The soundtrack of equality

Philadelphia hosted OutBeat, the nation’s first LGBTQ jazz fest, last weekend to feature queer jazz muscians.

OutBeat was the first jazz festival of its kind. It was hosted by the William Way LGBT Community Center. Kara Milsten | TTN
OutBeat was the first jazz festival of its kind. It was hosted by the William Way LGBT Community Center. Kara Milsten | TTN

When Tyrone Smith was growing up in North Philly, he said the Gay Paree was the only bar where the gay community could enjoy jazz music “without being bothered.”

Smith, an active board member of various LGBTQ organizations in the city, said he is finally seeing growth in the LGBTQ community.

 “Now that I’m in my 70’s and see that now people can be jazz artists, they can be out, they can be who they are,” Tyrone Smith said. “It’s magnificent to me.”

The William Way LGBT Community Center hosted the country’s first LGBTQ jazz festival, OutBeat, over a series of four days and 35 events, this past weekend in Philly.

The festival included a wide variety of local and emerging artists, performances and panel discussions, highlighting intersections between sexual orientation, gender identity, jazz history and jazz culture.

“We started working on OutBeat about a year ago and we’re so happy with how it’s turned out,” said Karen Smith, a volunteer coordinator and percussionist who performed at Friday’s event.

The opening kickoff reception began at a small intimate setting with buffet style food and refreshments in the Mark Segal Ballroom at the William Way Community Center located in the “Gayborhood.”

It opened with a conversation between Nate Chinen of the New York Times and six-time Grammy award nominated pianist and jazz artist, Fred Hersch, and ended with a duo performance by vocalist and pianist Dena Underwood and vocalist Jaye Sanders.

Jaye Sanders expressed her excitement to perform at the Billy Strayhorn Tribute, an honorary figure in the LGBTQ community of jazz culture.  She and her partner Underwood were both asked to contribute performances, along with 30 other local performers to Friday’s special tribute at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Broad Street.

“I’m excited about OutBeat,” Sanders, a Philadelphia native, said. “This is the first time ever, and I’m so glad Philly is hosting it. Philly is remarkable and full of so much talent.”

Sanders, a singer, songwriter and vocal instructor, has been involved in music for over 22 years, but has only been involved in jazz for about three years when she began to collaborate with Underwood.

“I learned a lot from Dena,” Sanders said. “She studied jazz whereas I was always alternative, gospel, R&B and classical music. The love for music definitely brought us together, the love for expressing our gift to people who want to enjoy it and want to feel our energy to make them feel better.”

Sanders said how the jazz community has inspired both her and Dena’s music and experiences within the LGBT community.

“Jazz is the genre of music where you can be totally free,” Sanders said. “It’s limitless. So many colors, so many ideas, so many sounds, so many emotions that are so allowed in this genre, it’s crazy.  Especially compared to classical which is so strict. If I could, without getting in trouble, I would compare jazz to being queer, lesbian, transgender or gay.”

For Sanders, jazz has grown into a tangible representation of the community and given the community an anthem of sorts.

“We are considered the peculiar ones, the ones that are not of the common and I particularly look at jazz music as that,” Sanders said. “Jazz is like the rebel genre of music and its bada– just like we are. We embrace beauty and exude light, just like jazz music does.”

Karen Smith said that as she has gotten older and grown in the LGBT community, she has watched the jazz scene in Philly has grown as well.

“I am so happy to see now that young people who are able to go to school and be educated in the field of jazz music can still be who they are,” Karen Smith said. “I think it speaks to the fact that music is universal and I’m so pleased that in my lifetime I’ve come to see this.”

Even though there has been growth in both the jazz and LGBT communities, Tyrone Smith said there is still a long way to go, evident in the attack on a gay couple in Center City two weeks ago. The couple was assaulted and sent to the hospital, as a result.

“I think that as we move forward with these kinds of things we must also remember that we’ve got to be not only social, but we’ve got to be political!” Tyrone Smith said. “I think that as we move forward as a community, we can’t just be social beings, we got to be political beings, and we’ve got to be all those things that make us a wonderful community that we desire to be. I don’t think we’ve reached the promise land yet in our vision, but at least we’re on the right road.”

Alexa Zizzi can be reached at

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