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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

“John Coltrane Tribute Attests to the Healing Powers of Music"

Kenny Garrett Quintet, Ruth Naomi Floyd Quartet

Right Tyme Players & PACE Youth Band Bless the Stage
Kenny Garrett headlines John Coltrane Tribute 
(Pheralyn Dove Photo)

Music nourishes
my spirit,  feeds my soul, heals
me, and sets me free.

It was the first Sunday. The worshipers danced, shouted, testified, witnessed. Confessions were made. Sins were forgiven. Souls were saved. Bodies were healed and Communion was served. However the elixir the congregation drank was not poured from a vessel, nor was the service held inside.  The pulpit was actually a stage set up right in middle of the 1800 block of Diamond Street in North Philadelphia. Stirring “sermons” emanated from the musicians who blessed the gatherers at the “Jazz Tribute Celebrating the Life of John Coltrane,” held outside of the Historic Episcopal Church of the Advocate.  It was presented on Sunday, September 7, 2014, by "Art Sanctuary" a nonprofit whose mission is to use "the power of Black art to transform individuals, create and build community and foster cultural understanding." The musical celebration featured the Kenny Garrett Quintet, the Ruth Naomi Floyd Quartet, the Right Tyme Players and the PACE Youth Jazz Band from Camden, New Jersey.  Credit goes to  Joey Harrison, the producer who curated the awesome talent for the festival. All the performers preached up a storm on that memorable day.

The festival opened with an immensely heartwarming and highly skilled set by a group of  teenagers who proudly wore “Made in Camden” graphic tee-shirts. The “PACE” acronym stands for “Preparing Artists for College Entrance Youth Band.”   Their collective spirit, combined with their technical prowess, maturity and yes - downright grit – spoke volumes about the efficacy of implementing arts in education as a model for excellence and achievement on platforms that resonate from far beyond the performance stage or art studio. I was especially impressed with the enchanting young woman who doubled on trumpet and vocals. She played along and sang a convincing rendition of Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin’s lilting "Butterfly." It came as no surprise that by the time the PACE band's set was over, an orange, rust, black and gold butterfly actually alighted about a foot away from the stage. The fluttering beauty was the perfect omen to introduce the next act, the Ruth Naomi Floyd Quartet.

The captivating and poised trumpeter doubled on vocals
(Pheralyn Dove Photo)

With their neatly bound charts in tow, the Ruth Naomi Floyd Quartet displayed a caliber of musical scholarship and virtuosity that is all too rare in this day and age. I loved watching the way musical director and pianist Aaron Graves commanded the musicians, while the very capable and confident mezzo soprano projected her deeply profound lyrics upwards toward the fluffy white clouds floating in the cerulean blue sky.

Ruth Naomi Floyd's Set was Spiritual & Ethereal
(Pheralyn Dove Photo)

Mixed in with spirituals and jazz standards, Ms. Floyd featured original tunes she composed about “Responsibility” and “Freedom,” transforming her "pulpit" into a classroom lesson on activism and social consciousness.  “I’m a huge Ruth Naomi Floyd fan. I think her music is so relevant, especially here on Diamond Street. So to have Kenny Garrett and Ruth Naomi Floyd on Diamond Street, it doesn't get much better than that," said J. Michael Harrison - host of “The Bridge” which airs on WRTI-FM. He added, "Congratulations to Art Sanctuary." It was just amazing how Ms. Floyd's vocals were powerful enough to be juxtaposed against the pulsating rhythms of G. Calvin Weston’s drums. Believe me, that cat can really play! I was delighted that he was featured on an extended solo. His energy was totally infectious. Honestly, I felt that Ms. Floyd chose all of her sidemen wisely.

It was a real treat to see and hear Lee Smith holding it down on the bass. Another treat was experiencing a live performance by the multi-talented ethnomusicologist, Dr. William E. Smith. He demonstrated verve and authority as he flawlessly alternated between the tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and hip-hop infused spoken words. In direct contrast to the ethereal loveliness of Ruth Naomi Floyd, the “Right Tyme Players” brought on the funk. And they did so in a major way.  Crowd pleasers for sure, the band – all residents of North Philadelphia -  turned the place upside down. All of a sudden we were at a block party, reminiscent of a bygone era.

The Right Tyme Players brought on the funk
(Pheralyn Dove Photo)

They got everybody up dancing - literally had folks dancing in the street, doing the Cha-Cha and the Bop.  A male vocalist who goes by the name "Show Tyme" fronts the “Right Tyme Players” who also consist of a female vocalist,  alto saxophonist, organist, guitarist, bassist, percussionist and drummer. They saturated popular rhythm and blues songs with their own unique originality. I mean, they just made you feel good all over. After a while, the "Players" slowed down the pace. The female vocalist poured her heart out on Phyllis Hyman's  “Somewhere In My Lifetime.” She did an excellent job of making it all her own.

Dancing in the Street
(Pheralyn Dove Photo)

Closing out the festival was headliner Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, joined by his venerable sidemen - Vernell Brown on piano, Corcoran Holt on bass, McClenty Hunter on drums and Rudy Bird on percussion. Despite having to follow such a tremendous amalgam of locally-based talent, Kenny Garrett -  master saxophonist that he is  -  did not disappoint. Before it was all said and done, his Quintet had the people out of their seats, testifying, singing, dancing, moving and grooving. Yeah baby!  Truly, the Kenny Garrett Quintet was possessed. They were on fire!

Don Gardner, Managing Director of The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & the Performing Arts, said the event was “Beautiful…..just beautiful.” The weather was sunny and hot on that picture perfect day.  Stephanie Renee, (Program Director of 900 AM WURD)  and Cherri Gregg, (Community Affairs Reporter for KYW News Radio) served as MC's.  During her remarks, Art Sanctuary Executive Director Valerie Gay noted that the festival was made possible by the largesse of a generous anonymous donor. Other supporters included the Church of the Advocate, WURD, WRTI and Temple University.

MCs Cherri Gregg & Stef Renee 
(Pheralyn Dove Photo)

Dr. Diane Turner, Curator of the Charles L. Blockson AfroAmerican Collection, which is housed at Temple University, said she was blessed to witness the spectacle. “This music is very spiritual. And whenever there’s an opportunity for people to come together and show unity, especially African Americans, it’s a beautiful thing.” All praises to the Creator. All praises to the Ancestors. This sacred block on Diamond Street was a particularly appropriate venue to host a festival celebrating the musical genius of John Coltrane. During his fertile developmental years, Mr. Coltrane walked these very same streets. He lived a little more than ten blocks away at 33rd and Oxford.  It is worth mentioning that during the latter part of the 20th century, two separate nonprofit organizations were established in North Philadelphia to perpetuate the legacy of John Coltrane. "The John W. Coltrane Cultural Society" was co-founded by Mr. Coltrane's cousin, Mrs. Mary Alexander, who is the subject of the immortal Coltrane composition, "Cousin Mary."  She operated the organization out of the North 33rd Street Coltrane Family Home. "The Trane Stop" was co-founded by the late Mr. Arnold Boyd, who had a long association with Temple University. His office was located on the campus, a few blocks away from the Church of the Advocate. Sadly, both institutions are now defunct, however their good works are remembered by many cultural stalwarts who remain in the Greater Philadelphia area.

Right in the shadows of the performances stood the majestic Church of the Advocate  - where, for many decades - the late Father Paul Washington served at the helm, the place where Father Washington, Sekai' afua Zankel, and a lot of other brave soldiers hosted the Celebration of Life Cultural Festival during the 1980s and 90s.  It’s where the historic first Black Panther Party Conference was convened; it is the repository where the stunning murals occupy the sanctuary’s walls – murals created in the early 1970’s – which are still poignant, still revolutionary and still prophetic to this day. Even though the music was enthralling, I did not forget to step inside the Church to view the artwork, say a silent prayer and pay my respects to the Ancestors. As soon as I walked in, I noticed that magically, Richard Watson, one of the Advocate's famous muralists from back in the day, was there as well – apparently with the same reverent notion in mind.

Picture Perfect Clouds Evoked the Spirits of our Ancestors. Ashe!
(Pheralyn Dove Photo)

I attended the John Coltrane Tribute with my friend, Dr. Debra V. Irvin, who also happens to be my dentist as well as my classmate from Germantown High School. We couldn’t have picked a better opportunity to get together, catch up, shop and mingle amongst the vendors set up in the style of a traditional African marketplace. Indeed, the entire afternoon felt like a reunion, as I greeted a plethora of friends and acquaintances  - many of them representatives of Philadelphia’s vibrant artistic community. One such artist was bassist Warren Oree, the impresario who leads the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble. During one of the breaks he brilliantly summed up the atmosphere:  “This music is medicine!” 

Medicine indeed. The “Jazz Tribute Celebrating the Life of John Coltrane” was definitely a powerful healing force. Not only did it give everyone in attendance a chance to soak up a strong dose of Vitamin D from the beaming sun rays, the experience also inspired yours truly to write this review, share these photos and pen a Haiku:

Music nourishes
my spirit, feeds my soul, heals
me, and sets me free.

Asante Sana. Peace & Blessings Always.

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