One of Philly’s Best Music Festivals Returns
You can thank a scrappy trombone player.
Back in 2012, Ernest Stuart had an idea — “a bit of a project,” as he calls it. The jazz trombonist, who has blown his horn with everybody from Aretha Franklin to Seal to the Roots (and, full disclosure, with me in my own band), wanted to start a major jazz festival in Philadelphia. After all, Philadelphia has a storied legacy in the musical genre. So why shouldn’t Philly have a credible jazz fest?
The Temple grad didn’t spend months on end trying to figure it out. He just made it happen. That’s the kind of guy he is. And the Center City Jazz Festival was born, with dozens of artists performing at several venues in, obviously, Center City, for the all-day fest. When Stuart was planning his inaugural event, he had no real intention of mounting another one. But that first fest sold out, and reviews were ecstatic. Philly was clearly hungry for what he had to offer. So he did another one, in 2013. And another, in 2014. And so forth and so on.
“It really took on a life of its own,” says Stuart, 39. “And I just felt like I had to do it. Philadelphia jazz musicians weren’t getting enough love, enough opportunities to spotlight their work, which is important work.”
The Center City Jazz Festival survived Stuart tying the knot with a globe-trotting department chair at Mount Sinai. It also survived the birth of their son, now six. But one thing it didn’t, couldn’t survive: the pandemic. “I was in the middle of planning the ninth annual festival for April 2020,” Stuart says, “when … ” Well, you know the rest. But while the fest and the world were on pause, Stuart grabbed a master’s from Columbia University in nonprofit management — particularly handy given that he runs the festival as a nonprofit.
Now, just as venues have emerged from the pandemic, Stuart is ready to do the same with the festival, which returns on April 22nd to Chris’ Jazz Cafe, Time, Franky Bradley’s, Fergie’s, and a fifth venue that hadn’t been confirmed as of press time. All are within walking distance of each other, and one $20 pass gets you into whatever you want to see all day long — a real bargain in these times of ticket-gouging and overpriced fees. Stuart tends not to finalize the lineup until closer to the date, as this festival is more about showing up and discovering than attending because one big name is in town. But early signers-on included bass-thumping Roots pal Anthony Tidd, powerhouse percussionist Chris Beck, and veteran vocalist Jeannie Brooks. They’re all performers with strong Philly ties, which is the case with most folks involved in the festival.
“Every time I’m about to hire an out-of-town musician, I remember all the great musicians we have right in Philly,” Stuart says.
Stuart tells Philly Mag this might actually be the final year for the Center City Jazz Fest. No, not because he’s ready to call it quits or because he now lives in Manhattan. (Best not to challenge him on the latter: “Don’t call me a New Yorker,” he insists. “I’m still a Philadelphian. I’m just visiting New York.”) It’s because he finds the “Center City” designation restrictive; what he envisions for the future, as early as 2024, is more of a citywide jazz festival that reaches into the neighborhoods where the art form has such a rich history.
“The big question is: How do we take the best aspects of a centralized model like what I’ve proven with the Center City Jazz Festival and marry those with the best aspects of a decentralized model, while maintaining a cohesive look and feel to the event?” Stuart says. “So I guess that’s what I’ll be spending the next year trying to figure out.”
For more information on this year’s Center City Jazz Festival — get your tickets before you can’t! — go here.
Published as “Return of the Jazz Fest” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.