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Ars Nova: From The Margins.

March 26, 2014

MarkChristmanArsNovaOnlineText and image by Ed Newton.

In the early evening, the main dining room of City Tap House is packed with your typical happy hour patrons. Loosened ties, unfastened top buttons and the clean-cut office crowd greet visitors with polite glances and nods as one makes their way into the well-lit bar. Among those inhabiting the bar, Mark Christman waits patiently for his next round of Port Brewing Company beer.

“I can assure you, this is not my scene,” Christman politely jokes.

Carrying his drink, he leads the way to the outside seating area that overlooks a University City street congested with rush hour traffic. Below, a group of circus performers juggle and teach fascinated children on a practice tight rope.

“Believe it or not, I actually hired them,” Christman points out, referring to the jugglers, as he sips from his chilled tulip glass.

Until very recently, Christman, a Drexel University alum, was the acting communications manager for the University City District, a civic program aimed at community revival and development. But for the last 13 years or so, he has also commanded the reigns of his own brainchild, Ars Nova Workshop.

Similar to UCD, Ars Nova is a nonprofit organization based out of West Philly that has a renewal task of its own: promoting jazz and experimental music in contemporary culture.

“[Philadelphia was once] a jazz town that bred these amazing, not only jazz artists, but American artists,” explains Christman. “Over time, popular music changed things. DJ culture has changed things. Disco changed things. Jazz has definitely become a more marginal art form. But I found myself at a youngish age very interested in music that was exploratory. I was interested in the changing American landscape, and a lot of this music embodied those certain progressive directions. It was all very seductive to me.”

Christman began to find opportunities to host concerts in Philadelphia under what he describes as “very DIY-type settings.”

“Maybe this music doesn’t belong in a club,” he recalls thinking. “So I created an environment in which I hoped that mission would be clear.”

Acting as and intermediary between audience and artist, the project has found itself boasting lineups with some of the biggest contemporary names associated with the art form, bringing these names to somewhat unconventional venues around the city, like the Art Alliance, International House and the Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel synagogue in South Philadelphia. Partnering with Hidden City Philadelphia, Ars Nova recently brought its favored styling to many rehabilitated landmarks around the city as a part of the Hidden City Festival. The series coordinated events that combined both organizations’ inventive ideas of contemporary artistry allowing the visual to overlap with performance.

With more than 500 events under its belt, Christman’s vision has been incredibly successful in creating a haven for jazz, experimental and improvisational musicians alike. Over the winter, Christman left the University City District to work on Ars Nova full-time.

“We’ve been able to present the biggest names in jazz and improvised music in the last fifty years,” he says, “everyone from Cecil Taylor to Anthony Braxton.”

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