As I have told my two kids any number of times, one of the lucky things for me as a parent is that both of them got engrossed in music. Or, to restate it in the negative, not sports.
Of course, dutiful, all-American parent that I am, I gave them their shot at sports. I drove them to soccer games, in which 10 children from each team (sometimes 11 when the goalie forgot to play his position) swarmed around a ball like yellow jackets after the dessert at a late-summer picnic. I walked them across the frozen Princeton University campus at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings to participate in the Dillon Gym youth basketball league. In the course of that endless winter each of my kids managed to make one basket. Just one. Perhaps because they were afraid that this success would lead to another season of basketball, they each insisted that they had not intended to make the basket; they were just trying to pass the ball.
They eschewed sports. They embraced music. Instead of cold gymnasiums and wet soccer fields, the venues became comfortable auditoriums and casual night spots. And the level of performances got better, way better.
And — something that I have not yet shared with my kids — then came another lucky occurrence for me as a parent. Many of the best performances of all turned out to be in Philadelphia. To re-state it in the negative: Not New York.
Nothing against New York, or Newark, for that matter. We had a great time last year watching the Princeton High Studio Band perform at Carnegie Hall. And we were treated to a wonderful concert by the All-State Jazz Band at the NJ Performing Arts Center.
But getting there involved more than a few sour notes: Parking at the train station, fumbling at the token booth and the ticket machine, catching the train, switching to subway or light rail, etc. From home to Carnegie Hall, allow two hours, at least.
Compare it to Philadelphia: Get in the car in downtown Princeton, and head out to Route 1 and I-95. Pretty much no matter when you leave you can count on being in front of the Kimmel Center on Broad Street in an hour (or maybe less). No tolls. At the end of the evening you might have a $15 or $20 parking fee. (It is commutes such as this that give mass transit a bad name.)
My easy ride began when the kids signed up with the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra, which in fact is a Mercer County-based ensemble (founded by Princeton High band director Joe Bongiovi, U.S. 1, February 16) but which has had a series of gigs at Philadelphia night clubs, especially Chris’s Jazz Cafe on Sansom Street, a half a block off Broad Street.
Then my boy Rick, the trumpet player, enrolled at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He and his classmates put on a few performances for family and friends. As good as the Princeton High School band may be, the college scene is a step up. And all just an easy hour away.
My boy Frank, the trombonist, joined Rick in the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra. And then he signed on with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, which brings us to full blown concerts at the 2,500-seat Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center. It’s a spectacular structure, designed by Rafael Vinoly, the architect who also designed Princeton University’s football stadium and Carl Icahn Laboratory.
Thanks to the older brother’s presence at UArts, the younger brother found out about a jazz band sponsored by the college that draws on high school musicians from the New Jersey-Philadelphia area. Frank joined the University of the Arts “All Stars” — yet another reason to make the drive to Center City.
My Philadelphia story hit a high note on Monday of this week. The All Stars were performing at the Terra Building on South Broad, just across from the 1904 Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. My friend Nell Whiting and I drove down, parked next to Chris’s, and stopped by the Union League across the street. It’s an elegant building constructed in 1865, with additions finished in 1910 and 1911.
We were there to eavesdrop on a lecture being presented by Whiting’s friend Mary Lovell (author of the just released 640-page biography, “The Churchills: In Love and War”). We headed up to the Lincoln Room, where Lovell was holding a crowd of 200 or so spellbound with stories of Great Britain’s famous family — if you thought Winston was a larger-than-life character wait until you meet the rest of the Churchills.
En route to the lecture hall I saw a man sitting outside the Union League dining room, probably waiting for a dinner companion. I was amazed at how easily I fell into the role of celebrity gawker: “Excuse me. This may be a case of mistaken identity, but you greatly resemble the conductor of a wonderful orchestra I have heard.” Louis Scaglione, conductor of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, graciously introduced himself.
I explained my relationship to his orchestra’s bass trombonist, and we chatted about the discipline of the classical orchestra compared to the unleashed energy of the jazz ensemble. And we noted that the PYO will perform next on Sunday, June 5, at the Kimmel Center in a program that features music by Berlioz, Sibelius, and Prokofiev. We promised to be there.
But first we had to run across Broad Street, the Avenue of the Arts, to the Terra Building, where the UArts All Stars would entertain us with an eclectic set that ranged from Pat Matheny to McCoy Tyner to Gordon Goodwin.
Most likely the travels will continue. The trumpet player is part of a pop band that may back up an R&B singer who has just released his debut album. And he will probably join the PJO (the jazz group) that usually appears at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The trombonist will head off for a summer program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. And the Princeton High Studio Band will travel to Hawaii for the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in December.
To get the really good stories, journalists are advised, you should follow the money. For now I’m happy just to follow the music.