WRTI is celebrating 60 years on the air this year with a special, ongoing 60-part series: Where Music Lives. Each week, explore stories from across the entire WRTI broadcast area of musicians, students, teachers, presenters and others that highlight the profound impact music has in our communities every day.
Once home to jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, Philadelphia still has a committed jazz contingent. WRTI's Susan Lewis talked with Christ Dhimitri and Mark DeNinno, past and present owners of Chris’ Jazz Café, an active jazz club in Center City.
Music lives in South Jersey, where WRTI's Meridee Duddleston finds jazz creating connections in the neighborhood. The “Jazz Bridge" project deepens the region’s rich jazz roots with a series of neighborhood concerts featuring the area’s great jazz musicians. At the same time, the concerts enable the non-profit Jazz Bridge to provide emergency financial support to local jazz musicians in crisis. It’s a win-win.
The concerts, at five sites in the Philadelphia area, tackle an all-too-common problem for jazz musicians and bring live jazz to close to home.
Meridee Duddleston attended a "First Thursday"concert at the Collingswood Senior Community Center to see how it works. The evening featured the distinguished Bob Pollitt Jazz Quartet: Bob Pollitt on saxophone, Henry Miller on drums, Craig Thomas on bass. and Bill Schilling on piano.
Music lives among the flowers at Longwood Gardens in Chester County. As Susan Lewis reports, the performing arts have always had a home at this estate-turned-botanical garden, which spans over a thousand acres with woodlands, meadows, fountains, and, of course … gardens: 20 outside and 20 in its four-acre conservatory.
Music lives at LaRose Jazz Club in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. That's where sax player and local jazz legend Tony Williams has a steady Monday night gig. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston spends time with Tony Williams - now in his 80s - and finds out how this mainstay of the Philadelphia jazz scene keeps it fresh today and pursues his vision for tomorrow.
An educator, musician and mentor, Williams has been part of the jazz scene in Philadelphia and beyond for decades. His passion for jazz comes through as he blows on the saxophone in his Mount Airy home. Williams' humble altruism has also spilled out into the neighborhood. In the late 1970s, he spearheaded the formation of a number of teen jazz bands, including “Pieces of a Dream,” and the “Stenton Diner Teenage Jazz Band,” made up of teenagers from Germantown and Mount Airy. And for over 35 years his Mount Airy Cultural Center has built a bridge to the next generation - through jazz.
Music lives in Lancaster, Pa., at a theater that - over the course of its more than 160 years - has served as a vaudeville venue, a cinema, and today, a stage reserved for musical theater and plays. WRTI’s Jim Cotter takes us to a historic opera house…that has never really housed opera.
Since its opening in 1852, Fulton Opera House in Lancaster County has remained open – making it one of the oldest continuously operating theater buildings in the nation. However, noted local playwright Barry Kornhauser, who also worked at the Fulton for over 30 years, says that despite its name it was never known as a place to hear your favorite arias.
This was called an opera house in those days because theaters still had an iffy reputation. “Opera House” sounded a little more impressive. But it wasn’t strictly opera? It was never really opera at all. That was tradition of the time. People were railing against theater…so they thought, theater owners, that if they called the places opera houses, they could fool some of the people some of the time.
Now the building is better known to most as the Fulton Theater; a company that produces seven full productions and four family shows each season. And despite the theater’s rich history, Managing Director Aaron Young says the company is committed to a contemporary mission.
We’re not a museum. We honor what has been done in the past, but it’s all about, how do we move forward? How do we communicate with an audience now? How do we remain relevant in an era that has a lot of different options for people’s leisure time? We no longer have a monopoly like we did back in the 1800s when the theater was built.
In addition to their stage productions, the Fulton also engages in various community and accessibility programs. Offering outreach to local schools, ASL Interpretation, Open Captioning, Audio Description, and our Assistive Listening devices for the hearing impaired, and their annual Pennsylvania High School theater Festival. More than a century-and-a-half after it began, the Fulton Opera House continues to be a community focal point where theater blossoms and music lives.
Music lives in West Philadelphia, home of Play on Philly, a program modeled after Venezuela’s El Sistema, in which under-served children are taught to play classical music. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, the program is as much about social change as it is about music.
Lewis: Pictures at an Exhibition was the music behind a life-changing moment for trumpet player Stanford Thompson, who was a student at Curtis rehearsing the Mussorgsky work with visiting conductor Simon Rattle:
Thompson: He finally stopped the orchestra and he said, you guys sound like robots. Everything’s perfect, mechanical, in tune. He said, there’s a group of students in Venezuela who could outplay you all any day.
Lewis: After graduating from Curtis, Thompson went to Venezuela to study El Sistema. He returned to Philadelphia, and founded Play on Philly, which he describes as a social program:
Thompson: I think putting kids in an orchestra, having them play with one another, is one of the best ways for them to co-exist in the same space. For them all to have a voice, but not be a jumble of noise. I also think it can build a lot of pride within each child, within their families, and within the community. That’s the main goal of what we do.
Lewis: Music, says Thompson, is an ideal vehicle to teach the kind of responsibility that can change lives:
Thompson: It’s the only art form that I know that you can put 100 – 200 – 300 people in a room with a common goal. Even on a spiritual level, there are things you can’t really express in words, and I think that emotion can come out of these instruments. That’s why I think music is unique.
Lewis: Play on Philly currently has 27 teaching artists, working with 225 students at 2 schools.
Music lives on a leafy street in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood, where a former Philadelphia Orchestra percussionist and longtime teacher continues to share his talents as a musician and craftsman. WRTI’s Susan Lewis visits percussionist Alan Abel:
Lewis: Abel’s basement was long ago transformed into a studio where he teaches current students, and coaches former students for orchestra auditions.
Abel: I bought a five octave marimba to accommodate the students and auditionees. This came in pieces... Now, the timpani, that’s another story...This is an old old xylophone ...that’s an interesting bass drum.. and my bass drum stand, which I invented in the early to mid '60s.
Lewis: Today, orchestras all over the world use Abel’s suspended drum stands – as well as the triangles he began manufacturing 50 years ago. In a backyard workshop, Abel teaches groups of students to create triangle HOOKs – from coat hangers, plastic tubing, and fishing line – that hold the instrument just so.
Abel: I’ll show you what happens when you suspend it...Now I can play faster rhythms...I can also play rolls.
Lewis: Three of the four members of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s current percussion section studied with Abel, including Principal Chris Deviney.
Deviney: Jan, his wife, offered you tea, and then you’d go down into the basement, or we’d call it the dungeon sometimes, and you’d have your lesson, and you felt really kind of like you were an extension of his family.
Lewis: Although he retired as a full time member in 1997, Abel continues to play with The Philadelphia Orchestra when it calls.
The world-renowned harpist Ann Hobson Pilot - a Settlement graduate - talks with Susan Lewis.
More than 100 years ago, a settlement house in the Southwark section of Philadelphia provided services to immigrants, from English lessons to sewing classes. Soon it began offering music lessons, a mission it continues today.
In 1914, Settlement became an independent music school. And in 1917, it moved into what is still its main branch: the Mary Louise Curtis Building at 5th and Queen Streets. On a typical Saturday, the building is alive with the sounds of kids at play - playing music that is:
Kid 1: I take ballet, violin and I go to music workshop.
Kid 2: I play recorder and drums.
Kid 3: I play in a quartet, with piano, cello, violin and viola..
While its conservatory division became the nucleus of the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924, Settlement continued to offer instruction at all musical levels from beginner to pre-professional. Over the years, it has influenced hundreds of people who have gone onto success in various fields. Among them: Twister Chubby Checker, composer Michael Bacon, and the late Star Wars Director Irvin Kershner:
KERSHNER: I consider film as music, because its rhythmic, it has repeats, it has movements..
BACON: So Settlement to me was always a relaxed fun place to be, which is what you want to provide to children with music
CHUBBY CHECKER: Little did I know the things I’d learn there I’d be using in my music career, far beyond my expectations..
Today, in addition to its main building, Settlement has branches in Germantown, the Northeast, Willow Grove, West Philadelphia, and Camden.
Jim Cotter speaks with Berks Opera founder/directors Francine and Tamara Black.
Follow the Schuylkill westwards from Philadelphia - either the river or the expressway will do - and you’ll eventually arrive in Reading, Pa. The state’s fifth-largest city, John Philip Sousa spent his last days here, the Rabbit series by John Updike was set here, and, Reading once lent its name to a now-defunct railway company with a still well-known Philadelphia terminal.
Today, it is best known for its outlet malls, its pagoda, and a wealth of regional cultural organizations including the Reading Symphony Orchestra, the Reading Public Museum, and the increasingly influential Berks Opera Workshop (BOW).
Listen to Jim Cotter's interview with BOW co-founders Francine Black and her daughter Tamara Black.