Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Jamming at the Clef Club in Philadelphia

Just around the corner Ethan Iverson has a post about listening to the late Tootie Heath (jazz drummer) reminisce with his friends at the Clef Club in Philadelphia in 2014:

The unions were segregated. James Reese Europe inaugurated the Clef Club in 1910 for black musicians in New York City, and in 1934 another Clef Club — AKA Local #274 — opened in in Philadelphia. The rolls of Local #274 included John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and the three Heath brothers.

On October 6, 2014, several of the old guard gathered at the Clef Club to share a glass and tell stories. Tootie Heath was the guest of honor, for he hadn’t been around his hometown all that much in recent years. Everyone else there that day didn’t have far to drive.

I was going to make a comment to Iverson’s post, but discovered that you have to be a paid subscriber to make comments. So I’m making my comment here.

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I once played in a jam session sponsored by the Philadelphia Clef Club. It was in the late 1990s. I was living in upstate New York at the time (Troy), but I was commuting to Philly for a consulting gig with Conrail (now CSX). I'd stay in Philly two weeks at a time and then go back home to check the mail and so forth. That left me with a couple of weekends in Philly that I had to fill with something.

I decided I wanted to go to a jam session. The thing is, I'm a morning person, so the idea of a jam session starting at 1 or 3 AM did not appeal to me at all. Looking through some local entertainment weekly I found notice of a Sunday afternoon session sponsored by the Clef Club. I could make that. It was held in a large room above a funeral parlor in northwest Philly.

I got there with a friend (my boss on the consulting gig) and we took a table. As I recall we were the only white people in the room. Food was available from the kitchen, so we bought ourselves some and listened as the jam session got under way. I put too much salt on my greens.

At some point I was asked up to play. I forget the exact logistics of that, maybe I'd put my name on a list when I arrived, I don't remember. But this was the sort of session where a small stable of regulars would play. The rhythm section was professional, but the rest of us were not – though the sociology of music is complex in a way that is not well captured by a simple distinction between professional and amateur. Anyhow I had a grand time on “Song for My Father” and perhaps one other tune before I returned to my seat for the rest of the session.

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