R.I.P. Philly Jazz?

With Chris' Jazz Cafe changing formats, it looks like our local jazz scene could be on life support.

Later this month, Sansom Street’s 27-year-old Chris’ Jazz Cafe will change its name and trade in its longstanding six nights a week of live jazz for whatever gets butts in the seats, whether that happens to be jazz, rock, or comedy.

“The jazz audience just isn’t there,” says Chris’ owner Mark DeNinno, whose club has presented 500-plus shows each year, with two different acts on most nights. “It’s like brussels sprouts,” he suggests. “If people don’t want it, they don’t want it. Doesn’t matter how good you make it.” At one recent performance I attended at Chris’, a 12-piece Philly big band saw just two paid covers. Yes, two. Meanwhile, a weeknight comedy show pulled in a few dozen paid spectators.

And so a city that once boasted dozens of jazz clubs and birthed the careers of such giants of the genre as Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane now has not one single dedicated jazz club. A once truly “cool” form of music seems to have lost its coolness. Even opera has more juice.

The city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy recently organized the Philadelphia Jazz Coalition, a loose association of musicians, promoters and scholars, to try to figure out why the jazz audience has declined so drastically and to reverse the trend. But a number of musicians and promoters with whom I spoke—some of them coalition members—rolled their eyes when I mentioned the effort. “Jazz types are just not that good at getting things done,” said one.

One local jazz musician and producer who’s not convinced the end is upon us is trombonist Ernest Stuart, organizer of last year’s inaugural Center City Jazz Festival, which was by all accounts a huge success. Stuart is planning the second iteration for April, and believes the dwindling audience is largely due to a lack of variety in the jazz presented in the city. In a word, he says, the jazz on offer is boring: “Clearly, musicians are going to have to start thinking outside of the box in terms of booking. But they’re also going to have to think outside of the box in terms of the music they’re making.” After all, how many times can you hear a cover of “Autumn Leaves”?

UPDATE 2/4/13 5 p.m.: Chris’ Jazz Cafe owner Mark DeNinno tells me that the club has decided to retain its name.