June 23-29, 2005


Neighborhood Watch

HEARTS OF WEST OAK: “We’re trying to get the music scene up front and personal,” says LifeLine’s Graziella D’Amelio (right), with Warren Oree.

Photo By: Michael T. Regan

The West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival puts Philly’s finest on the main stage.

Warren Oree knows how to throw a party. After last year’s inaugural West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival, Oree, artistic director of LifeLine Music Coalition, the festival’s producers, decided to double up for the sequel. The Sun Ra Arkestra, Odean Pope, Dexter Wansel, Charles Fambrough and headliner Roy Ayers, along with 300 other musicians, will pack four outdoor stages over three days, sharing the neighborhood with poets, dancers, art and food, creating “a nice kind of anxiety” for overwhelmed audiences. “The smells, the sounds, the people, the moving about, the crowdedness, that’s a festival,” says Oree. “Words like “love,’ “hero’ and “festival’ are used way too often — they don’t always mean what they’re supposed to mean.”

What the festival means to Jack Kitchen, executive director of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., is a chance to market the community as an “upscale, Afrocentric Main Street.” Kitchen boasts that the first festival was such a success that businesses have continued to prosper as a result of the exposure. “Nobody wanted the festival to end last year,” he claims, which inspired OARC to partner with LifeLine to present jazz and poetry on a year-round basis at venues like the Ogontz Grill and Art Noir.

OARC was founded in 1983 by state Representative Dwight Evans in conjunction with community residents. “Each neighborhood has its own particular ingredients,” says Evans, adding that OARC’s efforts are “trying to build the niche of this community with arts and music and culture.” He hopes that a free trolley from Independence Visitor Center, which will run to the festival throughout the day on Saturday, will showcase the neighborhood not only to Philadelphians, but to out-of-town tourists. “We’re welcoming the world to West Oak Lane.”

“Don’t be afraid — some of the best music and art in the city is in the neighborhoods,” points out Graziella D’Amelio, LifeLine’s executive director. A Bronx native, D’Amelio appreciates the distinct feel of Philly’s neighborhoods and visibly shudders at the mention of the word “gentrification.” “Touristically speaking, people come here for Ben Franklin, pretzels and the Liberty Bell. Enough already! We’re trying to get the music scene up front and personal.”

That scene is LifeLine’s focus in producing the festival. “It’s really about making sure that Philadelphia area musicians are working in their own hometown as much as possible,” Oree says. “And that seems like a challenging and daunting task to some people.”

He should know. Oree has been a staple of the local scene since 1979, as bassist and leader of the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble. He will be performing twice this weekend, with Arpeggio and with Basso Nouveau, a strange combo that teams Oree with three other bassists — Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Gerald Veasley and Tyrone Brown. Oree and D’Amelio formed LifeLine three years ago and are obviously passionate about their partnership, singing each other’s praises at every opportunity. But what really gets them fired up is talking about Philly jazz.

This page could easily be filled with the names of notable jazz musicians who have called Philadelphia home, but Philly still lacks a “jazz town” reputation. “You go to Europe and they treat you so well. Then you come home at the airport and feel like you’re coming from Vietnam,” Oree says. “You’d come to these festivals here in Philly, which is a mecca of talented, innovative musicians, and all the Philadelphia musicians are in the audience. Why am I sitting next to Odean Pope at a concert?”

So when they got the call to produce the first West Oak Lane festival, LifeLine fought the trend to import marquee names. Oree says the strategy met with resistance at first. “We went at it back and forth a little bit and they decided to let us run with it. I think, too, they started seeing what it’s like to bring in a guy who wants $100,000, plus water chilled to 28 degrees. Is it really worth all that when I got a cat living on 71st Avenue can blow the roof off this joint? Let the music draw the people, not the names.”

D’Amelio sees the concept behind the West Oak Lane festival expanding to other neighborhoods. “That’s our dream: a citywide festival, every neighborhood doing something in unison in the entire city of Philadelphia.”

“Marshall Allen may be on your lawn. Roy Ayers might come in to use your bathroom,” Oree jokes, making light of the difficulties inherent in staging a show of that scale outside of Center City. But community is what it’s all about. “This is the cat living next door to you that you see taking out the trash. But this dude is skilled. Or this woman that you think is just sitting on her porch, she can sing and break a glass from 10 feet away. Let’s recognize who we have in our borders and let’s give them the due that they deserve.”

West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival, Fri.-Sun., June 24-26, Ogontz Ave. and 72nd St., westoaklanefestival.com.

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