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Scenes from the Center City Jazz Festival

Ernest Stuart at Center City Jazz Fest | Photo by John Vettese
Center City Jazz Fest founder Ernest Stuart performs at Time | Photo by John Vettese

The best Philadelphia music festival you haven’t checked out yet, Center City Jazz Festival took over the Sansom Street corridor on Saturday afternoon with 20 performers stationed at five different venues. In terms of bang for your buck, it’s an incredible deal: a $15 ticket lets you bounce from space to space, maximizing the music you take in.

If you know nothing about jazz, it’s a robust introduction to the scene – ultra-modern originals mixed with traditional standards and crossover covers of Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin and Nirvana. If you’re more versed in the jazz world, CCJF shines a light on the variety our community has to offer.
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Talking with Philadelphia native George Burton about his creative evolution and homecoming to Chris’ Jazz Cafe on 5/31

George Burton | photo courtesy of the artist
George Burton | photo courtesy of the artist

George Burton was a classically trained violinist and violist when he began high school, with aspirations to be “the next Pinchas Zukerman.” But he soon made friends with a number of peers who would go on to become jazz notables over the next several years: saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, drummer Johnathan Blake, pianist Orrin Evans.

“They were all into jazz and they were the cool kids, so I started playing jazz,” Burton recalls now. Having also studied piano from an early age at his parents’ behest – his mother was a violin teacher and his father a piano teacher, so he had a resource at home in either case – Burton found himself drawn to the keys in order to accompany his friends. By the time he graduated high school, his focus had shifted entirely. With parents versed in classical music and the church, it was uncharted territory. “Jazz was such a foreign concept in our house,” he says. “I didn’t grow up hearing anything like that; in our house it was either gospel or Stravinsky.”

Burton, now 35, has lived in New York City for the past decade and made a name for himself as a pianist playing alongside jazz greats including Wallace Roney, Donald “Duck” Bailey, Jack Walrath, and Odean Pope, and playing alongside such wide-ranging artists as Meshell Ndegeocello, Tia Fuller, Stacy Dillard, and Patti LaBelle. He’ll return home on Saturday, May 31 to lead his latest quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café. The band will feature his longtime collaborator Tim Warfield, Jr., on saxophone along with bassist Noah Jackson and drummer Corey Rawls.

Unlike those high school friends, however, Burton didn’t make the move to NYC immediately after high school. “I always feel like I’m one of the very few cats from my generation that actually stuck around,” Burton says. “I did most of my learning in Philly. So it’s always a major thing for me to come back and play and see what’s going on around the city and check out the kids who are coming up.”

Burton delayed his pilgrimage in order to attend Temple University, where he originally intended to major in music education. It was another recommendation from his musician parents, who encouraged him to establish a safety net in case the life of a professional musician didn’t quite work out. But trumpeter Terell Stafford, chair of jazz studies at Temple (and now also chair of instrumental studies, bringing both classical and jazz students under his purview) encouraged Burton to pursue jazz full time.

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