Meet the musicians struggling to keep North Philadelphia’s jazz scene alive.
It was odd that Henry Tirfe, a saxophone-wielding house bandleader, listed Art Blakey, the prolific, Pittsburgh-based jazz drummer who led The Jazz Messengers for 35 years, as one of his main influences.
”I mean, Art Blakey was very intense,” says Tirfe, “even with the soft songs, you know?”
And when it came time for the 24-year-old West Philadelphia native to solo, it was like a runner sprinting off the starting line: harmonies jumped off his tenor saxophone as the artist made his presence known in the dimly-lit SOUTH jazz kitchen, an unassuming southern-style jazz restaurant at the corner of North Broad and Mount Vernon streets.
Tirfe is a rare combination of young cat and established presence in the Philadelphia jazz scene. He’s played with The Roots, recorded with Wyclef Jean, and performed at Made in America. Now he runs weekly jam sessions at SOUTH. He remembers only a few years ago, when he sat in the audience during those jams, hoping to make a name for himself as a freshman studying music education and jazz at the University of the Arts. Tirfe says he understands what it’s like to be an up-and-coming — or completely unknown — artist in the scene.
“We’ve all been young,” says Tirfe. “We’ve all been eager to make ourselves heard.”
Having opened in 2016, SOUTH is not yet a part of North Philadelphia’s jazz history. Only six blocks north of City Hall, some wouldn’t even call it part of North Philadelphia. But as one of only two well-known venues to regularly offer jazz between Spring Garden and Roosevelt Boulevard, it’s one of the few connections North Philadelphia has left to its former vibrant jazz scene. The other is Heritage, in Northern Liberties.
SOUTH is about a 15-minute walk from Cecil B. Moore. Robert and Ben Bynum, Jr., an influential pair of Philadelphia restaurateurs, opened the restaurant blocks away from where the brothers grew up, says Harry Hayman, one of SOUTH’s managers. The two brothers are second-generation North Philadelphia club owners. Their father, Benjamin Bynum Sr., founded the legendary Cadillac Club on Broad Street and Erie Avenue, which hosted legends like Aretha Franklin and George Benson. Billy Paul recorded his first album at the Cadillac. The Bynum brothers worked there alongside their father while growing up, then opened Zanzibar Blue, their first club, in South Philadelphia in 1990.
Zanzibar was the city’s best-known jazz venue for two decades. Zanzibar first opened on 11th and Spruce streets, then moved to the Bellevue Philadelphia, the historic building in the city’s theatre district, on Broad and Walnut streets. Christ Dhimitri, who opened Chris’ Jazz Bar right around the corner on Sansom in 1989, says the Bynum brothers helped to expand the jazz audience in Philadelphia by moving Zanzibar to the Bellevue. “When the Bynums started at 11th Street, it was sort of a dark, smoke-filled room, which is exactly what I created at Chris’,” he says. “When they opened Zanzibar on Broad Street, it became a much different venue. They took jazz out of the cellar, so to speak, and put it up front.”
Decades ago, Columbia Ave., since renamed Cecil B. Moore Ave. after the Civil Rights icon, was the premier location for up-and-coming jazz artists in Philadelphia, including John Coltrane. Four or five clubs on the Avenue ran shows every night and others in North Philly attracted legends of their own in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. But Coltrane moved to New York in 1958 and the neighborhood underwent drastic changes after race riots in 1964, which many businesses in the area never recovered from. Beech Community Services hosts an annual jazz festival late in the summer on the Avenue to commemorate the area’s history.
Robert Bynum told Michael Kline of the Inquirer last year that he and his brother felt a responsibility to make their restaurant a place where the African American community feels comfortable. Zanzibar had been billed as one of the few places where black and white people sat together, Robert Bynum said, and he was fortunate to have a diverse clientele.
When Zanzabar closed in 2007, Hayman and the Bynums considered the Divine Lorraine hotel on Broad near Fairmount as the next location for a restaurant. On a trip to look at the Lorraine, they took a detour to check out SOUTH’s current location and loved the space, not necessarily knowing what they would do with it. “It does not have the same feel and flair as Zanzibar Blue,” Hayman says. “So we adapted a little bit, created more of a casual concept, adopted new southern cuisine, but still presented jazz.”
Hayman began working at Zanzibar as a bartender to make extra money on the weekends while attending graduate school. He’s not from Philadelphia and had no real interest in jazz until he began hearing the music at Zanzibar, which welcomed Harry Connick Jr. and Ahmad Jamal amongst its bookings. Hayman now books talent for SOUTH, which isn’t the easiest of tasks, considering audiences’ changing tastes in music and jazz’s decline as a popular club sound.
“The modern palette wants more bass and more beats per minute,” Hayman says. “I’ve heard that younger people are into classical and straight-ahead jazz, but I haven’t seen it in practice.”
His booking decisions are not always made based on what sound is most popular. Instead, SOUTH reflects a wide array of talent from different genres of jazz. Wednesdays feature New Orleans styles, Thursdays are smooth jazz, the weekends see more popular artists, like saxophonist Braxton Cook and trumpeter Marquis Hill headlining, Sunday is reserved for local artists and Tuesdays are jam sessions, an opportunity for young musicians to play alongside a house band, which features a rotation of local musicians. As is customary in most jazz clubs, young performers can come out to SOUTH on jam nights and sign up to play one or two songs with the house band.
That’s where Tirfe was, wearing the brown felt pork pie hat he’s often pictured in, paired with a denim jacket. He has one consistent partner in the weekly jam session, Chelsea Reed, a jazz vocals studies artist-in-residence at Boyer College’s Center for the Performing and Cinematic Arts at Temple. His bassist, drummer, and pianist change from week to week.
Reed, whose great vocal range beckoned applause from a small but captivated audience, says the jam not only attracts traditional jazz musicians, but also soul singers and the occasional rapper. “There’s also a lot of older and younger generations coming out to play with each other,” she says. “We have people who maybe come here once every two months and then people who come here every single week.”
Stephan Burse, a vocalist who can hit a deep tenor to a bright mezzo on stage, is one of those stalwarts of the jazz jam. A drug, alcohol, and mental health counselor by day, Burse has been coming to the jam for over two years now, and says that while Philadelphia has a strong jazz undercurrent, more young people should get involved in the music.
Brenyce Mills-DeVaughn came out to sing at the jam one Tuesday, but says she got stage fright. It was only her second time seeing jazz at SOUTH, but she’s been interested in the music, particularly smooth jazz, for all of her life.
“It speaks to your soul,” she says. “It’s how you get involved in it that makes it different…You can kind of sit and, as they used to say, ‘dig it.’”