In its heyday, the jazz community in Philadelphia was more roaring than the 1920’s, and audiences from around the states and even the world flocked to hit the stages in the City of Brotherly Love. Now, the city’s last standing jazz venue has empty seats, a silent audience, and most of the time, a bare stage.
Chris’ Jazz Cafe located in Center City has been providing Philadelphians with the gift of jazz music for over three decades since its opening in 1989. The institution has held a special place in many music lovers hearts for years and has even seen some greats grace its stage including John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters. Audiences have flocked from all 50 states and 160 countries to see performances at the venue, but now, Chris’ Jazz Cafe is asking for a different type of support.
“The industry as a whole is hurting—the music, venues and the hospitality industry. We look back at this year, and we were open for only 19 weeks in 2020, and that’s really difficult to sustain your business when you’re only open for about a third of the year,” says club owner Mark DeNinno. “They shut down everything in March and that was tough. We had no revenue coming in, so we talked about doing streaming. We decided if this was going to be how it is for the next year or two then we better do streaming correctly. So we put in a full-blown recording studio and streaming platform and we’ve been trying to do at least four shows a week and stream those around the world.”
When the venue started streaming, they landed viewers from about 30 countries in all and Chris’ even began offering their space for a recording studio for any musician using money they received in grants from the city and state. After indoor dining at 25% (which equaled about 30 people in all) was allowed as well, the hotspot was actually bringing in revenue despite the restrictions. However, that all changed with the second wave of shutdowns.
“We were streaming four shows a week at that point and we found out quickly without the revenues coming in from the door, there was no way we would be able to continue to pay guarantees to the musicians. So, for now, we’ve told the musicians that all we can offer is a cut at the virtual door, an open bar and a meal that I would cook for them when they do the show. We also cut promo videos for them, we record for them for future use for their brand and then any original that they play, we capture and we send it to WRTI and NPR,” says DeNinno.
However, even with the originality and creativity, it wasn’t exactly an easy fix.
“That went over like a big, wet balloon because nobody was making any money,” adds DeNinno. “So I finally decided what we’re going to have to do is start a GoFundMe for the artists and the engineers that we could build on and eventually turn around to the artists and have some money that people donated. [We] could offer $150 for people to play a night, so obviously not back to our half a million dollars of music expenses that we used to have, but it’s a way for us to continue music playing in the club and keep the musicians employed.”
With the GoFundMe, the Cafe is hoping to raise $50,000 to help support the musicians who do decide to play for streamed performances, plus some leftover money to help the only left jazz venue in the city stay standing.
“Some musicians have said, ‘Hell no, I’m not playing for that money’—but they are far and few between. The majority of the musicians have said, ‘You know what, we want you to be here when this is all over, we want to have our stage here for us to play,’ because this is one of the only places for them to play in town. So, they all wanted to know what they could do. Some even played for free just to make sure we could get the money to survive. It’s really heartwarming to see the community step up that way and I’ve had people texting me and instant messaging me asking what they can do. That lets us know that we’re going to survive. We didn’t want people to think that the club was going to go under period, we would just have to stop doing music until we could get people back inside.”
Although Chris’ Jazz Cafe did receive some PPP and grants in the beginning of the pandemic, their streamed performances, GoFundMe and new streaming service are truly what is helping them survive. The venue did apply for help through NIVA (the National Independent Venue Association), but they were recently notified that they had to re-apply because the money for help was taking some time and even the association couldn’t keep track of what venues were staying open.
In the meantime, DeNinno is urging Philadelphians to donate and check out their streaming service to lend much needed support and help keep the venue alive so that when we are allowed to come together once more, our time can be filled with live music.
“It’s important to keep the longest-running jazz club in the history of the city alive. The city was full of jazz clubs in its heyday, and we’re pretty much the last man standing in Center City. If we don’t make it, I’m not really sure what’s going to happen to the whole industry of jazz in Philadelphia, whether they would have to go somewhere else like New York or Washington to try and pick up the pieces of their livelihood. You’re talking about artists who have trained their entire lives to get to the point where they’re on a stage like Chris’ which is internationally known all over the world,” says DeNinno. “It has been really depressing, everyday I see all of these boarded-up windows [in Center City] and I could see what was keeping people away. Hopefully, there are brighter days in front of us.”
To find out who will be performing at the streamed services, to donate, and to check out more information on Chris’ Jazz Cafe, visit chrisjazzcafe.com