America’s first LGBT jazz festival, OutBeat, kicks off in Philly this September

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Vocalist and pianist Andy Bey is one of the OutBeat headliners announced today | photo via nprmusic
Vocalist and pianist Andy Bey is one of the OutBeat headliners announced today | photo via nprmusic

“To me, this is a story about the greatest LGBT city in the U.S. and the greatest jazz city in the U.S.,” said Chris Bartlett, director of the William Way Community Center, at City Hall this afternoon. “This is the bringing tighter of those two traditions.”

Bartlett is talking about OutBeat, a just-announced music festival slated to take place in Philly this September, celebrating jazz made by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender performers. Beginning on September 18th and running through September 21st at Union Transfer, the Painted Bride Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art the festival will mix concerts with public discussions and other activities.

Bartlett said the festival will make a strong effort to tie the history of LGBT influence in jazz to work by presently active musicians. “When I listen to Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life,’ I know I’m hearing something powerful about his gay experience,” Bartlett said.

Homer Jackson of the Philadelphia Jazz Project said his group will have a Strayhorn celebration as part of the festival; he is one of OutBeat’s co-curators, along with the William Way center and Ars Nova Workshop.

Jackson drew a parallel between the festival and Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” which he called “one of the greatest jazz compositions of all time.”

“We all know what that song’s about,” said Jackson. “The history of jazz music is not all pretty, it’s not all clean. Midnight is the time that the ‘nice folks’ are at home in bed, unless it’s a Friday or a Saturday. But jazz lives seven days a week, and it’s always lived in a place where all are welcome, all are allowed to celebrate and be themselves. That’s happened in city after city across the United States.”

Mark Christman of Ars Nova Workshop said OutBeat will feature a dozen performers, four of which were announced today. Six time Grammy nominated pianist Fred Hersch will perform with his trio; Blue Note Records artist Patricia Barber and her quartet will also be on the bill, as well as drummer Bill Stewart, who has played with Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, John Scofield and others. Rounding out the initial announcement is an artist Christman called a “living legend,” Andy Bey, cited as John Coltraine’s favorite vocalist. Tickets to the festival go one sale in June.

Bartless said that while LGBT artists were once denigrated in the jazz community, “there’s a new spirit of openness” and the festival’s name was an acknowledgement of that and to their influence, as well as a reminder that there’s still a ways to go.

“Even now, acknowledging LGBT voices seems uncomfortable, different, outside the box,” Christman said. With OutBeat opening the discussion, he hopes that it will come to seem less uncommon.

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