.”

Still, the prospect of putting together a jazz festival in various venues, modeled after New York’s Winter Jazz Fest, seemed daunting. Stuart had never done anything like this before. Chris’ Jazz Cafe was the only true jazz club left in central Philadelphia. More important, where would the money come from?

Well, leave it to a twenty-something to tap into the possibilities of social media. Stuart started a fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter, the online funding platform for creative projects. Stuart set a goal of raising $16,000 in one month. Talk about pressure. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing operation: If the money goal fell short, Stuart would get nothing.

He wound up raising a little over $17,000.

Surpassed his goal

“It pretty much went down to the last day,” Stuart acknowledges. “The great thing about it was seeing all of the musicians chip in, and jazz fans who put in money and helped spread the word. It turned out to be a great way to promote the festival before it even started.”

Once he secured the funds and settled the logistics, Stuart laid down the guidelines for his fresh vision. He asked artists to refrain from playing standards. Not that he didn’t appreciate them, but “I kind of wanted to buck the trend,” he said. “I wanted younger musicians in their own bands playing their own music. And if they play standards, they should do their own arrangements.”

And no disrespect to the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival, but you won’t find a trace of jazz light at the Center City concerts: no Chaka Khans or Peabo Brysons.

“There’s a time and a place for R&B and we support it, but the hard bop sound has always been associated with Philly and we look forward to showcasing it,” Chris’ general manager Rob Cutler says.

Now that he’s managed to pull off the improbable, Stuart’s hope for the music he loves — “I’m married to my trombone,” the bachelor says — has been restored.

“I don’t think jazz is in trouble,” he says, “when somebody like me can do something like this.”

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.

For more information on the Center City Jazz Festival, go to http://ccjazzfest.com.

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