Inquirer Editorial: City's jazz legacy still underappreciated

A banner being hung on Coltrane's former Strawberry Mansion home last year.
A banner being hung on Coltrane's former Strawberry Mansion home last year. (MATT ROURKE / Associated Press)
Posted: August 01, 2013

Philadelphia has been home to a constellation of jazz greats, including Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie. One of its brightest stars was John Coltrane, the saxophonist who changed the trajectory of the form with his avant-garde experimentations in modal and free jazz. While Coltrane's Strawberry Mansion rowhouse was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1999, Philadelphians have not yet matched the virtuoso's imagination and energy in commemorating and capitalizing on his connection to the city.

Having moved to Philadelphia at the age of 16, Coltrane bought the house when he was 26 and lived there for six years, until 1958. It served as his home longer than any other, as well as that of his mother after his premature death in 1967.

The house, on North 33d Street, stayed in the hands of Coltrane's relatives until 2004, when devoted fan Norman Gadson purchased it with the intention of transforming it into a museum befitting Coltrane's legacy. After Gadson died, his family continued the endeavor, forming a nonprofit organization that raised $50,000 to begin rehabilitating the house. While not yet a museum, the house hosts workshops, performances, and tours. Last month, the organization hosted a small benefit concert a few blocks from the house, drawing a crowd of about 100.

Meanwhile, the city of High Point, N.C., where Coltrane attended high school, is preparing to host next month's third annual John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival, which attracts more than 2,000 visitors a year despite ticket prices starting at $60. High Point's Friends of John Coltrane organization cooperates with civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists to bring in acclaimed performers such as seven-time Grammy winner Al Jarreau. The city government, High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, High Point Museum, Guilford County Board of Commissioners, Downtown Improvement Committee, and some of the city's 100,000 residents all contributed to erecting an 8-foot bronze statue of John Coltrane in downtown High Point.

Philadelphia has not been able to mobilize such a broad Coltrane coalition. The city's chief cultural officer, Gary Steuer, noted last year that Philadelphia's jazz history is "a legacy that has certainly been too often neglected and not celebrated." Nevertheless, the city cannot be expected to provide much funding for such a project in an era of scarce resources. As in High Point, it would take a diverse partnership of cultural and philanthropic organizations to fully reclaim the city's Coltrane legacy.

Philadelphia has seen a recent resurgence in its jazz scene, with events such as this month's Lancaster Avenue Jazz and Arts Festival and, in May, the second annual Center City Jazz Festival. Honoring the legacy of Coltrane could be a giant step forward in reviving the city's rich jazz heritage and boosting its historic and cultural attractions.

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