Almost 45 years to the day since the world lost the saxophone wizardry of John Coltrane, city officials joined Coltrane fans and peers in announcing that Philadelphia — which brims with a rich jazz history — will partake in its second annual National Jazz Month. Mayor Michael Nutter also announced April 13, 2012, as “Jazz Day in Philadelphia.”
It was only fitting that folks gathered and made announcements in front of the John Coltrane House, on North 33rd Street in Strawberry Mansion.
“John Coltrane was inspired by his neighbors, the neighborhood, the city, and the house which influenced his creative genius. The Coltrane House symbolizes his commitment and connection to Philadelphia, where he developed as a young, world-class musician,” Nutter said. “Jazz Day is a perfect opportunity to celebrate the cultural and musical contributions of John Coltrane and our city’s great legacy of jazz artists overall.”
Coltrane exists in the pantheon of jazz greats connected to Philadelphia, including Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Stan Getz, Dizzie Gillespie, Sun Ra, McCoy Tyner, Grover Washington Jr., the Heath Brothers, and many others who found either creative refuge or inspiration in Philadelphia. It has been said that Coltrane drew immense influence from Strawberry Mansion and the greater North Philly community.
Coltrane lived on 33rd Street from 1952 to 1958, owning the residence until 1967. It was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1999.
Drummer Charlie Rice, a longtime associate of Coltrane who played in Coltrane’s band, is widely considered the area’s elder statesman on the genre. At 92, Rice’s eyes gleamed as he recalled Coltrane — the man and the musician.
“When Coltrane heard the guys in Philadelphia, he fired his band and hired us. And we used to do the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit down South, because [the mainstream] didn’t understand jazz at all,” Rice said. “Trane was one of the nicest human beings, ever. I never heard him criticize anyone, and I’ve known him since the beginning.
“He really rose from the bottom straight to the top.”
Rice also mentioned the passing of greats such as Butch Ballard, Percy Heath and others, imploring the current generation of jazz musicians to continue following in the footsteps of the greats.
“Keep in mind that this is a rich element of Philadelphia music,” Rice said. “Just keep it going.”
Events scheduled for Jazz Appreciation Month include a tribute to Lee Morgan on Sunday, April 22 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. There was a performance by trumpeter Dominick Farinacci on Saturday as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Art After 5” series.
The Ars Nova Workshop, a center which promotes jazz and experimental music, will host events all month, including performances by Steve Coleman & Five Elements, the Steve Lehman Trio and Endangered Blood. And on April 28, Montgomery County Community College will host saxophonist Bobby Zankel. All of the events and details are available online at http://creativephl.org/jazz.
The entire project is an initiative of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Along with the announcement of the celebrations, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia has partnered with the John Coltrane House to revitalize Coltrane’s former dwelling and open it up to community-based music programs.
“Even as Coltrane increasingly acquired worldwide fame, critical acclaim and financial prosperity, he never saw himself as outgrowing his first home, his old neighborhood, friends and neighbors,” said Lenora Early, founder and board member of the non-profit John Coltrane House. “John Coltrane always came back home. No matter how avante garde his music or otherworldly his sound at times, the wellspring of Coltrane’s expression was the spiritual and emotional sustenance of the Strawberry Mansion and the larger Philadelphia African-American community.
“So, as we celebrate Coltrane on this Jazz Day and the legacy of jazz in our city, we celebrate the community. Coltrane remained always one of us.”