America’s First Queer Jazz Festival

On September 18-21 Philadelphia is hosting OutBeat: America’s First Queer Jazz Festival.

When you think jazz, do you think queer? Probably not, I know I didn’t. Do we really need a queer jazz festival? When I saw the advertisement for OutBeat my first thought was “really?” Can we do anything with straight people anymore? I feel like there is a queer alternative to almost anything these days and it is exhausting. Our fair city already has the Philadelphia United Jazz Festival and the Center City Jazz Festival. Do we (in the most royal sense) really need our own jazz festival?

I sat with the question for a few days before I wrote this post. I was doing some research trying to locate the Venn diagram of jazz and queer and things were actually looking pretty grim. The music is full of machismo, homophobia, and the inevitable heterosexism. Jazz seems to be an art form that evaded the march toward acceptance of queer people. The answer turned out to be that queer Philly may not need its own jazz festival, but jazz definitely needs some queer Philly.

If that is our charge then let’s queer this thing up. Do you like jazz? Then you should go, I shouldn’t need to sell you on the fact. Philadelphia doesn’t just have an important jazz history, but it is critical to the very history of jazz. Do you not like jazz? Meh, I doubt it. You’ve probably just listened to a lot of crappy elevator jazz over the years. The absolute best way to listen to jazz is live and Outbeat gives everyone in this town ample opportunity to sample.

Some of my picks to see are Drew Paralic, Ben Flint, and the indelible Patricia Barber. She knocked the jazz community on its ass with her recording of Paul Anka’s love song “She’s a Lady” on her Modern Cool album in 1998. Needless to say, girl-to-girl songs had not been well represented to that point.

Have I heard all of the musicians that are going to be playing at Outbeat? Of course not, and that’s what makes a festival like this one spectacular. One of the really great things about jazz is discovery. I cannot wait to listen to some of these folks.

If you are new to jazz, then settle in and be patient. This festival should be a crash course for all of you newbies. Listening to jazz is not easy at first. I love this stuff and there are still plenty of pieces I hear and think “what in the hell is going on here?” So start listening now. A song played twice never quite seems the same. Every time you listen, you’ll find something new to dig into and enjoy.

You are probably thinking that listening to jazz sounds like a chore. Sure, club pop is easy to enjoy. It is candy, and candy is simple, sweet, and easy. Jazz is wine. There is good, there is bad, but if you ever want to appreciate it you need to drink a lot of it.

And let us not end this without discussing the old mistress that is Philadelphia. Jazz and this town go way back. One of the most famous jazz musicians of all time, Dizzy Gillespie, played a jazz altering set at the DownBeat in 1942. This town has hosted some of the most important moments in jazz history, so it should be lost on no one that the first queer jazz festival is happening here.

I ran across this quote by the brilliant jazz singer, Betty Carter. She is quoted as saying “If it wasn’t for hustlers, gangsters and gamblers, there’d be no jazz. Wasn’t middle-class who said ‘Let’s hear Bird tonight.'” There are few quotes that apply to the fight for queer rights so directly. I can almost hear Larry Kramer (or RuPaul) saying “If it wasn’t for drag queens, rioters and sex workers, there’d be no queer. Wasn’t middle-class who said ‘Out of the closets and into the streets.'”

And that’s what I really like about the idea of Outbeat. The ideas of jazz and queer are truly sisters in arms. Neither are conventional, sometimes both make the status quo uncomfortable, and each come from the streets. That is why we need to take great pride in this event.

Is $40 steep for a Sunday afternoon? A little, but you get a lot for the price. You get 8 fantastic musicians and you do your queer civic duty. Supporting our queer brothers and sisters is important, and if Outbeat helps crush homophobia in the jazz community than please take my $40.

Need more information about the OutBeat Festival? Check out these links:

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