Growing up in the Cedar Park section of West Philly, Justin Faulkner spent so much time with his nearby cousins that they felt more like brothers. So it hit particularly hard when one of those cousins fell victim to gun violence, killed just outside West Philadelphia High School when Faulkner was in his early teens. Not long after, another cousin met the same fate, followed by several of Faulkner’s childhood friends.
“That was one of the first experiences with death,” Faulkner recalls. “And it became a recurring thing. And I grew up in the exact same neighborhood as all of these people, but I’ve been blessed to have other opportunities than being out here trying to figure out how to make a dollar on the street.” In part, those blessings came in the form of Faulkner’s loving and supportive parents. But it was music that truly allowed him to escape the traps of drugs and gang violence that plagued his neighborhood. A drum prodigy, Faulkner was playing with veteran bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma by the age of 13, followed by gigs with a host of local names like Orrin Evans, Bootsie Barnes, and Jimmy Heath. He debuted as the new drummer of the Branford Marsalis Quartet on his 18th birthday and has worked with notables from Bobby McFerrin to Terence Blanchard to actor/singer Terrence Howard.
On Sunday, Faulkner hopes to make an example of himself for other young Philadelphians with the first Community Unity Music Festival in Clark Park. “The undertone of this festival is to give children and young people in the area other alternatives,” Faulkner says. “When I’m on stage, I can express my anger about my family members and friends being taken away from me due to absolute nonsense, and I don’t have to go take it out on someone else in a negative way.”
The festival is the brainchild of Faulkner’s mother, Carol Mitchell-Faulkner, who worked closely with her son to produce the day-long event. Justin will take the stage several times over the course of the event, including in the headlining trio led by German-born pianist Jacky Terrasson, winner of the 1993 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, along with bassist Ben Williams, who won the Monk Bass Competition in 2009. Mitchell-Faulkner’s younger son and fellow drum prodigy, 14-year-old Nasir Ebo, will also lead a band during the festival.
“All of the people we have on the roster stand for something that I believe is vital to the community,” says Faulkner, who called on a number of collaborators to fill out the line-up. Three vocalists on the schedule exemplify the festival’s mission. Blues singer Lisa Chavous gave Faulkner important gigs playing the blues, despite his relative inexperience. “I wish more people had that mentality in terms of hiring young musicians,” Faulkner says. “That’s the only way that we can actually learn. Lisa is definitely an advocate for pushing young people to do better in the music world.”
Nobody advocates for the local jazz scene more than Rhenda Fearrington, who when not on stage is close by as the ringleader of the Sistas in the Front. “Not only does she love people, she loves giving,” Faulkner says. “She’s raised two sons who are both incredible human beings, so she definitely understands the struggle to raise young men in today’s society.”
And Barbara Montgomery founded The Farmhouse, a retreat for musicians in Kennett Square which gives artists an opportunity to escape the hectic urban scene and decompress in a more pristine setting. The festival will also feature performances by saxophonist Dahi Divine, a childhood friend of Faulkner’s and a rising star on the New York jazz scene; trombonist and Center City Jazz Festival organizer Ernest Stuart’s group PHL; the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble; and a group of Faulkner’s students from the Clef Club of Jazz.
In addition, the festival’s social mission will be furthered by speakers from the community and by local organizations that will have information booths set up in the park. Faulkner himself will be handing out drum sticks and other accessories to plant the seed of music in audience members’ minds. Faulkner stresses, “I know that if the young people in West Philadelphia had another outlet that would keep them from running up and down the street, hanging with the wrong crowd, it would change their mentality about how they can live their lives and how to create a future for themselves.”
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