This is Part 3 of the series: Profiles from the Center City Jazz Festival.
By: Alexander Ariff
I am still reliving memories from April 28, when I attended the first Center City Jazz Festival in Philadelphia, PA. The first two profiles featured Ernest Stuart and Wade Dean. This is the final installation, a feature of saxophonist Victor North
Victor North. A Jazz Anchor.
Victor North grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. He moved to Philadelphia 22 years ago. In the past two decades, North has seen radical changes in the scene. He remembers a different atmosphere in the 80s: sponsors were more present at festivals and concerts, such as the live series Penn’s Landing that included Art Taylor, Milt Jackson, The Brecker Brothers, and Joe Henderson. Victor North was finally able to hear first-class musicians, who until then, only existed on his stereo.
While living in Alaska, North recalls attending a jam session at The Derrick Lounge (as in an oil derrick). The club that has since closed. It was the kind of tavern with walls, faded black from compounding years of cigarette smoke. Back then, Albie Silva commanded the Hammond B-3 organ, while wide-eyed Victor North sat listening, absorbing the sound. His current band, Three Blind Mice is an organ trio.
When North arrived in Philly, he befriended Kyle Koehler who turned him onto such organists as Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, Shirley Scott. “Then a switch went on,” North said he remembered how much he loved when his mother put on Brother Jack McDuff and Sonny Sitt. “Looking back, that is one of my favorite records, so swinging and soulful. It became a language. With organ, there is a way of playing outside, while playing inside, it’s really interesting. A good example is the way Joe Henderson plays with Larry Young’s group on Unity.”
“When you get down to it, organ music just feels so good…it’s great party music,” North confessed, “then, if you can get people’s attention beyond that, they start to really check it out. Organ has that capability.” Could this mentality serve organ music well, but act as a disservice to jazz on the global, festival scale: a festival “claims” an audience with something “accessible,” and while they’ve caught the ears, they slip in sophistication into the bill. I cannot think of a greater example than the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival featuring such acts as Kid Rock and Jimmy Buffett. “That’s been such a big strategy all over the country and even different parts of the world,” North vented. That’s why he is quick to applaud CCJF founder, Ernest Stuart for delieratly not employing such a strategy by booking Earth, Wind and Fire, War, or another popular R&B group. “Jazz music by mostly young, local artists presented in an honest way was enough! I think that was a huge victory for the jazz community in Philadelphia for both the musicians and the listening public who are supportive of fresh, energetic and original jazz music.”
Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s own 2012 West Oak Lane Festival, has been cancelled. CBS Philly reported that The Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC) scrapped the festival “in favor of a new arts and culture series that will promote regional artists and musicians throughout the year.”
Victor North felt empowered by The Center City Jazz Festival. “We can make things happen if we really want to,” he stated poignantly. North has certainly been working steadily, making things happen. He has been playing Sunday brunch (11:30am-3:30pm) at the Nodding Head Brewery for 11-12 years. North has also had two stints of hosting the jam session at Philly premier jazz venue, Chris’s Jazz Café. “So there is work,” he admits, “but a lot of guys are working for the same money that they worked for 30 years ago.” North believes that a presence in the community from sponsors and venues is key to earning trust and representing the scene effectively. One particular venue that has seen ups and downs is Ortlieb’s.
Not only did Ortlieb’s bring incredible talent from NY, it was a training ground for many up and coming musicians. Ortlieb’s also had free parking, and “the legendary Otto,” a man who watched the lot for any mischief. Inside the club, it felt like a “hang” as much as a venue. Victor North credits owner/saxophonist Pete Sonders with nurturing the club’s ambiance since it first opened in 1987. The club sadly closed in 2010, the first summer I spent living in Philadelphia. It is widely admitted among those in the scene, that when Ortlieb’s closed, the “Philly jazz community lost its home base.”
Fear not? Ortlieb’s recently reopened, but will operate as an all-around club, not an exclusively “jazz” outlet. It’s caused a stir. Some musicians are excited, such as Wade Dean, and myself–my group, Sheriff Ariff & The Wali Sanga, will perform at Ortlieb’s on August 11–while musician/writer Bruce Klauber wrote some harsh words in reaction to the designated “jazz” night (Tuesday) featuring Pete Sounders and veteran drummer Micky Rocker.
Chances are, you’ll eventually run into Victor North at Ortlieb’s Lounge. In the meantime, Three Blind Mice perform at The New Barnes Museum in Philadelphia on Friday, July 27. And North performs every Sunday (except for 7/1) at Nodding Head Brewery and Restaurant from 11:30am-3:30pm. North brings in Three Blind Mice on the last Sunday of the month, and you can catch him on Thursday, August 2nd at Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City with Philadelphia pianist/composer Orrin Evans.
Additional reading: David Adler’s terrific recap on the CCJF for NPR. Thank you for reading.