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Chris’ Jazz Cafe: A Home For Real Jazz Fans.

July 25, 2013

ChrisJazz01Text by Jared Brey. Image by G.W. Miller III.

The casual jazz fan is an endangered specimen. On a scale of “bored by it” to “obsessed with it,” many folks fall on one end of the spectrum or the other, leaving the inhabitants of the sparsely populated middle to wander, often alone, unsatisfied with the bored crowd and unable to hang with the Real Jazz Fans.

That still-sizable crowd interested in jazz but not really committed to it may be the most important demographic.

Chris’ Jazz Café, a restaurant and venue at 1421 Sansom Street, is in many ways well-positioned to cater to that group.

Opened in 1987, Chris’ regularly features Philly’s biggest jazz artists, like Orrin Evans, Pat Martino, Jimmy Bruno and Bootsie Barnes, as well as national and international acts. There are two acts on most nights, six nights per week.

Several times per week, they also host late-night sets or jam sessions with younger musicians. These performances can be hit or miss but they are rarely boring. In a city with two top-notch jazz education programs serving hundreds of students, Chris’ has become a testing ground for new talent. And it has managed to stay open and keep exhibiting jazz while other testing grounds, like Ortlieb’s in Northern Liberties, have closed or drastically changed formats.

At Chris’, the typical patron is greeted immediately upon entry by a host who offers to seat him or her at a table near the stage. On a normal night, the cover charge is $10 for a table or $5 at the bar near the entrance, where it is difficult to see the band. For big name performances, tickets can run up to $30.

The staggered cover charge gives the uncommitted an incentive to pay less upfront and stay at the bar, where it is easier to slip out after a drink or two. If you go all in, you find yourself at a white-cloth table with a server who seems keen on convincing you to order dinner, no matter what time it is.

“Ideal, for our boss, would be people who are here to have a very nice dinner and see a good music act,” says Ron Talton, Chris’ evening manager.

But culinary hunger and musical hunger are not always complementary desires and it’s hard to imagine that a significant portion of people want to experience both at the same time.

Some musicians seem frustrated by this structure. A handful declined to speak frankly on the record about Chris’ but the consensus seems to be they feel it’s unfortunate that people are almost forced to choose fine dining and jazz, as opposed to being able to choose one, the other or both. Despite its flaws, they say, it is one of the only reliable venues in town to book a gig.

“Chris’ has brought a lot of music to the city and has been part of keeping the consciousness of jazz alive here,” says Tom Moon, a saxophonist and former music critic for the Inquirer. “I guess many people in the community, both musicians and people who care about the art form, want to feel like the people who are running the club have some awareness about the art form and how it’s best encountered.”

Talton says that the club’s recent announcement that it would open its doors slightly to non- jazz acts is a way of trying to get different and younger crowds. It’s hard to believe it’s the jazz that’s turning people away.

Even with its flaws, Chris’ is unique in its commitment to still featuring jazz on a nightly basis. It remains the place to go for the truly committed jazz fans.

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