Spring Garden Music


The House that Jack Built

Philadelphia City Paper Oct. 12, 2006. Since the demise of the City Paper this article is no longer online.

by Shaun Brady

Dinnertime at the Jack Wright house on Spring Garden Street, and the kitchen is crowded with people more typically seen wielding musical instruments than cutlery. Much debate is being made over a grocery store run when the cupboards come up a few ingredients short of the tasty-looking chicken dish in the cookbook spread open on the table. But rather than waste any more time, Jack grabs a green pepper and a knife and does what he does best: he improvises.

Currently, five young musicians call this three-story townhouse their home: bassists Evan Lipson and Jon Barrios; guitarist Alban Bailly; cellist Anne West; and processed snare manipulator Dave Smolen. The 64-year-old saxophonist serves as a sort of patriarch, not just for the clan gathered under his roof but for a resurgent Philly free-music scene.

Wright purchased the Spring Garden house as a fixer-upper in 1977, after giving up a career in academics. With an altered outlook on life forged in the political climate of the sixties and seventies, he planned to live a more immediate existence, a decision which ultimately led to a resumption of playing music, which he had abandoned years before. But for the time being, he was simply focused on turning his house into something livable.

“I didn't have any money and didn't want to work for money,” Wright explained, “so I did things as cheaply as possible. We didn’t have any central heating, so out in the kitchen we had a 55-gallon drum and burned wood from the street. It was cold but adequate.”

Born in Pittsburgh and raised for the most part in the Philadelphia area, Wright began playing music at the age of ten, intending during his teenage years to become a jazz musician. “But I looked at the world of jazz and as a suburban kid I was scared. I didn’t feel like I belonged there.”

Turning his focus to academia, Wright gave up music as “something of my youth, not to be taken seriously as an adult.” He taught history at Temple until his involvement with the radical left steered him away from university life and back towards music.

During this period, Wright was unconcerned with the new directions jazz music was taking. “I didn’t hear Coltrane until ’72. I actually heard Ornette in ’67 and I thought it was junk. It was not music to me. It was the same experience that many people who love music feel when they hear our music today and say this is noise. This makes no sense at all. That was my experience. But after going through a political and personal change, I could feel what these people were doing. And it hit me very powerfully.”

When Wright resumed his music, his initial intention was to go back to playing jazz. “But I had changed as a person. I was stronger and more independent and I started playing free-form. I wouldn’t say that what I’m doing now is jazz, and yet in some sense an older person who has been first motivated by jazz is, in some way, still a jazz musician. But now I think of myself as mostly playing sound.

For personal and musical reasons, Wright moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1988, but held onto the Spring Garden house. When he moved back east in 2003, sensing an infusion of fresh ideas in the improvised music community, he devised the idea of using the house as a residence for musicians. In addition, he began his occasional series of No Net concerts, gathering international casts of improvisers to perform in the third floor space.

Among the current occupants, Smolen and Lipson have been in residence the longest, since early 2005. Smolen refers to the house as “a pool of good, positive energy to feed off of. The house provides constant understanding and support for my musical visions and everyone else’s.”

All the residents agree that the most important aspect of the house may be the low rent, but all appreciate the freedom to explore their own ideas in an encouraging environment. Wright adds that the community aspect is something he actively encourages.

“These days it's very difficult to conceive of a house that really functions as a communal dwelling. But coming out of the sixties, I know that this is possible. And I encourage people to work together and cook and share their lives together.”

The housemates are all part of a newly active Philly scene, and while Wright gives particular credit to Dustin Hurt’s Bowerbird concert series, he sees a similar resurgence happening across the country. “Improvisation right now is more of a market phenomenon than it has been in the past when it was just eccentric, weirdo stuff. I don't completely understand it, but there's an alienation from the political world that exists. We find this throughout the last hundred years or so, the growth of an underground in periods of domination by more right-wing or repressive ideologies. And I think that's what's happening in the country right now.”

Wright tours extensively, and especially enjoys playing in out of the way places, where one would imagine the audience for experimental music to be nearly non-existent. “The best audiences for improvised music are outside of the big cities, at house concerts where somebody has gathered together an audience of people who are interested to hear something that will stimulate them. The big cities are places of mass consumerism. In the countryside you find more people who are feeling frustrated and looking for something that they haven’t experienced before, that they imagine is taking place in the cities.”

But despite his travels and his full-time home in Easton, Wright continues to return to the Spring Garden house, still a work in progress. “This past summer I've done a lot of work on the house. I feel that physical labor is a welcome antidote to the music world, which can be as oppressive as any other world. So I enjoy having this house to work on, where when you fix something you can see whether it works or not. Whereas in the world of art you're never really good enough. You've never really finished anything. Psychologically I think that people should have balanced lives and this is a kind of balance for me.”