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Niah’s plans call for expanding the venue to offer every genre of music from Straight Ahead Jazz

to Spoken Word/Hop-Hop, R&B, Latin Jazz to Gospel. Each Friday will provide a different genre.

“Most of these artists will be local and regional initially . . . so we can then bring in the national artists.

 

 

Philly's Clef Club of Jazz Is On The Upswing

By Junious Ricardo Stanton

The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz has a rich history. It was a social club formed during the days of racial apartheid when there were two musicians union locals in Philadelphia; local 77 the white organization and American Federation of Musicians local 274 the black union which was independent of the white local. The black musicians formed a social club in 1966 and secured a building at 13th and Washington Streets where they could gig, socialize and provide a venue where they could earn some extra money to sustain themselves. Over time the original building fell in disrepair and the local needed a new building.

Along with the end of segregation in the mid to late ‘60s, there was also a demise of prominent jazz night clubs and social venues in the city. The musicians continued to meet and play around the city. One of the places they frequently met was the Lee Cultural Center in West Philadelphia which at that time was under the direction of Shuna Ali Niah Jr. Later when the city embarked upon the creation of the Avenue of the Arts cultural district, Dr. Bernard Watson who was head of the William Penn foundation was asked to spearhead the project. Watson who played the saxophone himself decided a jazz venue would be an ideal addition to the myriad cultural facilities planned for South Broad Street. The musicians were contacted and through Watson’s help a brand new building was designed, funded, and erected dedicated to keeping the jazz tradition alive, teaching music, and providing a venue for musicians and artists to perform. The new Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts located at 738 S. Broad Street opened in October of 1995.

Helen Haynes was the first Executive Director. She performed admirably with limited staff and funding. The club subsisted itself via rentals and bookings of shows but lacked a long term funding and support strategy. Over the years, the lack of a steady funding source hurt the organization. Ms Haynes subsequently left the directorship to pursue other interests. In the intervening years The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts has had its ups and downs.

About a year ago Shuna Ali Niah Jr. was brought in to take over the administration of the Clef Club. When Niah arrived he discovered the Club was deeply in debt and still lacked a reliable funding stream and strategy. “When I came in last year I had to do an assessment of the place. Basically the Clef Club is two organizations in one. It’s a presenting organization and an educational organization. We have classes after school, on Saturdays and sometimes even on Sundays. I knew the education program had to continue but it doesn’t pay the bills; in fact, we lose money on the education programs.” Niah stated. 

Niah has an active and effective board of directors. Together they came up with a strategic plan for the Clef Club. “I looked at other venues like Blues Alley in DC, they have top flight entertainment there and they only seat about one hundred and fifty people. I looked at the Blue Note in New York.

They are a little better off since many of the musicians live in New York City. We speeded up renting the place which I am opposed to but we did it just to bring in some money; we were so behind in our bills. We produced some shows that engendered some money like the Jazz Jams.

 We’ve had several other programs. Recently we had the first annual Jazz Awards here. So we have excited the musician community as well as the listening community. We’ve been blessed. We don’t owe anybody anything right now. We are now trying to work the plan that we put together. We have turned the corner and our board is composed of some of the most prominent African-Americans in the city”

Niah’s plans call for expanding the venue to offer every genre of music from Straight Ahead Jazz to Spoken Word/Hop-Hop, R&B, Latin Jazz to Gospel. Each Friday will provide a different genre. “Most of these artists will be local and regional initially, getting enough support and bringing in an audience so we can then bring in the national artists. We’re speaking to WJJZ about smooth Jazz, and WRNB about R&B. WURD has always been a partner with us, they’ve supported our workshops and programs. On Saturdays we’ll have straight ahead jazz and on Sundays we’ll have Gospel. Gospel is the fastest growing segment of the music community. As a matter of fact House of Blues in Atlantic City has a Gospel brunch every Sunday and we are going to do that here.”

“We have one contract with a charter school and we are bringing in fiver others on contract to teach music and the business of music. There is no reason why young people cannot learn about the business side of music. If you learn about technology and you learn about business there is no reason why we cannot control our own future.” Niah knows of what he speaks because he initiated entrepreneurial workshops about the business of music both at the Lee Cultural Center and the Dell East when he was there. Recently he started an entrepreneurial program at the Wakeisha Charter School which he helped start and served as CEO.

Niah has engaged a marketing firm who is working on a new logo for them, creating a branding and marketing campaign that will heighten the awareness of the Clef Club and make the venue a major player in the region for jazz and musical performing arts.

 His long term goal is to make the Clef Club self-sustaining. He has an extensive background as an administrator and grant writer which he is putting to good use in his capacity as the Clef Club’s Executive Director.

He envisions institutionalizing the education component of the Clef Club and expanding its influence beyond the confines of Philadelphia. . “We want to make the Clef Club known regionally and nationally as an incubator of fine musicians. I want everybody to start coming to the Clef Club because it is going to be the hippest place in town.”

Music classes will begin in September. For more information about their classes, programs, workshops and rentals call the Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts at (215) 893-9912 .

Photos above include Shuna Ali Niah Jr. and  Barbara Cottman Jackson a local jazz vocalist performing at the Clef Club during a recent benefit there.

 

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posted 2 September 2008

 

 

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