Thursday, February 9, 2012

Germantown: LaRose Jazz Club Sunday Sessions Continue Despite Superbowl

Steve Moliene, a busboy at LaRose's Catering and Ballroom, an aspiring sportscaster studying at Community College of Philadelphia and an avid Patriots fan since 1998, just wanted to watch the Super Bowl like the other 111.3 million people who tuned into Sunday's game.

However, as Kelly Clarkson began to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," drummer Robert "Rappin' Rob" Henderson had to ask the busboy to turn down the television he was watched enthusiastically the entire evening near the bar. Nothing was going to stop the bandleader of the club's weekly Sunday Sessions. He was thinking downbeats, not touchdowns.

Turning back to the band in the ballroom, Henderson exclaimed, "They ain't gonna cancel the Super Bowl because of us!"

Henderson has been hosting the weekly jam session at the venue, better known as LaRose Jazz Club, for nearly three years. Henderson has been playing drums in Philadelphia since 1970. After Ortlieb's Jazzhaus shut down in April 2010, he was inspired to find a new location to feed his appetite for improvised jazz.

"Historically, Germantown has been a breeding ground of great musicians," Henderson said.  "We're simply carrying on a tradition of Philadelphia jazz that's been happening for decades and decades." The shows typically feature two experienced musicians to get things started. This week, Henderson recruited bassist Jonathan Michel and pianist Jeff Knoetter.

Dr. Chenet LaRose was Henderson's dentist when he found out that "he had a place that had music." Henderson gained an interest in the club  by going to the Monday night jam sessions hosted by Tony Williams, which have been happening for the last six years at the venue. Henderson had found a the "place where the young cats could come out and play and network and have fun" like they used to do at Ortlieb's.

Henderson pays out of pocket for the band and the use of the venue with the money he earns as an owner of an automobile inspection station and a drummer. He considers both to be his full-time jobs.
Other "early birds" at the venue assist Henderson in the endeavor of running a quality show each week. With the help of jazz promoter, Kim Tucker, and photographer Lester "Les" Hinton, Henderson has developed a forum for learning and networking that JazzTimes writer Suzanne Cloud described as  "an incubator for jazz babies who hunger to learn about playing music for a living."

Tucker, a former professor of music business at Temple University, arrived early with homemade brownies to set at the table where she collects the $5 cover for the band. She has been keeping a log that lists performers, songs, instruments and any other important details about the show. Though she documents the event for her own enjoyment, she shares the information on Facebook as soon as she gets home from the evening performance.  Along with Hinton, who currently works at Temple, their contributions have made each show memorable as a distinctive experience. The team's extensive documentation has kept the event fresh, even when filled familiar faces, ensuring that no set is ever the same. Tucker recalled, "I was calling out songs last week and eventually, Rob yelled, 'no more!'"

Frequent audience members have taken notice to each show's uniqueness. Lola Crooks, a resident of West Oak Lane, said, "I've been attending these shows usually two times a month. I started coming about a year ago. I'm a big jazz fan and what I like the most about the event is the versatility that is brought to the show. It's always different and that keeps it exciting."

Proactive promotion brings a wide variety of performers to the shows. Legendary musicians like Leon Mitchell, who once led the house band at North Philadelphia's Uptown Theater, tenor saxophonist Sir Charles Cunningham and drummer Edward "Eddie" Jones represented previous generations of the city's jazz performers in the audience and in the performance.

Mitchell's wife for 33 years, Ella Gahnt, was one of the first audience members to join the initial trio, singing the popular standard, "It Could Happen To You." The event functioned as a direct way for her to network and to promote future gigs in the city. Gahnt noted that she was booked heavily this month as a result of many "Afro-American history events throughout the city."

Many more audiences members spontaneously joined the show as it progressed, showing off their vocal and instrumental chops in an atmosphere free of the pressures of some of the city's more structured and competitive jazz venues. The welcoming, relaxed spirit of the event has created an environment comfortable enough for anyone to participate. Henderson, as band leader has certainly become a crowd favorite, but he noted that the true success of the event stems from an interactive between participants and an audience he reminds that without them there would be no show.

"We're bringing people from the community together," Henderson said. "It's different than downtown and we allow for a lot easier access as a place to play."

Not only do participants feel welcome to experiment and improve their chops, they feel at home enough to express themselves with a group of people they consider to be like family. Monti Keino dedicated a version of "Autumn Leaves" to her mother, who is currently in the hospital. She explained how her feelings about the event extend to anyone who walks through the door at LaRose, saying, "I don't just share with my people, I share with everybody."

Seventeen-year-old Dustin Hill, who lives in Cheltenham and attends Abington Friends School, said he had only been playing tenor saxophone for a year. Nevertheless, he was able to keep up with the changes in songs he had never played before as bassist Jonathan Michel told him and guitarist Noah Gershwin the root notes to his bass line.

"These guys have like 300 songs memorized," Hill said. "I'm usually learning new songs on the spot but they give you a lot of help along the way."

Henderson has been happy to use the event to continue the jazz tradition of on the spot learning. College and high school performers, like bassist Bruce Ketterer, pianist Karl Reiders, drummers Anthony Chieffo and Ben Singer, received rides from parents, audience members, and public transit from all around the city in pursuit of learning a little more about performing for a live audience.

"I've been fortunate enough as a jazz musician to travel the world with my music. This is my small way of giving back," he continued. "Venues have started to decline. Our success is our consistency. We offer a chance for younger players to learn with seasoned performers. That's what the greats like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington where known best for doing, sharing their knowledge with others."

At the end of the show, Henderson thanked the audience for understanding that "it takes a special kind of person to play jazz music and when they do it, it's great."

Sunday Sessions are held at LaRose Jazz Club at 5531 Germantown Ave. from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m every Sunday.

Correction: At the time of publishing, this essay mistakenly said that Leon Mitchell and Ella Gahnt had been married for over 50 years, they have actually been married for 33 years.