Featured image shows Thomas Camarda (center left) and Charlie Barlett (center right) (Eric Blitz)
On a typical Wednesday night, one probably wouldn’t expect too many people in Vesper. However, this was not a typical evening at the center city dining club. Tonight featured Philadelphia’s most exciting new music series, Jazz It Up Philly, a monthly residency that features Jazz artists and musicians from the Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware area.
The evening’s show starred Drew Nugent and the Midnight Society who, along with being a strong supporter of the organization, was celebrating the release of his newest record, Hot Sassy and Sweet, through Jazz It Up’s new record label. Despite being a new player in Philadelphia’s deeply competitive concert scene, Jazz It Up’s founders Thomas Camarda and Charlie Bartlett have established a truly dedicated following and community of Jazz artists and fans.
“We started this in November 2014 with the plan of having four shows in 2015,” Camarda said, sporting his usual suit, bow tie, and trilby hat. “Today, we have sold out fifty shows.”
When Camarda first arrived in Philadelphia from New York in 2005, he found himself amazed by how underappreciated Jazz had become in the city. He perceived a vacancy that was forcing talented musicians, young and old, to leave the city to pursue opportunities in New York or L.A.
“I came up with this idea because I wanted to elevate the artist.” Camarda explains. “Jazz It Up started as a mission to work with venues like Vesper that don’t necessarily do Jazz and Blues. We bring in, not just the show, but the following that we’ve cultivated.”
By 9 p.m., Vesper was packed with 190 guests with more eagerly waiting outside for the chance to experience drinks, fine dining, and Hot Jazz music from Nugent and his talented band. Guests showed up in everything from collared shirts and jeans to “Era Classy” outfits as Bartlett put it. The Jazz Era throwbacks didn’t end with the music and attire, however, as a several dancers from Philadelphia’s dance societies took advantage of the open dance floor in front of the band to break out some West Coast Fusion and Balboa dance. It was like stepping into a scene from Boardwalk Empire.
“I love coming to Vesper for the live music and the dancefloor,” said Charissa Schoulze, one of the dancers in attendance. A self-described “old soul,” Schoulze and the other dancers added a wonderful vibrancy to the evening. It was another testament to how passionate Jazz It Up’s audience really is. It’s an environment that has drawn Jazz fans of all ages who appreciate and support the music without any trace of pretension, an laudable feat that Bartlett and Camarda have worked tirelessly to create.
“Everyone who comes is there to enjoy the music,” said Bartlett. “The artists know that the audience is really in tune with what they’re putting down. It becomes more than just getting paid or doing a release show.”
Camarda and Bartlett are so adept at building an atmosphere that you could easily lose track of just how special of an organization that Jazz It Up really is. As one guest that evening put it, having a Jazz show within walking distance is something that you’ll appreciate more when you’re older. The thing is, it’s something I can appreciate now! Jazz It Up goes beyond booking and promoting shows as it works to support the musicians and the general Philadelphia Jazz community.
“The idea is to generate a lot of content, give the artists the tools to succeed, and create jobs and work for these artists,” said Bartlett.
Indeed, each artist who performs with Jazz It Up gets high-quality photos they can use for their own portfolio or press releases, a guaranteed audience who cares and appreciates the music, a featured place on the organization’s website, and, recently, has partnered with Jazz Bridge, a Philadelphia non-profit whose mission is to provide legal, professional, and personal support to local musicians. Camarda reached out to the organization and has pledged to donate a significant percentage of every ticket they sell to Jazz Bridge. It’s yet another prime example of just how dedicated Camarda and Bartlett are to bringing the Jazz world back to Philadelphia.
“I’m blessed, that’s the only thing I can tell you,” said Camarda when asked about how he felt about Jazz It Up’s success. “I always thought that when God puts the right people in front of you, you’re doing something right.”
One of those people, Drew Nugent, was one of the first people Camarda and Bartlett first told about Jazz It Up. He immediately recognized the importance what they were trying to accomplish.
“This is the people’s music,” said Nugent. “Jazz music was never meant to have a hierarchy. It was considered scum bag music. When Jazz It Up Philly started a year ago, I said ‘Hey! I want to be involved. How do I be involved? What can we do?’”
To Camarda and Bartlett, the goal is to continue to build and evolve as an organization so they can keep elevating Philly’s Jazz scene and the artists who make it so unique.
“We have to continuously build,” said Bartlett. “My understanding is that artists and companies have to adapt and evolve to what’s happening, you can’t be stubborn in one thing or throw all our chances at one option.”
Tonight of all nights, Camarda and Bartlett could have easily rested on the laurels of what they have managed to achieve in a relatively short amount of time. Instead, they humbly submit to the talent of the artists they work with and insist that there is still plenty more work to be done. As I observed them weaving in and out of the crowd throughout the evening, I couldn’t help but smile at just how much passion and enthusiasm the two partners exhibited as well as the amount of respect Nugent and the other performers had for them. Together, they have established a new foundation to a community that had been neglected over the last few decades from which they will continue to rebuild Philadelphia’s Jazz scene one sellout show at a time.
Be sure to catch Jazz It Up Philly’s next event at Vesper on Wednesday June 8th! Get your tickets here.