Who needs nostalgia?
For a jolt of Philadelphia's jazz heyday, drop by Natalie's
Lounge for Saturday night jams, when there's no cover or pretense,
cold Buds cost $2.50, and the tiny bandstand cooks with a cast of
characters that ranges, as organist Rich Budesa puts it, "from Yale
Tony Smith's on trumpet, a hard-blowing barrel of a man who
daylights as vice principal of a Wilmington high school. Tenor giant
Donald Washington, at 73, is the elder statesman, a retired Food
Fair worker from New Jersey. The kid is Tony Peebles, 21, and a
spring graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
In a T-shirt, surfer jams and sandals, Peebles saunters mid-set
into this dark, cool throwback at 40th and Market, and stands off to
the side, silently putting his alto sax through the paces. The song
is "Caravan." And when he leaps in - taking a soulful, honking,
spiraling solo - the men at the bar elbow each other. Kid can
"This is a place where anyone is welcome," says Peebles, whose
uncle used to play guitar at Natalie's. "All different colors come
here. It's a real jazz scene. No sign-up list. You just come and
play. The old guys know every tune, and always pull you aside and
tell you something."
Natalie's has been going for more than 60 years, since it was
just another light in a constellation that included the Powelton Bar
& Club, the Click, the 421 Club, Treys, the Downbeat, Peps, and
Coltrane played here. So did Hank Mobley, Tony Williams Jr.,
Johnny Coles, Shirley Scott, Philly Joe Jones, and Grover Washington
Jr. Drummer Lex Humphries lived across the street and served as
music director. Now the job belongs to Lucky Thompson, who has run
the weekly jam sessions for seven years.
Thompson started playing professionally at age 8, when his father
would take him to South Philly jazz clubs, and he had to kick the
bass drum because he couldn't reach the pedal.
"It's about the music here," he says. "Lot of other places, it's
about the patronage, buying dinner and how much money you spend.
Here you can come right off the stage and someone in the audience
will call you over and say, 'Hey, man, you want a beer?' "
The Saturday night jams start at 5 o'clock, and the early birds
take their seats in the six snug booths. Some bring fried chicken
from the take-out joint across the street. Natalie's sign says it
serves food. These days, that means potato chips.
The noise and smoke rise as the night builds. As many as 10
players sit in for standards such as Bird's "Billie's Bounce" and
"More Today Than Yesterday," the Spiral Staircase shuffle.
More straggle in, cases in hand, coming from as far away as the
Jersey Shore and as close as 56th and Market.
Over the years the lounge was called the Elbow (for the bend in
the bar), the Crosswinds, and the Long Bar, says Barbara "Lady Jazz"
Rollins, 67, sipping wild vine wine on ice, and a regular since she
sneaked in at age 18 in her mother's clothes. Now she brings her
daughter and granddaughter.
The decor could be classified as Depression chic - a pinched
bandstand with nicotine-stained walls and harsh light shining
through red, white, blue and yellow ceiling tiles. An armada of
video-poker machines sucks quarters from players waiting their
Stars radiate from picture frames - a wasp-waisted Ella
Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan with girlish arms, a natty Nat King
It's the players here that the people praise. Saxophonist Pete
Chavez calls Natalie's his jazz church - "I come in and feel
He brought his wife, Lisbeth Theisen, here on their first date.
Now she brings her flute with her on Saturdays when they drive from
Egg Harbor, N.J., where they rehab houses.
It took her a while to step up to the mike. "If you practice and
learn," she says, "they really encourage you.
Says Chavez, who's dropped by for 20 years: "She's laying a
foundation of playing, and this is the place to get the proper
nutrients, minerals and vitamins."
Budesa, anchoring the jam with his 425-pound, 1937 Hammond organ:
"You can really let loose in here. A lot of clubs, it's 'Turn down.
Don't do this... .' You can take chances and really improvise and
work off the other musicians."
Patrick Pinon, a French painter in town visiting a friend,
marveled at the down-home, working-class ease of the place - a world
away from the pricey, tony jazz spots in his native Paris. "This is
a place," he says, "that you'd never see in the guidebooks."