Michael Manring, Jeff Oster, and Carl Weingarten play St. Mary’s in 2011 for The Gatherings | photo by Jeff Towne | courtesy of Chuck van Zyl
St. Mary’s Church: Half a century of music
What do the late Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers, venerated jazz explorers The Sun Ra Arkestra, Philadelphia’s Buddhist hardcore punk band Ruin, singer songwriter Janis Ian, magicians Penn & Teller, and ambient duo Stars of the Lid have in common? Over the past half century they have all performed at St. Mary’s Church at 3916 Locust Walk in West Philadelphia.
While the still-active venue might not be mentioned in the same breath as other Philly institutions, that’s only because most people, even those who live in the neighborhood and walk past the church daily, don’t know its history. There is no plaque outside commemorating what was, no billboard advertising upcoming shows, nothing of the sort. Pandemic not withstanding, it is as its always been: a do-it-yourself type space, downright utilitarian in most ways, a reflection of so many of the performers who have come through its doors.
The Episcopal church was founded in 1862 and has long been a community hub, both on the University of Pennsylvania campus and in the greater neighborhood. While they’ve been hosting music and other cultural and arts events for much more than fifty years – there are listings of classical and choral performances there as well as dances and other entertainment going back almost a century – it was when Geno’s Empty Foxhole started booking jazz gigs there in 1970 that everything changed.
Not every venue gets its due. Some are demolished by the constant machinations of progress, either literally – and seemingly always replaced by horrible apartment buildings – or just transformed into gyms or restaurants as neighborhoods change. Others are simply forgotten, a footnote of a footnote. But not every venue is St. Mary’s Church, hosting jazz, electronic, punk, folk, and more for decades and still active to this very day.
Geno’s Empty Foxhole & The New Foxhole
While the history of music at St. Mary’s goes back a hundred years or more, it wasn’t until Geno’s Empty Foxhole moved in and started booking jazz gigs in the very early 70s that the space became better known outside of the church members and the University of Pennsylvania community as a whole. It was named after one of the founders, Eugene “Geno” Barnhart, and the Ornette Coleman album The Empty Foxhole. Some of the other people involved included Web Christman, who was also a parishioner at the church.
Though the original Foxhole lasted only a short time – we’ll get to its successor, The New Foxhole, shortly – it managed to have a huge impact on the Philly jazz scene. They started up in North Philly but the first show they booked at St. Mary’s, held in the basement of the church, was in late November or early December 1970. According to Philly jazz mainstay Elliott Levin, who was a teenager at the time, it was supposed to be saxophonist Albert Ayler but he had tragically passed away recently and so the Sun Ra Arkestra were asked to fill in. “They came late,” he said. “I think they were coming from New York. I remember they showed up and started playing and when I left the sun was coming up. They had played nonstop without a break for about six hours.”
Despite the circumstances surrounding the show, “they were the perfect band to open the place,” he added. Levin saw a lot more acts at St. Mary’s including Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, and Walt Dickerson. Geno’s Empty Foxhole closed after a couple years but The New Foxhole – run by a mix of some of the same people with help of Larry Abrams, Steve Rowland, WXPN’s station manager at the time Jules Epstein, Mulana Kazi, James Womack, David Freedman, and more – started up soon after. They also moved from the basement up to the Parish Hall on the first floor of the church. There would be concerts held under that name until around 1982.
It was as part of a New Foxhole show that Levin got to play in the building for the first time. In 1975 he was there with a group called Olduvai. A listing for the gig that appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian [“Music” 27 February, 1975, page 5] noted that it was a fundraiser for a new piano. While the Philly jazz scene was burgeoning at the time, with spots throughout the city, according to Levin there weren’t a lot of places that catered to the more experimental and avant-garde scenes. St. Mary’s definitely filled that void. Future Arkestra member Michael Anderson saw the band play there in the early 70s, a few years before he’d join their ranks, and referred to the Foxhole as “Mecca for jazz” during that era.
That can, at least in part, be traced back to the basic fact that as a church venue there was minimal overhead and no need to bring in an audience that would buy food and drinks, like at a bar. Because of that reality, any of the bookers throughout the decades did not have to compromise musically in order to sell enough tickets to keep the doors open and the lights on. Of course just breaking even could be a problem but that’s the nature of the beast. “It was totally about the music,” according to Levin.
Some of the concerts at both the Empty and New Foxhole were broadcast live on WXPN. This practice was extended to the shows put on at St. Mary’s by the Cherry Tree Music Co-op, which started around the same time as The New Foxhole. The 1978 Arkestra album Antique Blacks was done at XPN in 1974. A more recent release, 2018’s Abstract Dreams, was put together from tracks thought to have been recorded at around the same time. Geno Barnhart himself has a recording credit on this one.
Steve Rowland is now a university professor and jazz historian based in Seattle – you can see more about his work including documentaries on John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and The Roots over on his website – but he grew up in Philadelphia in the 70s and started going to concerts when he was a teenager in the early 70s. He became involved with The Foxhole around 1976 when it was resurrected as The New Foxhole by Larry Abrams, Mulana Kazi, and others. “It’s path was one of multi-cultural leadership that included Black people and also a very strong commitment to radical politics,” he said.
Rowland was a DJ and later the music director at Temple University’s WRTI for much of the same time he was volunteering at The Foxhole and spoke about the support that station gave to the local jazz scene. RTI had changed formats to become a jazz station back in 1969 and thus can be seen as a contemporary of spots like The Empty Foxhole that started up around the same time.
According to Rowland, the same conversation about traditional versus so-called free jazz that has been going on since the 60s very much extended to what was played on the air. Because what was booked at St. Mary’s definitely favored that kind of music, he explained, the venue did not get the same amount of support at first, though that changed in the late 70s.
None of those involved in The New Foxhole were paid for their work, he said, and the shows themselves rarely made a profit. Anyone who has ever put together DIY-type concerts will find that very familiar. Thankfully they did occasionally book better-drawing, more straightahead jazz bands – Rowland mentioned Max Roach, Betty Carter, and Charles Mingus – and were able to put aside money from those to pay for concerts they wanted to do that might not have the same audience.
Ars Nova Workshop Executive and Artistic Director Mark Christman – no relation to Foxhole founder Web Christman – has helped book a number of concerts at St. Mary’s since the organization started in 2000. He said that being able to hold shows in the fabled space is a dream come true: “Since I couldn’t build a time machine, it was probably the next best thing to recreate that atmosphere.”
Christman and Ars Nova do see themselves as continuing in the tradition first started at the church with Geno’s Empty Foxhole more than fifty years ago. “We will always be curious about that history at St. Mary’s and advocates for what happened in that moment,” Christman said. “I don’t think it’s nostalgia, I think it’s an interest in expressing today what has been relevant for a very long time and that is the messages that are encoded in this music that we present.”
This is especially true when you consider how the bands that played The Foxhole were, as he put it, “the architects of the music” that Ars Nova presents today. “To step into it, literally, is quite a privilege,” he added.
The Cherry Tree Music Co-op
Jazz wasn’t the only thing happening at St. Mary’s in the 70s. The Cherry Tree Music Co-op, an organization dedicated to promoting folk music from Philadelphia and around the world, moved into the church in 1975. They would continue booking shows there until early 2003, which is a wildly long time for anything like that to last, much less something that’s run entirely by volunteers out of the parish hall of an Episcopal church.
According to co-op member Dave Axler, who still lives in West Philly, the seed was planted the year before when, “A bunch of people including the late Jack McGann – a stunning musician who used to do studio work with people like Steve Goodman – and a number of his friends including Ann Mintz, Diana Post, Dan Daniels, who was also doing one of the gay shows on XPN at the time, decided they needed a venue because they couldn’t find bookings for their friends.” Axler, who was on XPN from approximately 1969 to 1976, would join a few months later.
He explained that while there were already folk shows happening at various venues in the neighborhood, “Jack and the gang decided they wanted to do something more organized.” They were friendly with Father John Scott, the rector at St. Mary’s, and knew that the hall rental was pretty cheap: twenty dollars for the night and an extra five if you wanted chairs. Inspired by the Wildflowers Folk Collective in Saratoga Springs, NY, and other similar organizations, they decided to organize a co-op where there would be shared responsibilities for the shows and everybody had an equal vote.
The first handful of shows at Cherry Tree were, in Axler’s words, “not big names,” even though they included national touring musicians like Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels who would certainly became very popular in later years. “It grew,” he said. “It grew because we didn’t charge performers to sell their merch and most clubs did. We paid fair. We didn’t have a high ticket price. We treated [musicians] well and we even obeyed riders. And slowly, through various connections and word of mouth, performers and agents started contacting us.”
The egalitarian nature of the group was something that extended to the performers and audiences, too. “We always used to joke that what made Cherry Tree unique was that someone could headline a show and mop the floors at the end of the night,” Mintz said. “We had a very explicit political kind of focus on how the work got done and who did the work,” she explained. The different duties needed to run a venue – from booking and promotion to working the door, MCing the show, cleaning up, and more – were switched off between volunteer members, though some settled into more permanent roles depending on their skillsets and what they enjoyed doing. While it started off a bit more under-the-radar as an organization, Cherry Tree got official nonprofit status in the late 80s, making it easier for them to apply for grants among other things.
Mintz, who like a number of other people at Cherry Tree was also a XPN DJ, pointed out that the members who were most involved and thus were, as she put it, “carrying more weight,” were women and queer men. McGann had come out on stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival a few years prior, something Mintz characterized as groundbreaking. Like many gay men of his generation he tragically died of AIDS. Before his passing in 1991, McGann made national news when he sued his employer, a Houston music company, for cutting his health insurance when he got sick. You can read more about that in a New York Times article written after his death.
Cherry Tree was “a very gay-friendly place” Axler concurred. The fact that they were based out of a church might have been a problem back then but not so much at St. Mary’s, which has had a social justice component to their mission for decades.
Another one of the notable people who helped out with shows there was Winnie Winston, a pedal steel and banjo player who was in the house band that often backed up touring musicians. Axler referred to him as “one of the most interesting characters in the Cherry Tree history” and talked about how Winston paid his way through art school in the 1960s by “driving around from festival the festival down south and entering and winning the banjo contests for which the prize was a brand new banjo.” He’d sell those instruments in order to pay his tuition.
The list of musicians that played there over the almost 30 years the co-op was active is impossibly long. While folk was the main focus they also booked jazz acts, rock bands, klezmer, and music from around the world. “We never got overly tied with genre,” Axler said. “We used to have shows with LaVaughn Robinson doing tap dancing. We had Codona a few times, [which] was Collin Walcott on organ, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, and Naná Vasconcelos on percussion.” Some of the other names brought up by Mintz and Axler included Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, Dollar Brand, Dave Van Ronk, Janis Ian, David Bromberg, Stan Rogers, and Pierre Bensusan.
Many of these same acts would also play at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the annual weekend of music put on by the Folksong Society for the past sixty years, as well as at smaller shows sponsored by that organization. Axler stressed that Cherry Tree did not see itself as competition, especially as the Folksong Society was based outside of the city in Mt. Airy. Even though both did shows on Sundays, “We always made a point, as we knew their schedule, of booking someone in a totally different genre,” he explained. “You know, if they were bringing in a Scottish singer we’d bring John Jackson to play blues, so it really wasn’t a conflict.”
“When I look back I think, ‘Holy shit, I really did do sound for Dollar Brand, for Abdullah Ibrahim. I really did work with Penn & Teller,’” Mintz said, reflecting on everyone that played there. “It amazes me that we did all that, but we did. And we had fun doing it.” For the curious, Penn & Teller performed there in 1975 when they were still called The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society. Like a good number of the gigs there it did not make any money. In fact, Axler pointed out that this one lost 36 dollars.
Although recordings were made at most of the shows – both for internal reasons and to broadcast later on a number of different XPN shows – one of the only ones that can be found online is of Canadian folk legend Stan Rogers, who played there with his brother Garnet on December 15th, 1982. What’s great about the tape — listen here — is not just the music, which is obviously wonderful because of who it is performing, but also that you can hear the audience and their reactions to the songs. The recording also preserves all the hilarious banter between the Rogers brothers and the stories behind the music. Stan Rogers tragically passed away less than a year later.
The Cherry Tree archives are all at the Library of Congress. While some of the XPN tapes are still around, many of them were unfortunately lost.
One of the reasons behind Cherry Tree’s longevity is that they only did shows on Sundays and their season ran from September through May. Limiting things in that fashion – though really when you’re doing close to 40 shows a year is it really that limited? – staves off the burnout that can happen when you’re booking and running multiple concerts a week.
“We hoped it would last for a good while [but] nobody was thinking nearly 30 years,” Axler said. “And part of the closing came down to we were an all-volunteer organization, nobody got paid.” That became a problem as people got older, started families, and moved away from West Philly. And it wasn’t just the volunteers who moved away: he said that audiences in those last few years were also dwindling.
Still, the legacy of Cherry Tree lives on. It’s there in Crossroads Music, a folk and world music booking non-profit in the neighborhood which was started by a member of Cherry Tree named Daniel Flaumenhaft. You can see the influence in their mission statement which reads, in part: “Crossroads is a community-based not-for-profit organization where musicians retain the freedom to stay close to their roots and also explore new avenues of expression. We are inspired by and seek to maintain West Philadelphia’s historic role as a diverse and inclusive meeting place for different cultures, social and economic classes, and progressive social movements.”
It can also be found in the lives of everyone who was involved in those shows, be it as a member of the co-op, a performer, or an audience member. Asked what she got out of the many years she spent with Cherry Tree, Mintz said that one of the biggest lessons was that it was possible to run a venue that was both a “fully-professional” organization, as she described it, where the music was at the forefront and nobody got paid but the performers. That lead to a sense of community between everyone involved. “To this day people will say, ‘I loved that place, I went to so many shows, I heard so much great music,’” she told The Key. “I think people still feel connected to it all these years later.”
When punk started in the late 70s it quickly spread across America where it was embraced wholeheartedly by disaffected youth yearning for rebellion. There were punk scenes just about everywhere and of course that included Philadelphia. So it’s not surprising that there were punk shows at St. Mary’s.
There was never a long-term official in-house punk booker at the church – unlike with the aforementioned jazz and folk organizations – and so those gigs were put together by a mix of promoters over the years. One of the first shows there that turns up in the archives is a 1978 double bill of New York City no wave electronic act Suicide with local new wave band The Reds opening up. Not exactly punk in a Sex Pistols or Pure Hell kind of way, but definitely still very punk.
While it was used less often for those types of shows, the St. Mary’s parish hall and basement did enter into the mix of Philadelphia DIY venues for about a decade. Some of the bands that played there included Ruin, Electric Love Muffin, No Trend, Sic Kidz, Crash Course In Science, Tons of Nuns, The Three O’Clock, Scram, More Fiends, Salem 66, The Delta 5, and many, many, many more. Punk, hardcore, rock n roll, electronic: it was all welcome.
Secret Cinema’s Jay Schwartz went to a number of those concerts, including the Suicide one, and recalled a show he booked there in 1983 for the aforementioned Three O’Clock, a Los Angeles band associated with the Paisley Underground scene that also birthed Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate, The Bangles, and other psych rock revival bands. He was put in contact with the church through Joey Bruno, best known as the curator of the avant-garde Futurama punk music series.
While he wouldn’t start Secret Cinema for another nine years, Schwartz did have a projector and had begun to build up his film collection. To go with the psychedelic theme that night at St. Mary’s – they even handed out fake hits of acid on sugar cubes to the audience – he decided to screen a movie next to the bands at St. Mary’s that night called Smashing Time, which was about London in the swinging sixties.
Drummer Jon Wurster (the Mountain Goats, Bob Mould) grew up in the Philadelphia area and attended that show. He remembered being brought up on stage by Michael Quercio from The Three O’Clock to be awarded “Best Paisley Shirt” of the night, proving that his fashion sense has been excellent since he was a teenager.
“The early 80s were a tough time for underage kids into alternative music,” he told The Key. “I didn’t get to see a lot of my favorite bands because they played bars I couldn’t get into. I couldn’t believe my eyes in the fall of 1983 when I saw a flyer for L.A. paisley pop kings The Three O’Clock playing an all-ages show with local heroes the Impossible Years and New Jersey’s Smithereens (they would be replaced by the Del Fuegos) at St. Mary’s Church in West Philly.”
Wurster called the show “one of my favorite nights from my teenage gig-going years.” As he described it: “Everyone there wanted to be there and had a blast. You could have knocked me over with a feather when the Three O’Clock’s Michael Quercio pulled me up onstage to award me ‘Best Paisley Shirt’ of the night. Don’t even get me started on watching the Del Fuegos wearing flannel shirts on their heads while playing a game called Beer Hunter.”
As with the other promoters at 3916 Locust Walk over the years, there was a strong WXPN connection during this period, too. In this case it was Lee Paris, Steve Pross (aka “Roid Kafka”), and others who were doing shows there in the early 80s. There doesn’t exist a full listing of all the concerts that happened there, much less information about who was responsible for what show. However there are places to look for clues, like the archives of Penn student newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian. This advertisement for a XPN-sponsored Delta 5, Bunnydrums, Transfactor gig originally ran in September of 1980:
Timmy Dunn was the sexton at St. Mary’s for some of that time. The longtime West Philly activist served as a go-between for bands, promoters, and the church, helping set up and run countless shows for the years he was there. He was also instrumental in the establishment of a soup kitchen at the church, something that still exists to this day. He recalled the time Washington, D.C. punks No Trend played there and everyone began throwing cookies from the kitchen at each other. Silly fun from a band whose crushing debut album was called Too Many Humans.
The first post on Philly punk history blog Freedom Has No Bounds – read more about that in our 2020 profile – was a recording of local hardcore band Ruin at St. Mary’s on November 17th, 1987. Mike Eidle, chief curator and webmaster of the site, made the recording on his Walkman. Eidle wrote how excited he was to see Ruin play: “The best way I can think of to explain why Ruin was the best band is Philly was when I saw that Ruin was playing I looked forward to that show as much as any touring band that maybe only came to Philly once a year or maybe even once ever.”
While by all accounts there were tons of recordings made at St. Mary’s shows over the years – official, bootleg, and everything in-between – very little has made it to the internet. As stated in the previous section, all of the Cherry Tree tapes are at the Library of Congress though much of what was recorded by WXPN was unfortunately lost to history. But not only is there audio of Ruin, there is also a video of them playing at 3916 Locust Walk.
Calling Chuck van Zyl the most recent occupant of 3916 makes it sound like the WXPN DJ – host of the overnight show Star’s End – began booking space and ambient music there just a few years back. In fact, he started The Gatherings series in 1992 and moved into the St. Mary’s sanctuary six years later. While it’s been on hiatus due to the pandemic, he is still one of the longest-running promoters there.
The history of the church as a venue played a big role in why van Zyl first inquired about doing shows there 23 years ago. “It was just one of those things people were talking about when I started at XPN [in 1980],” he said. The first show there that popped up on his radar was synthesizer ensemble Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company two years prior. While he was unable to attend that one, he said that for the scene in Philadelphia it was “a really major thing to have an electronic [concert] in ‘78 at St. Mary’s.” He did get to see a number of bands at the church during that period including Gamelan Son of Lion, David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, Ghostwriters, and local space music pioneers The Nightcrawlers.
While The Nightcrawlers appeared at St. Mary’s numerous times during their almost dozen year existence, according to van Zyl the electronic group mostly played in the Parish Hall. He recalled a specific occasion in November of 1985 when they were in the sanctuary and said that might have been the first time that sort of music was performed there. It was clearly an inspiration: The Gatherings have been held in the same space at the church for the past two decades.
That specific set was recorded and released as Space Ritual At St. Mary’s, first as a tape shortly after the concert – the band was extremely prolific in that format, with dozens and dozens of cassettes over the years – and then as a CD-R in 2013 by Psychic Arts. You can now listen to it on Bandcamp and also see the wonderful cover art depicting the church.
The inaugural concert under the Gatherings moniker was actually held in a room at the XPN studios in 1992. They quickly outgrew that space, ending up at Houston Hall. When that was closed for renovations, van Zyl began searching for a new home and, remembering all the performances he had seen at St. Mary’s, decided to reach out. In November of 1998 Steve Tibbets and Choying Drolma played the first Gatherings show in the sanctuary.
These days The Gatherings are independent of the station, though many of the performers there also end up playing on Star’s End after their show at 3916 — you can read more about that in our 2012 interview with van Zyl on the occasion of the series’ 20th anniversary. While most of what happens there is ambient electronic music, the series has hosted everything from jazz to experimental flute and horn players to minimalist composer Steve Reich, dark wave band Black Tape for a Blue Girl, and much, much more. They even had the aforementioned Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company come back to the church 25 years after that seminal 1978 concert. You can look through the series’ extensive archives on the website and listen to recordings on their Bandcamp.
For van Zyl, the church itself is an integral aspect of the live experience. “St. Mary’s seems like the perfect place for this,” he said. “I don’t know if we’d want to do it anywhere else. The kind of music that we do … it’s really spacey and ethereal and that space seems perfect for that sound.” On top of the physical environment, there’s an emotional one that is intrinsic to it being a house of worship. As he jokingly put it, “[Attendees] are like, ‘I’m in a church so I’m going to sit down and be quiet and absorb whatever is coming in.”
Aharon Varady, a DJ and longtime fan who also helped out as a volunteer when he lived in Philadelphia, referred to the The Gatherings as a place to hear “sacred music.” Even though these concerts are very much secular, having them in sacred spaces just seems to make sense. Varady is no stranger to this as a founder of Gate to Moonbase Alpha, an ambient series that ran from 1998 until 2001 at First Church of Christ Scientist, better known as The Rotunda.
Being at one of The Gatherings, or even just looking at pictures, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this really is going on at an active church. Van Zyl is very happy to be part of the St. Mary’s community. “Whereas the more mainstream churches seemed kind of uptight about who they had in there, [when it comes to] St. Mary’s if it was a worthy cause, if they could help, they did. They could see the value in what we’re doing and they’ve worked with us,” he said.
While the shows he puts on are, as he described it, “a barely break even enterprise,” St. Mary’s has welcomed The Gatherings just like they welcomed everyone else mentioned in this article. “They understand that this is an important thing to have in the world,” he said. “And if you’ve ever been to one of our concerts, I think you would agree.”
Van Zyl is still figuring out how to safely return to doing concerts at the church but hopes that will happen in the next few months. Currently the building is the headquarters of The Bearded Ladies Cabaret – they call their space in the basement The BeardCave – as well as a rehearsal space for Shakespeare in Clark Park, a number of University of Pennsylvania music and theater groups, and more. You can read more about the church on their website.