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Friday, Oct 28, 2005
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Posted on Sun, Sep. 19, 2004
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Natalie’s at 40th and Market Streets, a throwback to Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, still calls the faithful to perform: Here, saxophonist Umar Raheem, accompanied by the trumpet of Tony Smith.
PETER TOBIA / Inquirer
Natalie’s at 40th and Market Streets, a throwback to Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, still calls the faithful to perform: Here, saxophonist Umar Raheem, accompanied by the trumpet of Tony Smith.
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That Old Feeling

Inquirer Staff Writer

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 to jail."

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 play.

"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 so on.

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 turn.

Stars radiate from picture frames - a wasp-waisted Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan with girlish arms, a natty Nat King Cole.

It's the players here that the people praise. Saxophonist Pete Chavez calls Natalie's his jazz church - "I come in and feel rejuvenated."

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."

Contact staff writer Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5958 or Contact staff photographer Peter Tobia at 215-854-2608 or

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