Where We Belong: Chris’ Jazz Cafe

With our Isolation Drills series, MAGNET has been checking in with Philadelphia-area musicians to see how and what they’re doing during the pandemic. Now, we’re also shining a light on our beloved local venues, hoping their stages will be saved. Photos by Chris Sikich.

MAGNET: How is Chris’ Jazz Cafe currently holding up?
Mark DeNinno (chef/owner):
We were closed from March to September, when we were permitted to re-open at 25% capacity (about 30 customers). Then we were closed again nine weeks later (November 16) and have not been permitted to reopen to customers since. We are streaming shows live from the venue following strict CDC protocols. Limited number of musicians, staff and engineers with thorough cleaning between shows.

What was the last show featured at Chris’ Jazz Cafe?
We just completed a week of JazzAid to benefit the club. We had hosted GoFundMe campaigns for our staff and for the musicians earlier in 2020. Several of the musicians came back and said they wanted to do something to support the club and make sure we are still here when venues are finally able to re-open. We had more than 60 musicians come play during the week, and all proceeds will go to cover operating costs for Chris’ Jazz Cafe.

What does the future look like for Chris’ Jazz Cafe?
We see livestreaming as a permanent part of our operations moving forward. Shows are limited at this point, but we are opening the space to educators who want to host “master classes” and musicians who are looking for recording/practice/performance space. We are also reaching out to other venues to offer them a platform for their art as well.

How can the public support Chris’ Jazz Cafe right now?
We have several ways people can support us. The GoFundMe is dedicated to our music department. We also have a PayPal for the operating account, as well as a Venmo (@ChrisJazz-Cafe).

Tony Miceli on Chris’ Jazz Cafe and life during the pandemic

My father died, Jenny’s parents died, then COVID hit. Right in the middle of COVID, Jenny kicked me out. And I moved in with Charlie. (Jenny’s name is changed to protect the innocent. She’s fairly innocent here; but passive aggressively, I will mention it takes two to tango.)

Jenny was sweet, beautiful and kind, but it just did not work out. Jenny is clean and organized. Charlie is a pig, the exact opposite of Jenny. I saw Charlie eat food off the floor. Charlie wakes me up in the middle of the night, gets out of bed and goes to pee. She pees for three or four minutes. I just lay there thinking, “How can you have so much pee inside of you?”

The other day, I came out of the shower, stood there naked, looked up and saw Charlie staring at me. I said to her, “Stop it, I’m not sleeping with you. You’re a pig.” Pigs go into heat every three weeks. Charlie is my roommate. Charlie is a female, so technically I’ve gone from woman to woman since I was 27.

The nice thing is that I’m friends with all of these women from my past. They all like me. Jenny is coming around as well. That means I’m a nice guy. You don’t want to live with me, but I’m a nice guy.

My second (X2) makes me all the masks you see me wearing on the videos from Chris’ Jazz Cafe. Thank you X2! X1 has a huge heart and has forgiven me for being a total A-hole. They all have. I think to be in the arts, you have to be a bit selfish. I might have taken that a little too far.

After living in the city for 40 years, in the middle of COVID, I moved into my sister’s basement apartment in a beautiful house in the country. It’s paradise, actually, and living with her and her family above me is incredible. I adore my sister and her family. This is a great place to be. I’m with her and her husband, two children, one pig, two parakeets, two lizards, fish, a rabbit and a dog soon to come (the last one died).

I should also mention I’m an introvert. When we were told to quarantine, every introvert in world quietly said, “Yay.” Also, most of us said, “I don’t have to change anything—I’ve been in quarantine for years now!” My parents punished me by sending me to my room—my room with my stereo and headphones. I would protest the whole way, but quietly I was saying, “Yay.”

I understand all the pain and suffering in the world around COVID, and I wish none of this happened. However, as a result, I have spent the last year practicing hours a day, relearning javascript and CSS and thinking about who I am and who I was. Just no gigs. Or, rather, just a few gigs.

February 2020, I was in Taiwan and I was sick, and I still don’t know if it was COVID. But Taiwan is an amazing place where everyone works together, so I doubt it was COVID, as there were no cases in Taipei while I was there. When I was leaving, a tourist got off the boat with COVID, and things changed a little, but not much. Nobody was sick there, and everybody had a mask on. I was watching all this unfold. I thought, “Wow there’s a chance I’ll be stuck here.”

I made it home, and in a couple of weeks, I watched every gig I had disappear. I was going to France, Prague, Greece and Ireland over the spring and summer. It’s amazing to think that this might have been the first time in the history of our planet that every musician on the planet did not have gigs. Every single one.

Right now, I’m sitting in a room with about five cameras, a bunch of mics, three computers, an iPad, an iPhone and three vibraphones nearby, so quarantine me for another five years if you want! When I want to reach out to the world, I can do it. I’ve been teaching and performing online for 13 years now. When COVID hit, I was prepared to keep hustling, and I did. I teach at University of the Arts, Temple University, Settlement Music School, University of Southern Mississippi and the California Jazz Conservatory. They all went online. That was easy for me to do. I also have a website,  where I virtually hang with about 5,000 vibe players. All great stuff for an introvert. All great for a jazz musician.

Think about Philadelphia without any of these institutions, not to mention the clubs and the theaters. It will be devastating to the arts community if we lose any of them. Yes, UArts and, yes, Temple, but the most important one I would argue is Settlement Music School. If we lose Settlement, that will be a big kick in the Philly arts’ stomach. I don’t think people realize how important Settlement is for young people in Philly. I don’t think people realize the role they play in the arts. I hope they make it, as well as Temple and UArts. All indications say that they will suffer, but they will recover.

What about Chris’ Jazz Cafe? I hope Chris’ makes it, too. If I had to bet, I would bet they come through just fine. Chris’ is our Blue Note or our Village Vanguard. Philadelphia needs Chris’, IMHO.

Chris’ Jazz Cafe is my home and has been since the ’80s. I’ve seen the place change hands a few times now. When Mark DeNinno took it over, as always, I wondered whether it would be a sports bar in six months. A jazz club is not easy to keep afloat. But Mark turned out to be amazing. He’s a chef, he loves food and loves quality and loves music. COVID hit, then restaurants shut their doors and went out of business. Mark changed his business model, bought cameras and audio gear and started streaming concerts. Everyone is streaming concerts, you say? Not like Chris’. I was blown away when I heard this. Al McMahon, who books the room, called me and asked if I would help and play for online tips. I said, “Yes!” Musicians certainly play for money, but we also play for the music. This was an incredible experiment, and I wanted to be part of it.

Sure it’s not as good as playing in front of people right there, but it works to play for people online. You just have to focus harder. You might ask, “But Tony, you’re an introvert and you like to play in front of people?” When introverts perform, there’s a stage between us and you. Perfect!

Keep in mind that for 13 years I have been making friends online, around the world, so I found out that I could get an audience to come and watch the streams and to also donate money for “pay what you can” concerts. My friends and music lovers have turned up in full force to support me, the sound/video crew and the club.

For 85 bucks a year, you can tap into the archive of concerts that Chris’ has streamed so far. I pay for it, as it’s incredible. I’m watching well-produced, great-sounding concerts. I love it. I have my Raspberry Pi hooked up to my TV and sit there listen to some amazing jazz musicians. And I’m a part of it, and I feel really proud to have been there from the beginning.

Art is so important. I imagine lots of people who did not realize that before realize that now. How could we live without novels, poetry, paintings, sculptures, storytelling and, for me especially, music. We can tell our story partly because we have art. The more art the better the society.

So here I am with my band, the Philly 5. The main group being Chris Farr (sax), Joe Anderson (trumpet), Madison Rast (bass) and Byron Landham switching off with Gusten Rudolph on drums. We’ve been playing at Chris’ every Friday for a bit now. I’m so indebted to Chris’, Mark and Maureen DeNinno, Al McMahon and Sean and his sound/video crew. And I can’t forget Mary. Every jazz musician in the city loves Mary.

The music world—well, the whole world—will never be the same again. I’m mainly interested in the music world. Musicians had to get their tech game on, and they did for the most part. I am glad tech is meeting jazz head on. This will be good for us; we will be streaming concerts and doing lessons online. Live music is best, but we all have big-screen TVs and good audio, so why not stream live concerts? I think we have to find more ways to interact with the audience online, and that is happening.

Musicians can thank Zoom for making this happen. They were the first company to take audio seriously. All the others were morons, in my opinion. Filtering background noise and low audio rates without settings to turn off was lame on their parts. This went on for years. I wrote letters to Skype, GoToMeeting and Google Hangouts. They were not interested in fixing the audio. Now they are!

I think jazz musicians will be ready and come out of COVID swinging.