On a recent morning, the day’s threatening skies put me in mind of the music business mini-career that I enjoyed till not long ago. It was with the Pastorius Park Free Summer Concerts Series, in Philadelphia’s lovely and small townish Chestnut Hill neighborhood. For seven summers, the first two as a general helper and the following five as a co-organizer, I was part of a fine endeavor. My run ended in July 2014 with that summer’s final concert. Bad weather, or the prediction thereof, were among the reasons that I decided to step down. With rain a possibility for many concert evenings, I and another co-organizer often would find ourselves phoning back and forth hours before showtime, agonizing over whether or not to move the music indoors to our rain location, a school auditorium a mile from the park. It usually was a tricky matter. Sometimes we opted for inside and the rains never came. At least twice we stayed at bucolic Pastorius Park and downpours cancelled or prematurely ended the night’s entertainment. My constitution wasn’t strong enough to laugh along with the rain gods. Weather aside, though, the Pastorius Park segment of my life was terrific overall.
In 2008, knowing that I was approaching the end of my 30+ year tenure on the payroll of Pennsylvania government, I was looking around for a part-time activity that involved my main interest. Music. For 40 years I had been quite the music junkie, listening to albums and radio at home for hours on end, taking in shows at a wide variety of venues in the Philadelphia area and beyond. It had recently dawned on me that the next phase of my life might be pretty awesome if I could become more than an audience member by getting inside the music scene But how would it be possible to find entry? I knew nobody in the biz and had never worked in music in any capacity whatsoever. Plus, I was not too far away from Medicare age. I figured that my chances weren’t overly bright. And then, to my delight and astonishment, a door opened.
Now, the music venture I became involved with wasn’t exactly Columbia Records or Live Nation Entertainment. The Pastorius Park series is low key and homey, which was fine with me. It runs under the gentle aegis of Chestnut Hill Community Association, an agency that aims for its community’s betterment. Volunteers are central to the series because the modest Pastorius budget has room for payments to musicians and audio crew, but not much more. As first a helper and later an organizer, I fell into the unpaid pool. That was fine with me too. I was more than happy just to be part of the process.
I went to my first Pastorius Park concert in summer 2007. On stage was Scythian, a rocking Celtic group that drove the crowd wild. This was before the notion of working in the music biz had crossed my mind. The next year, though, trying to figure out where my musical dreams possibly might come partially true, I dialed Chestnut Hill Community Association and was put in touch with one of the Pastorius Park organizers, Janine. She welcomed my offer to help. Next thing I knew I was at a planning meeting for 2008’s season. And a few months after that I was at the concerts themselves, setting up tables and chairs, helping to unload and load audio equipment, collecting concert donations from the audiences during intermissions. My energy seemed to swell on concert dates. I was having a wonderful time. The door had opened.
The door opened even more in early 2010 when one of the organizers, the fellow who scheduled and booked the acts, no longer had the time to continue his duties. He and Janine asked me to replace him. Me? Book acts? Negotiate contracts? Those for me were uncharted waters. Gulp, gulp. I said OK, I’ll do my best. And I was on my way. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my new position was close to being my dream job. There I was, a music lover given the keys from out of the blue to curate a small but well-regarded music series.
I had fun working with my organizing partners, Janine for the first two years and Julie for the next three, and with the other volunteers. I enjoyed chatting with the musicians before and after the shows. And I had a major blast scheduling each summer’s string of seven Wednesday evening concerts. In 2010 I reached past the Philadelphia area to hire two acts from afar, including, incredibly, Graham Parker. His solo show packed the park maybe tighter than ever before or since. But for the next four years I decided to stick entirely with artists from the Philadelphia region’s highly fertile musical ground. I liked the idea of supporting its progeny.
If I hadn’t known it before, one thing became very apparent to me during my days as an organizer. To wit, there are an astonishing number of excellent musical acts based in the Greater Philadelphia area, and many of the little-known local performers are as good or better than many who make big noise in the mass marketplace. Success is a matter of luck, timing, backing, perseverance, who knows what. A few of the Philadelphia region’s performers whom I booked for Pastorius Park had found some degree of national and worldwide acclaim, folks such as singer-songwriters Jeffrey Gaines and Mutlu, and Celtic music greats RUNA. But the rest were talented bands on the lower rungs of success’s ladder. Some of them put on performances as enchanting as you’d ever hope to see.
For instance: I’ve never been to a show like the one in 2011 involving Cheers Elephant, a pop psychedelic rock outfit with loud guitars and a free-as-a-bird and charismatic lead singer, Derek Krzywicki. Cheers Elephant’s music was magic to the ears of many youngsters who had come to the park with their parents. During the band’s second set, played under darkening skies, many kids aged five to 15 left the grassy seating areas and, seemingly magnetized by Elephant’s electric energy, made their way to, indeed onto the stage, which sat beneath a grove of tall trees. Bouncing and shimmying to the band’s powerful and catchy beats, they covered the stage, pushed the musicians onward and upward, in fact had the musicians mesmerized. The scene was surreal and transfixing.
And in 2014, Venissa Santi brought her Cuban-flavored jazz esthetic to the park. I’d hired Venissa once before for Pastorius Park, and had also seen her perform at another concert series. Last year, though, she and her band rose to a level I hadn’t known was in their command. Early in Santi’s first set my mind was captured. The music was complex yet malleable, expanding and contracting like strong bands of rubber. Venissa’s intimate and pitch-perfect vocals intertwined with the chordal onrushes of Tom Lawton’s piano, the now-I’m-here-now-I’m-there notes from Madison Rast’s bass, and the melodic assymetrical patterns of Francois Zayas’s drums. This, I thought, was music parallel to that of Miles Davis’s famed 1960s quintet. Was I imagining things? I don’t think so. Did others in the audience hear the music as I did? I can’t say for certain. But judging from their tremendous applause I’d guess yes.
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I have such admiration for you making the call and pursuing your dream of being involved with music and then enjoying it as much as you thought you would. It sounds like a wonderful job, paid or not, for someone who appreciates music the way you obviously do. Your story should motivate all of us who, as we age, think, “‘I’d like to do that.” Then, years later, think “I wish I’d done that.”
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Janet, thanks for the kind words.
I enjoyed reading this. I enjoy reading through the archives, seeing your style and audience grow. I wonder sometimes what happens to acts like Cheers Elephant? Do they ever break out of their narrow ambit of influence? Do they keep on performing in small venues? Where do they go to die?
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The music biz is very tough. Cheers Elephant was pretty popular in my area. But they never made any meaningful money. I think that the band members had day jobs. I know that the lead singer left the group a few years ago. Not sure what the other guys are doing.
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