By Nick Stropko
As I sat beneath the shade of a tent in Saunder’s Park last Saturday, slowly wilting from the midday heat, I couldn’t help but wonder one thing: why aren’t there more festivals in April? Despite the oppressive temperature (mid-90s and humid for much of the day), people were beginning to trickle in for the 7th Annual Lancaster Avenue Jazz & Arts Festival, a free concert that seeks to coax jazz out from its ivory tower and allow it to mingle with the community for an afternoon.
Kicking off a bit late, the day opened with the Philadelphia Clef Club Youth Jazz Ensemble, a group of jazz students who performed some admirable run-throughs of crowd favorites like “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock and “Superstitious.” Despite some wonky sound in the beginning, they were entertaining, and it was great to see some new blood performing jazz. Following them was Camden’s immensely fun Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble, a 72 member strong group that helps to maintain the culture of traditional African dance, songs, stilt walking, and drumming. Performers of a variety of ages and skill levels danced coordinated routines in rhythm to an impressive array of drummers on-stage. They were seriously good—absolutely one of the surprise highlights of the festival, made all the more impressive by their athleticism in the sticky, heavy heat (did I mention that it was hot???).
[Side note: I accompanied my viewing of the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble with a cold soba noodle salad with fried tofu from Local 215 Food Truck. It was filling, refreshing, and very tasty. I really liked it. You should check them out.]
Looking at the schedule, I was confused about the nature of the next act, Hamin Melvin. Not including set-up times, Melvin was only scheduled for a fifteen minute performance. Puzzled, I waited for a band to jump on stage and set up. Instead, Hamin Melvin was a lone, middle-aged singer who essentially performed karaoke for us. His sense of pitch was questionable at best, and his efforts to rile up the crowd (which included meandering aimlessly around Saunder’s Park while singing—probably not great for the whole pitch thing) were largely fruitless. While I respect his enthusiasm, listening to him tunelessly belt out “Love Train” was cringe-worthy at best. The unfortunately-named Philayva (feat. Carlene Holloway) immediately followed Mr. Melvin; while they were certainly talented instrumentalists, I couldn’t stand their silky-smooth take on jazz. After a couple songs, I decided to retreat to my apartment and revel in the air-conditioning for a bit.
Having cooled off, I returned to the festival and was greeted by Najwa Parkins and the After Hours Trio, a decidedly cool group comprised of the smoky-voiced singer, a guitarist, a bassist, and a sax player. Largely sticking to down-tempo numbers, the young group had a classic, vaguely bossa-nova sound that I found to be refreshing. Keep an eye out for them.
Unfortunately, the talented ensemble was followed by Glenn Bryan with Reference Point & Friends, another group of skilled musicians whose smooth sounds simply did not resonate with me. I decided to once again seek refuge in my apartment, coming back in time to catch the Christian-rap of DeWayne Drummond. He performed a pretty decent, if heavy-handed, religious tune which he followed with an inane poem about hands (spoiler alert: he was talking about God’s hands THE WHOLE TIME) before exiting the stage. I appreciated his brevity. The West Powelton Steppers, however, were an immensely talented drum ensemble that followed Drummond. Like the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble, their showmanship and intricate rhythms were hugely entertaining—while I expected the Steppers to be a throwaway performance, they deftly proved me wrong. Returning to the jazz, Charles Washington performed a solid set of jazz standards.
Finally, headliner Tim Warfield, accompanied by bass, piano, drums, and at times a bass clarinet, took the stage. Fittingly opening with Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Warfield and co. quickly proved themselves master musicians. Playing both standards and original compositions, the band wasn’t terribly showy, but instead displayed a level of collective talent—each musician firmly in step with the next, playing off of one another—that is befitting of their ending timeslot. Each member was able to express personality through their playing (particularly the incredible Warfield), but it was their performance as a unit that I found to be the most satisfying.
Performances aside, as the sun retreated from the sky and my skin stopped feeling as though it was melting, I realized the true value that the Lancaster Avenue Jazz & Arts Festival provides for the community. In the middle of one of Warfield’s solos, I looked around and observed an incredible diversity at Saunder’s Park. Young children were dancing immediately in front of the stage as teenagers and college students looked on from either side. There were large numbers of both young adults and senior citizens. While I expected to be one of the youngest members of an otherwise old crowd (as is usually the case at jazz concerts), a huge array of people came out for a day of free jazz. The fact that this festival was able to expose such a great number of people to jazz—especially those who would not ordinarily listen—made it a resounding success. Coupled with the variety of quality entertainers, the Lancaster Avenue Jazz & Arts Festival made for an excellent way to spend a Saturday.