As I sat beneath the shade of a tent in Saunders Park July 20, slowly wilting from the midday heat, I couldn’t help but wonder one thing: Why aren’t there more festivals in April? Despite the oppressive temperature (mid-90s and humid for much of the day), people were beginning to trickle in for the seventh annual Lancaster Avenue Jazz and Arts Festival, a free concert that seeks to coax jazz out from its ivory tower and allow it to mingle with the community for an afternoon.
Kicking off a bit late, the day opened with the Philadelphia Clef Club Youth Jazz Ensemble, a group of jazz students who performed some admirable renditions of crowd favorites like “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock and “Superstitious.” Despite some wonky sound in the beginning, they were entertaining, and it was great to see some new blood performing. Following them was Camden’s immensely fun Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble, a 72-member group that helps to maintain the culture of traditional African dance, songs, stilt walking and drumming. Performers of a variety of ages and skill levels danced coordinated routines in rhythm to an impressive array of drummers onstage. They were seriously good — absolutely one of the surprise highlights of the festival, made all the more impressive by their athleticism in the sticky, heavy heat.
Looking at the schedule, I was confused about the nature of the next act, Hamin Melvin. Not including setup times, Melvin was only scheduled for a 15-minute performance. Puzzled, I waited for a band to jump onstage and set up. Instead, Melvin was a lone middle-aged singer who essentially performed karaoke for us. His sense of pitch was questionable at best, and his efforts to rile up the crowd (which included meandering aimlessly around Saunders Park while singing — probably not great for the whole pitch thing) were largely fruitless. While I respect his enthusiasm, listening to him tunelessly belt out “Love Train” was cringeworthy at best. The unfortunately named Philayva (featuring Carlene Holloway) immediately followed Melvin; while they were certainly talented instrumentalists, I couldn’t stand their silky-smooth take on jazz. After a couple songs, I decided to retreat to my apartment and revel in the air conditioning for a bit.
Having cooled off, I returned to the festival and was greeted by Najwa Parkins and the After-Hours Trio, a decidedly cool group comprised of the smoky-voiced singer, a guitarist, a bassist and a sax player. Largely sticking to down-tempo numbers, the young group had a classic, vaguely bossa nova sound that I found to be extremely refreshing. Keep an eye out for them.
Unfortunately, the talented ensemble was followed by Glenn Bryan with Reference Point and Friends, another group of skilled musicians whose smooth sounds simply did not resonate with me. I decided to once again seek refuge in my apartment, coming back in time to catch the Christian rap of DeWayne Drummond. He performed a pretty decent, if heavy-handed, tune that he followed with an inane poem before exiting the stage. I appreciated his brevity. The West Powelton Steppers, however, were an immensely talented drum ensemble. Like the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble, their showmanship and intricate rhythms were hugely entertaining. I expected the Steppers to be a throwaway performance, but they deftly proved me wrong. Returning to the jazz, Charles Washington performed a tight, solid set.
Finally, headliner Tim Warfield, accompanied by bass, piano, drums, and at times a bass clarinet, took the stage. Fittingly opening with Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Warfield and company quickly proved themselves master musicians. Playing both standards and original compositions, the band wasn’t terribly showy, but all musicians demonstrated superior musicianship during their solos, and the group was always in-sync. Combined with the successful implementation of a bass clarinetist, which added a distinct texture into the mix, I found Warfield’s set to be extremely enjoyable and fitting of his time slot.
It was about halfway through Tim Warfield’s set, as the sun retreated from the sky and my skin stopped feeling as though it was melting, that I realized the true value that the Lancaster Avenue Jazz and Arts Festival provides for the community. In the middle of one of Warfield’s solos, I observed an incredible diversity at Saunders Park. Young children were dancing immediately in front of the stage as teenagers and college students looked on from either side. There were large numbers of both young adults and senior citizens. While I expected to be one of the youngest members of an otherwise old crowd (as is usually the case at jazz concerts), a huge array of people came out for a day of free jazz. The fact that this festival was able to expose such a great number of people to jazz — especially those who would not ordinarily listen — made the event a resounding success. Coupled with the variety of quality entertainers, the Lancaster Avenue Jazz and Arts Festival made for an excellent Saturday.