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Homer Jackson: “Behind Every City, There is a Back Story About the Musicians.”

April 10, 2015

HomerJacksonSmallInterview by Matthew Leister. Image by G.W. Miller III.

The Philadelphia Jazz Project, WRTI, WXPN and NPR’s Jazz Night in America teamed up to bring more than 20 area jazz musicians to the World Cafe Live in March to pay tribute to  three of Philly’s most renowned jazz organists: Charles Earland, Shirley Scott and Jimmy Smith.

The show, “Home Cooking: Philadelphia Jazz Organ Tradition,” was sold out.

The event, however, was recorded and will begin airing online next Wednesday (April 15th) at 9pm ET at The radio version will beginning airing on WRTI April 16th.

We caught up with Homer Jackson, the director of the Philadelphia Jazz Project and the curator of the event, to talk about the show and the state of jazz today.

First of all, as a lover of music, I must ask, what’s your favorite music out today? What new stuff is exciting you?

Because I’ve been working on the Sun Ra Mixtape, I’ve been listening to Sun Ra and Sun Ra related people for the last two months. I’ve been listening to Thundercat and Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces because we’ve been looking at developing a project, hopefully for next year, where we’ll be bringing in some artists to actually celebrate Sun Ra with us and we are interested in all three of those groups.

Where will you be holding this event?

We don’t know just yet. It’s a money thing. If we’re funded for that project then… we’re working with a couple other organizations to do this. So, if it falls into place, we’ll be celebrating Sun Ra with elders and young performers.

Are there any up and coming local jazz acts you have been excited about in Philly?

Oh my God. There’s so many. There are so many people here in Philadelphia, elders and young people.

For instance, we have been doing this series in collaboration with the producer’s guild at the Free Library through a librarian by the name of Adam Feldman and the series is called Mysterious Traveler. It’s an incredible opportunity for us to be able to check out artists who should be known and should be much more popular in the community, but they just haven’t had the kind of exposure that they really are due. Some of those musicians are Nimrod Speaks, Anwar Marshall, Dan Hanrahan, Wayne Smith, Jr., Michael Cemprola, Matthew Clayton, Vince Turnbull, Brian Howell, Jason Fraticelli; these are some amazing, amazing young musicians. These are free concerts at the library, we started in September, and the last one will be coming up on the 9th of April at the library. These young people exemplify and sense of the past merged with what is yet to be the future. So they’re not replaying old music, they’re revisiting old ideas and bringing a contemporary thought to it. So, when elder jazz fans come to see these folks their minds are blown because the music feels based in the tradition but very fresh too. Those are really some talented people and I’ve been very excited about working with them.

We also spent nine months last year working with a group of female vocalists called Diva Nation. They are really some talented folks and they are about to be doing some salons soon and they will be presenting their work. Some of the singers in that group are Ella Gahnt, Barbara Montgomery, Carol Harris, Liz Filantes, Gretchen Elise, and I’m missing someone else but there have been eleven people that have been a part of Diva Nation and it’s been a pleasure working with them and supporting the sense of community amongst female vocalists who work in jazz in Philadelphia. So, that’s just some of what we’ve been working on. We’ve been crazy.

How do you and the Philadelphia Jazz Project find these people?

It’s funny because Philadelphia has a significant population of musicians. Not only just jazz, but in all genres. We have a huge community of musicians, but within that huge community of musicians are these gigantic cliques. So, what’s funny is every music clique thinks that they know everyone that’s playing music. What we find is that it is endless. As many people as we find there are more people that those people than turn us onto. So, we could spend our lifetimes trying to find all of Philadelphia’s music. Every couple weeks a new artist comes out because they just got out of school or somebody just decides they want to play, or sing.

Then there are elders who haven’t been playing or sharing their work in a while and all of a sudden they decide they want to do it again. I just met with a gentleman who’s like 72 years old and he’s an amazing pianist and he comes out of the tradition of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Heath. He works but not as often as he should and he’s not as visible as he should be and he’s part of that architecture of Philadelphia music, sort of part of the ether in the air here but we don’t know him that well. My goal is to help those artists out as well as to help the younger artists to be seen more often.

Yeah, I know what you are talking about. I’m not a musician myself but I’ve always been interested in music and I know a good amount of jazz artists through Temple and there are little cliques. Then the different schools have different cliques among themselves and it sort of mushrooms and then there are the older people. So many different generations of people. It’s really interesting.

It’s huge, it’s huge. I think we don’t understand how big our musical community is.

In 2012, when you started the PJP, what were your initial goals and how did they evolve to what you do today?

It was a challenge in a way. The action of creating the PJP came about as a challenge from a funder, the Wyncote Foundation, to help reinvigorate the jazz music of Philadelphia to make it similar to what it felt like during the 80s. That’s the goal. And that’s a very difficult goal because all the infrastructure that existed in the 80s is, relatively speaking, gone. But there’s as many if not more musicians in the community and the audience is somewhat disconnected because, again, we don’t have the same kind of infrastructure. So it’s really important to rebuild and reignite the audience at the base. And that’s sort of been what has been my, sort of duty and responsibility; to act as a stimulus, an exciter, to get the audience excited about the music and to get musicians excited about what can happen and to think about the kinds of things that they would like to do to make the music more exciting for the audience.

Speaking of the audience, tell me about the Home Cooking show that took place on March 4th at the World Café.

Yes, the Home Cooking project was a byproduct of a couple years of conversation between the Wyncote Foundation, the Philadelphia Jazz Project, WXPN and NPR. The dialog was around the show that was being pitched called Jazz Night in America and I just loved the idea. I thought it was a great idea and in particular what I liked about the concept was that they would travel around the country and put this emphasis on jazz, but not just jazz in New York or LA, but jazz America. Behind every city, there is a back story about the musicians or the theme that emanates from that community.

When we were given our task to develop something for Philadelphia, the first thing I thought about was our organ tradition. Philadelphia has so many back stories in terms of its jazz story, but one of the most popular and one of the most exciting is the organ tradition, which was born in Philadelphia, relatively speaking, with Jimmy Smith. So that was the goal with Home Cooking. To celebrate something that is very home grown and we chose three of the many, many Philadelphia musicians to come out of that tradition to celebrate and that was Jimmy Smith, who’s pretty much the pioneer of the jazz organ tradition, Shirley Scott who was called the “Queen of the Jazz Organ”, and Charles Earland who was also known as the “Mighty Burner” because his music was so hot. So those three people represent three different schools of how to play the jazz organ and they all come from this city and they were all connected to each other.

So we put together a team of all-star Philadelphia musicians some of whom were musicians who played with those three or collaborated with them or were taught by them. We pulled together this team to perform compositions by those artists and other artists who were part of the Philadelphia organ tradition.

How does the PJP encourage meshing between the genres? Do you like to do that; throw in hip-hop or rock or whatever it may be to explore jazz in different ways?

It’s funny because all of these musical styles are all out of the same family. It’s like, you know, at Thanksgiving dinner when the whole family is there.

I do.

That’s what the music is like. (Laughs).

It’s like the whole family is there. Hip-hop, jazz, R&B, doo-wop, gospel, Latin music, rock, they’re all connected. All are connected. When we focus so much on a particular genre we miss out on the music itself. Even jazz. An overemphasis on jazz eliminates or limits what’s possible in terms of where a particular artist may want to go with what they’re working on. To me, it’s like; let’s get to the essence of what this is all about as opposed to being so concerned about rules.

Yeah, I appreciate that as a fan. It’s really fantastic. One of my favorite things is to witness original things that I’ve never heard before and usually the way to do that is to combine all sorts of different things.

Right! Last year we did a show called the Philadelphia Songbook Vol. 1. And the Songbook concerts are designed to take compositions that were either written by Philadelphia musicians or made popular by Philadelphia musicians and filter them through a jazz lens. So we did a mash-up of John Coltrane’s “Africa” with Jill Scott’s “Golden,” and it was sung by the vocalist Bethlehem with a fifteen-piece big band. It was insane! The audience lost their minds. It made so much sense because “Golden” is a chant to me and so is “Africa.” “Africa” creates the bed for the chant to lay on, you know? So, they were sort of meant for each other and we had such a good time doing it and the audience definitely felt that.

Yeah, I heard about that show. I wanted to go and now I’m even more upset.

It was crazy!

Philadelphia, musically, has really been expanding their name brand a little bit. It always has been very diverse but even nowadays, well, you know, Christian McBride is hosting the NPR program Jazz Night in America and The Roots are on The Tonight Show. How has this growth affected the city and your organization specifically?

Well, it’s interesting because the value of Philadelphia musicians worldwide is a check yet to be cashed locally. Like, we have taken advantage of the fruits of our labor as a community. So having Christian McBride, or Will Smith, or Jill Scott, or Archie Shepp, or Jimmy Heath, or Norman Connors, or Rachelle Ferrell, as part of our community has not made us wealthier. It’s kind of crazy! Hall & Oates! As a community we have not reaped that harvest yet and my goal is that we do. That would make us one of the… We’d be an invincible musical city if we harvested the wealth that has come out of this community.

Yeah, it’s crazy to me. What’s a plan you have in place to do that? How does PJP try to do that?

One of the things is that we attempt to celebrate various artists’ work. In the fall, we are going to do a celebration of the work of Ted Curson and Bill Barron who are two musicians who come out of the avant-garde train of thought that John Coltrane, and Jimmy Heath, and Jymie Merritt, and Jimmy Stewart were a part of, yet very few people who of the musicians who were part of the community. There’s an assumption that John Coltrane was sort of by himself, but he was actually part of a community of Philadelphia musicians.

How do we make them more visible? We are hoping to work with Jymie Merritt who is a musician who comes out of the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers during the 1950s and who created one of the earliest jazz collaborative organizations back in the late 50s, early 60s and who was part of the avant-garde as well. But, his music hasn’t been heard in twenty-five years. We’re discussing with him, coming back and bringing his music back with some young musicians working with him. We are also in communication with Archie Shepp and Norman Connors about possibly coming to town.

The goal is… we have a curatorial void that the venues that are most responsible for presenting the music don’t have an understanding of the harvest to be able to reap it. I don’t know if that is because the people aren’t from Philadelphia, but we don’t have enough people who curate who have enough knowledge about the Philadelphia musical story to actually share that with the world. That’s a difficult one to do, other than us doing our part to present different artists and share our knowledge. It’s a tough one.

Especially with so much going on like Sigma Studios being sold recently and, I know he isn’t Philly, but when Clark Terry died earlier this year, I know I was thinking about a lot of the legendary jazz musicians from the heyday, if you will, are starting to disappear one way or another.

That’s right.

With that in mind, how do you keep the genre fresh and new for the youth? To get new fans.

You know, you really hit it on the head there. The thing about youth and new fans. I think there is two ways. One, is that jazz, like sports, a very team oriented thing and probably to the detriment of jazz has been the ascendency of the star. You mention the name Clark Terry, I mention John Coltrane. Both of them were known as masterful musicians but both of them were part of teams or groups who were really instrumental in making them as popular and as powerful as they were. So for John Coltrane there is a McCoy Tyner or Jimmy Garrison or Elvin Jones and so when one of those elders passes away the folks who worked with them are just as valuable. But, our industry doesn’t work that way. You know what I’m saying?!


Like, on an All-Star baseball team like the Yankees, when one of the guys can’t play, somebody else comes up off the bench or one of the other guys moves over into that position and plays that position. And I think that is what happens with the music. The music continues to move forward, but the industry is about selling stars. The music itself keeps moving.

The point about young people that is really critical, is that if we have so many young artists working in jazz, why aren’t they able to engage young people themselves? Most young artists I know do not have a huge youth audience themselves. That’s really critical because at some point the elders are gonna be gone and so who is going to be in the audience? So, I challenge young artists to come up with some strategies and I challenge the curators to come with strategies to help young artists to be able to present their stuff.

For me, part of that is to merge history with contemporary stuff and to also create work around themes that relate to what people can enjoy. We did a show last month for Valentine’s Day called Love Notes, and Love Notes featured four male vocalists. One was a young R&B singer, two jazz singers, and a poet. The theme of the show was based on John Coltrane’s composition “Naima,” which was written to his wife Naima Grubbs who was born in Philadelphia. It’s one of his most popular and famous songs, but it was written to his wife who was critical to helping him overcome his drug addiction right here in Philadelphia on 33rd Street in North Philadelphia. So people were really touched by that story and recognized the relationship they had, this Love Supreme that they had. That was the focus of our Valentine’s Day piece, which was about the focus of the Love Supreme between a man and a woman. Man, we were sold out. It was amazing! It was an amazing night.

So, I think that if we can come up with themes and focuses that touch people then we can move the music forward. But, I don’t think people want to hear about how talented we are. They want to hear what we have to say to them that means something to them.

With Terry’s recent documentary Keep On Keepin’ On and Whiplash, last year was big for jazz in cinema. Even Birdman had a mostly percussive jazz score. Do you think this type of exposure can bring new fans to the genre?

Absolutely! Last year, in September there was the William Way OutBeat Festival, which was the first gay jazz festival in North America. During one of the dialogs they had a community conversation about whether or not jazz musicians know about each other’s sexual relationships and so on and I raised my hand and said that, “It’s interesting that someone would ask that because one of the things about jazz that we have lost in this country and got taken advantage of is the fact that the music is filled with characters; these peculiar characters. Thelonious Monk was a character. Dizzy Gillespie was a character. Sun Ra, Rufus Harley, all of these different people were peculiar kinds of people and that makes great material for plays, for movies, for comic books, and novels and ironically there is no content out there about all of these crazy characters that exist out of the jazz pantheon.

So, I’m really excited when someone wants to do something about jazz. I have a couple projects in my head, these animated pieces that I want to do myself about musicians fictional and/or real. The more we have of that, the greater opportunity we have in terms of convincing people of the value that we have to bring to them.

In what ways can fans, people, get involved in supporting your organization and the artists?

A lot of jazz musicians say support the music, support jazz, and so on. I take another tact. My tact is come out and enjoy something that you like. Experience something; take a chance on something, particularly some of these young musicians that folks haven’t heard. Take a chance on hearing them and exposing yourself to what they do. You might find yourself to be pleasantly surprised by super talented, thoughtful individuals. I’m not one to ask people to support anything; I ask them as a consumer to try this product out. Philadelphia has some amazing young musicians and some phenomenal elder musicians. Come on out and listen to them and the PJP provides you an opportunity to do that fairly, relatively inexpensively and sometimes for free. You can find out something that you like and return to it.

In response to that statement I made, one of the errors, tragedies that the jazz community has done over the last twenty years is to allow the marketplace to sell what is called, “Live Jazz.” You know “Live Jazz” is like “Live Food.”

“Live Jazz” doesn’t tell you anything. So, as opposed to coming to see Tommy Flanagan or Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington we’re selling “Live Jazz.” So a person comes to see someone and don’t know who they actually saw, ‘cause there’s no emphasis on who that person was. You understand what I’m saying?!

I absolutely understand what you’re saying, yeah.

You know, like if you go and see “Live R&B” or “Live Rock” and you don’t realize you just saw Mick Jagger, or you just saw Beyoncé, or you just saw Santana. You have no idea who you saw. You’re just like, “I saw live music. I don’t know what. Yeah, l really like live music.”

I think the jazz community has shot itself in the foot by allowing the marketplace to sell, “Live Jazz.”

You’re right. I never thought of that before but I can totally picture the marquee.

You would never see, “Live Rock.”

No, never.




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