|Chris' Jazz Café
Philadelphia at night is a passionate city. I can feel it in
the air sometimes, heavy, pulling me in and out of the art houses,
the punk rock hovels, and the bars, covered in culture. Riding
the PATCO high-speed line in from New Jersey takes me through Camden,
over the Delaware River, and straight into the heart of the arts
in Philadelphia. Stepping up and onto the corner of Broad and Locust
Streets on a biting winter night and walking past the Academy of
Music is a feeling I can never forget, no matter how many times
I do it. The culture pulls me in every direction. I walk down Broad
Street past the giant Tower Records store, which, much to my anti-corporate-avant-garde
chagrin, has the best selection of jazz in the city. I turn the
corner at Sansom Street and, through the steam rising from a manhole
cover, see the small, dark red awning announcing Chris’ Jazz
Café. At the door a small 81/2 x 11 sheet of paper reads “$5
for music”. I reach deep into my pocket and pull out a crumpled
bill and I am in.
Chris’ Jazz Café sits on Sansom Street between Broad and 15th in
Center City Philadelphia. It’s easy to walk to right by Chris’, if
it were not for the bebop pumping out, really pouring out, onto the street from
inside. The history of the café is a short, but illustrious one.
According to owner Glen Gerber, the Bill Evans quote “Jazz has got to be
experienced because it's not words, it's feeling”, best describes the ambience
at the café. “We have set the tone for the jazz community
by providing an array of jazz styles 6 nights a week since 1987,” he said.
Over the years musical icons such as Pat Martino, Brad Mehldau, Jimmy Bruno,
Eric Alexander, and Chris Potter have graced the club. Chris’ is a hotbed
of jazz talent that has been validated by a “Best of Philly” award
and Down Beat’s “Top 100 Jazz Clubs in the World” listing. But
the café’s mission is more about being a forum for up and coming
performers than a venue for established celebrities. According to Gerber, a new
era at Chris’ began 1999, which rocketed the club into the jazz spotlight. “By
presenting the very best in local, national, and international talent, Chris’ provides
a venue for jazz fans to explore this uniquely American art form. The club’s
intimate setting allows our guests to be close to the performers and comfortable
throughout the evening,” Gerber said.
And patrons of 1421 Sansom Street are about as close to the performers as you
can get. There is no stage, just a corner where the band sets up on the same
level as club goers. The $5 cover charge (a bit more on some nights, a bit less
on others) lets anyone in to hear the jazz. There is no drink minimum and no
age restriction. On any given night you can see kids from the surrounding colleges
(University of the Arts, Curtis Institute of Music, Art Institute of Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and adults from all over the area. The food
and drinks are also a great incentive. The bar, although comparable price-wise
to other city bars (which means it isn’t cheap), is well stocked and the
drinks are worth the price. Beers range from Budweiser to Stella Artois to Guinness.
Mondays, when most of the open jams occur, Yuengling Lager and Michelob Ultra
Drafts are only $1. The food is also worth the price.
One of the best things about the club is the sound. For such a small, restaurant-style
space, the sound is amazing. No instrument gets lost. And the lowered lights
and dark atmosphere can make for a great date place. You can find a corner and
spend an amazingly romantic evening listening to really good jazz.
After I walk through the doors and hand over my five dollars I walk through
a small room, bar on the left, tables and booths on the right. The band is in
the corner of this front section. I sit back at a table and order a bottomless
cup of coffee. All over the walls are Herman Leonard’s famous prints of
Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and others.
The band has already been through a few tunes. The lineup is one I am
familiar with. I go to college with most of them: Behn Gillece on vibes, Chris
Pastin on drums, Matt Turowski on bass (filling in for Maeve Royce who is in
California performing), and Brian Betz on guitar.
They jump into “Triste”, a powerful bossa nova. Turowski is
grooving hard on this tune. His facial expressions are wrenching as he sings
the rhythm of the part he is playing. As with other performances where I have
seen him, Turowski is as comfortable with a groove heavy walking bass as he is
with an abstract Richard Davis-type part. Turowski really has the versatility
of someone like Dave Holland. Although he doesn’t usually play with them,
he fits in well and brings a great quirky, avant-garde sensibility to the group.
A good example: He likes to quote Bjork songs in his solos.
Pastin’s play on the tune also brings a different sensibility to
the group. He knows all the musicians, has played with them all, and has an amazing
way of adapting to any style. On “Triste” he adds a lot of light
color to the standard bossa beat. Although his training is in jazz he is also
the backbone of a signed progressive punk band named Fell Far Behind. You can
tell by his playing that he pulls influences from every style from jazz to funk
to rock to classical.
Betz, who is a few years older and a bit more established than the rest
of the group, brings a mature sound to the group. His playing is fluid, graceful,
and understated, but through it he occasionally shows flashes of speed and intensity.
He is a very straight-ahead, mature player.
Gillece arrives about an hour late after finishing up a gig in Atlantic
City. Immediately upon Gillece jumping in with the group there is new energy
about them. Without him, the group is still amazing. Every player is on top of
his game. But with Gillece comes a sort of sonic energy and intensity, which,
if you know Gillece, is pretty interesting, because off the bandstand he has
an amazingly funny, almost goofy personality. In between tunes there is usually
a big smile creeping under his froth of fire-red curls, but when a jam starts
Gillece locks in.
Like clockwork, as midnight rolls around, a very nice man from the parking
garage next door comes into the club and walks around, letting people know the
garage is closing. By that time, parking on the street is not a problem and the
garage man saves any unknowing patron from not being able to get his car out.
At around 12:30 a.m., when a lot of people have emptied out of the café and
only the diehards are left, is when the group seems to play its best. It’s
probably because, at that point, after hours of playing and intensity, they get
their second wind and are playing for themselves, because they love it. They
quartet finishes with “Cherokee” at breakneck speed, which, at that
hour of the night, is phenomenal. The energy of the tune brings new life to the
night. It makes me want to continue the night even after the gig is over and
the club is closed.
Live performance and jazz music are inseparable. Without live music, most jazz
musicians would never be recognized. In an era where jazz music is not a priority
to most record labels, live performance is imperative to a musician’s career.
Up and coming musicians rely on gigs to get them better gigs, which may lead
to record deals with the few labels that really foster jazz. And that’s
all for straight-ahead jazz. It’s even tougher for the avant-garde. Ornette
Coleman may not have had the opportunities to record today the way he did in
the 50s and 60s.
Also, jazz is the genre of music most conducive to live performance. Jazz feeds
on spontaneity and nothing reveals a musician’s strengths and weaknesses
like a packed club where the audience is watching your every move. Whether a
musician is comping or taking a solo, live performance keeps the spirit of jazz
alive. Another facet of live performance that can turn a jazz musician into real
player is the jam. No club in Philly has a better jam than Chris’. Every
Monday night the café hosts a jazz jam with a house band, usually led
by Victor North. Musicians from all over Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey,
mostly college musicians, come to sit in and cut heads.
This is extremely important for the younger musicians in the area. Kids from
Temple, University of the Arts, and Rowan University all sit in to see if they
can keep up. Some of the best live music I have seen has come from these jams.
They are a healthy mix of competition and interplay. For the jam to be successful,
each musician has to feed off the others but not overtake them. A good jazz jam
really progresses the music and the musicians. One of the ways to get better
is to play with musicians that are more advanced and in a jam setting young musicians
get the chance to do that. Jams push the limits of jazz. “They have jam
sessions that are great because they give students the opportunity to play in
front of people, which is great and nerve wracking for kids,” Pastin said. “The
café has a good atmosphere. It’s one of the only places that students
can come out and jam.”
This is especially good for the listeners, too. These jams make the best performances
because they are unscheduled and unplanned. They spark the best improvisation
and the freest playing. And that is a delight for every audience member. Jazz
is meant to be free and loose, not rehearsed and mechanical. The only problem
with jams is when someone takes too many choruses and starts showing off. It
inevitably happens and I guess you have to take the good with the bad. But jive
players like that don’t progress anything other than their own egos.
The great thing about Chris’ is that whether you are a young, fledgling
musician or an established artist, your talent will be fostered with the utmost
care. The café welcomes all types of jazz, from avant-garde to straight-ahead
bop. It also welcomes all ages and skill levels. If you love jazz and want to
take your playing to the next level, then Chris’ is the most unpretentious,
accepting place to do that. And if you are not a musician, but a fan of
live jazz, then the café is the best place in Philly to hear both up and
coming college musicians such as vibist Behn Gillece, drummer Chris Pastin, and
dozens of other college performers as well as established artists like guitarist
Jimmy Bruno and vibist Tony Micelli.
Like any club, Chris’ does have its problems, though they are relatively
minor. The place is pretty small and it’s tough to see the band if you
are in the back because there are no risers. Also, since it is a small, low-key
club, it can’t always pay top-dollar for the quality players that come
there. Of course, that tends to be a problem with any small jazz club. The musicians
always deserve to be paid more. And if more people in the mainstream understood
the importance of jazz, maybe the artists would get paid as much as they truly
deserve. But the atmosphere and quality of the jams is what keeps a lot of the
artists coming back.
Around 1 a.m. the band finishes its final tune and starts to pack up. I wander
over and chat with them as they haul out their equipment. Pastin jokes about
the speed of the last tune as Gillece wheels over the cart to pack up his vibes.
He disassembles them carefully so as to not dent the resonators or damage the
The night is young for the twenty-something musicians as they make plans
to meet up at Pastin and Gillece’s apartment to have a few drinks and wind
I walk out of another solid night at Chris’ Jazz Café and
into the cool Philadelphia night air satisfied with the performance and the atmosphere
and the fact that, just across the Delaware River there is place that I can go
to see great live, local jazz.