An all star line up takes the stage this Friday at West Philadelphia’s Community Education Center.
West Philadelphia’s Community Education Center (CEC) and its dedication to the accessible, free and avant-garde arts – free jazz, free dance, free theater, free expression – was a thing long before 1997 (they incorporated as a non-profit in 1973). Yet, it is since that time in the 90s that Terri Cousar Shockley (a member of the independent choreographic dance team Urban Bush Women-turned-CEC caretaker and curator), has made it freer. Despite a lack of grant monies, it was Shockley, along with City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who convinced the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, to give the property’s long-held lease over to the CEC in 2017, with a lease burning party to celebrate. It is Shockley, through force of will, who has kept the CEC in fresh and funky rentals. “Though I would love to give artists more money someday soon, what I can offer them is affordable space and collaboration,” said Shockley, pragmatically.
And while Manfred Fishbeck’s Group Motion Dance project, the Blue Grotto Dumpster Diver program, and other teaching workshops are a part of the CEC’s live output, for my money, it has always been its landscape of outre (and mostly local) jazz that has been the live venue’s money shot.
Like Shockley, I can recall events at CEC with Monnette Sudler, Odean Pope, Byard Lancaster and, most ferociously, Sun Ra’s Arkestra when Sun was still alive and leading his astral-inspired processions of many through the large hall. Shockley even enthuses about more recent live jazz events such as Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s Outsiders festival and its celebration of its fifth anniversary that occurred this winter. “Jamaladeen did his first festival with us five years, and I am always happy to hear him play here,” she said. “We had such a great crowd that night. It packed the room to its edges. And it made we want to dance – not social dance, but dancer dance.”
The large room at CEC is conducive to such free behavior on behalf of player and listener alike, and come every “Second Friday” – courtesy Philly booker-curator Leo Gadson and his Producers Guild – free jazz and beyond is the big thing at 3500 Lancaster even when it is in miniature. That’s because, this Friday, July 12, Gadson hosts the CEC’s 5th Annual Mini Jazz Festival starting at 5 p.m. with Webb Thomas & The Super Band, the Dylan Band Quartet, Skip Burney & Movable Feast, Suzzane Burgess & Friends.
Gadson, a Philadelphia trombonist, and composer had produced many a jazz show in town (at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square and St. Mary’s Church on University of Penn’s campus) before making his way to the CEC and its stages on a now-regular basis. “Leo is an artist in his own way, the art of curation,” said Shockley. “He knows exactly what he wants for an evening’s entertainment and how to make that happen.”
Though Gadson’s May showcase at CEC with jazz vocalists Wendy Simon and Ella Gahnt was a hoot, the return of Thomas to the Lancaster Avenue venue is doubly poignant. Drummer Thomas studied with Odean Pope and recorded with Jam Tacuma – both regulars at CEC – as well and doing live and recorded session work with Philly cats such as Uri Caine, Pat Martino, and Jimmy Heath among others. If you’re looking for dynamic recordings that show off Philly’s post-Bop aesthetics at its finest, do some crate digging for his Webb T’s Fleet and its 1998 album, Live at Zanzibar Blue.