America's First Queer Jazz Festival (Reviewed)

On September 21, 2014 I made it to the last event of OutBeat: America’s First Queer Jazz Festival. The festival had already been up and running for a few days, but this was the final crescendo. It was a 10 hour day full of back-to-back jazz performances at Union Transfer. Full disclosure: The festival gave me a complimentary ticket at a value of $40.

The intention of this festival was fantastic. The organizers created a space where the queer community could celebrate queer jazz musicians. In my last article I wrote “jazz definitely needs some queer Philly.” This was undoubtedly true. I cannot count the number of sincere thanks from the musicians to the audience about being there to perform.

Musicians are always grateful to audiences. There was something incredibly authentic about these performers talking about being out and proud in an art wary to celebrate them. Andrew D’Angelo had a very real conversation on stage between him and an audience member about the gender of his nephew’s significant other who is transitioning. It was a surreal, awkward, and honest moment; very appropriate for a jazz festival.

The festival suffered some problems in its execution. I found myself sneaking a coffee into the dark hall of Union Transfer at the end of the first set, I didn’t have it in me to hit the bar that early. The room was set with 200 chairs and at that time there were approximately 30 people enjoying the music. I sympathized for Mike McGinnis and the Splang-a-lang Trio to take that opening. They played like it was a full club and the audience appreciated it. The crowd work was a little awkward with so few people, so I was nervous about how the rest of the day was going to unfold.

Davis Coss was incredible and I wholeheartedly recommend him. I am so glad I saw him live. He is a great crooner that reminded me of Philadelphia’s own James Darren. He had John Chin on piano, and he was fantastic. I want to see him on his own.

In the last article I recommended Ben Flint to all of you. I must admit that I didn’t care for his performance. I found it to be a little too jazz fusion for my tastes. I missed one folks, sorry about that.

Jennifer Leitham was great. The double bass changed the tone of the festival for a set and I appreciated it. She did some of the best crowd work of all of the musicians. I felt for her at the end of her set, because she was competing with music from a second stage.

There was a second stage set up for local jazz musicians. I did not expect this, and it happened late in the day, but I thought it was a wonderful idea. I listened to one group and they were fantastic and a nice break from the main stage. The problem was volume. Stage 2 was near an opening that did not close and the main stage could hear their music. It was annoying to everyone trying to focus on the main stage performance.

I think the organizers struggled with a few things. The first was attendance. It was low. There were a lot of empty seats, and that is not for lack of publicity. The organizers fought one of the prettiest Sunday’s of the year. Union Transfer seemed like a black hole the entire day. The weather was perfect and the sun was bright outside, but the venue was dark and over air-conditioned. That’s not a knock on Union Transfer, it’s great for a show (Imelda May concert on 9/20 is a formal recommendation), but not for a day time festival.

I know that this is not Montreal’s International Jazz Festival, but one of the great parts of that festival is that it embraces the outdoors. Could Outbeat do that next year? Would Penn’s landing have been a better venue? I don’t know, but I would have liked to have enjoyed the sun.

Overall this was a great festival that the William Way Center hosted for all of us, and shame on all of us who did not support it. I hope that the organizers were not disheartened by the low turnout and are already planning more for next year.

To the organizers: iron out the wrinkles, do what you did this year, and congratulate yourself on making history. To the audience: commit to bringing 2 friends next year. To everyone who thought about going, but didn’t show up: buy a ticket on the first day they go on sale.

Originally posted at: http://phillygaycalendar.com/pages/col.php?id=953

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