SA5: The Philadelphia Issue

What is the personality of a city? What allows us, acting as citizens or visitors, to relate to it as a separate evolving organism? Even if we’ve never set foot in a given city, we approach it on equal footing—as its own being, equal to and different from us. I’m currently on a plane to Mexico City, a place I’ve never been, and I have already been grappling with my personal preconceptions of it as a city crammed with people, somehow slow and fast at the same time. Yet I’ve traveled enough to anticipate being disabused of these notions when I land. Discovering a city is like meeting someone for the first time, an enthused search for points of mutual consonance and dissonance. Philadelphia is a city I continue to grapple with, though as a 12-year resident of New Jersey it’s well within striking distance. I’ve visited often. I’ve done what those not from Philadelphia are supposed to: consumed a cheesesteak, visited the colonial attractions, mounted the steps of the Museum of Art. I’ve wandered the hardware and electronics stores in North Philly, and come to accept its derision of my New Jersey license plates. But we had no true relationship, Philadelphia and I, and so I undertook this issue of Sound American with the excitement of first exposure to another’s heart and mind. Vijay Iyer recently published an article for the Red Bull Music School connecting the idea of social systems, history, and the physical infrastructure of a city (New York, in his example) with the architecture and process of music, specifically improvisation. It is a fascinating idea that might be applied to Philadelphia: the seeming insularity of its neighborhoods, multiple campus centers, and history of class and racial strife have surely affected the way people make their music. Yet I’ve chosen a different approach. Rather than analyze the specific historic, social and cultural systems of Philadelphia as brought to bear on its creative inhabitants, this issue will focus on the creative inhabitants. The hope is to take information of a cross-section and find the common denominators—the personal and musical qualities that anecdotally rise to the surface when taking each artist at face value and in their own words and sounds. Through the conversations presented in this issue I came to better understand the nature of artistic practice in Philadelphia, while avoiding a form of urban chauvinism that elides the individual even as it attempts to define what makes a city unique. While there are trends amongst these interviewees—musical eclecticism, a certain satisfaction in being left alone to their work, a DIY aesthetic mixed with liberal application of the concept of mutual aid—there is no fixed Philadelphia archetype, but rather a collectively sustained environment within which they create their personal statements. Beyond the nine interviews in this issue, conducted in person or via email, we are pleased to feature two guest writers. Guitarist and composer Chris Forsyth offers a short reminiscence of one of Philadelphia (and America’s) great and difficult forces of nature, Jack Rose. Shaun Brady, writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and many national jazz publications, also offers a piece on the history and state of Philadelphia jazz. As always, this issue has the recurring Five Questions page. It features the issue’s only non-Philadelphian, Porter Records mogul Luke Mosling, who has released some of the finest documents of a forgotten-but-fertile Philly free jazz and free funk scene in the 1970s. He offers titles from his catalog as our incentive for new and existing subscribers to DRAM, for which I thank him. No issue comes without regrets on my part. By the time I’m writing this opening salvo, I am already battling the voices in my head, wishing I had been able to include this piece of music or that composer. The Philadelphia issue is especially sensitive in this respect. Due to the size and scope of the project, there are many facets of the city’s musical culture and history that are not included here, either due to my own inability to grasp its heritage in one three month period, lack of space, or polite refusals of subjects to take part. The most glaring omission, is the complete lack of voices from Philadelphia's African-American community; a community that makes up almost half the population of the city and is THE major source of its cultural milieu. This is a great loss to the conversation, one that I understand and feel, and hope to rectify in a future issue. Sound American Issue 5 was funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. They have been a generous collaborator, allowing me to find my way among the musicians of the city and learn by experience, rather than via a set of guidelines that might have resulted in a discovery process more touristic than artistic. I’m grateful for their sensitivity.