Hudson River on how she came to love the vibraphone, her eccentric personal style, and her residency at Chris' Jazz Cafe - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

“This show is for Ben,” Hudson River told a packed house on a cold February night. “For my ancestors, for the angels above and for everything above.” To kick off her 2024 residency at Chris’s Jazz Café, she honored a departed young classmate by gathering a band of friends who played alongside him in the Upper Darby High School drumline, where she learned to cherish music herself. The eleven locals filled the room with familial love and candor, braiding vibraphone melodies together with horns and voices, on original tunes and covers of hit songs from a surprising array of styles.

Hudson, who performs under her surname to celebrate her late father, was born in Overbrook and raised in Upper Darby. You might see her outside around the city, anywhere from Clark Park to Rittenhouse Square, and you can’t miss her—if you’ve seen a fly 25-year-old Black woman improvising on a 300-pound mallet instrument in a public space, you probably saw Hudson River. She currently lives in Powelton and transports her vibraphone around town riding an electric bike with a hunting trailer. (“You can put deer on it!”) Along with jazz and R&B, she holds a passion for drumline and dreams of directing one someday.

Soon after that February show, I met Hudson River at Green Line Café on Lancaster Avenue to hear about her journey to full-time music.

WXPN: How did you start playing percussion instruments?

Hudson River: I was in 3rd grade when we got to choose our instruments, and I chose drums. Upper Darby School District’s music program was like GAMP or CAPA for the burbs, so I was a 3rd grader looking up to these marching drummers, watching them perform in the cafeteria. They had a sense of ownership in it, and that was the first time I had seen that at my young age. It was cool as shit. The instructor at Bywood Elementary was Brad Schoener, who passed away from cancer when I was in 4th grade, but I knew how everyone admired him.

WXPN: How did you start focusing on vibraphone?

HR: I used to be so anti-mallets; I hated vibraphone. In 8th grade I auditioned to play snare and bass drum for drumline, but I got put on mallets in the front ensemble—“the pit”—and I met the pit captain Mike Nevin. Now I’d give my life to Mike. Mike muthafuckin’ Nevin. He changed all our lives—by the time he left Upper Darby, we helped him move out of his house. I have his artwork tatted on me, me and some bandmates, artwork that he gave us.

So in high school I played all mallet and auxiliary percussion. Mike started me with 4 mallets on glockenspiel, then marimba. But I tried jazz band my senior year, just fucking around on vibraphone, and I got a ‘Best Soloist’ award. That was my first experience on vibraphone where I felt like, “Fuck it!” That’s what vibraphone represents for me—very much “fuck it.”

Then I went to Widener University on a scholarship through Drum Corps International. I played vibraphone in the jazz band but didn’t like it. I also worked at Chris’ as a hostess then, 6pm to 1am. I had a blast and I’d rather be there than on campus any day; it’s always felt like a family place for me. I first played vibraphone there in 2018 while I worked there.

That's what vibraphone represents for me—very much 'fuck it.'

WXPN: How did you start street performing around Philly?

HR: In 2020 I went to an open mic at Sol Garden hosted by Carla Gamble where I met Janay Keys. Janay was a big inspiration for me getting out there; the first times I played vibraphone in Philly were with Janay in 2021, vocals and vibes. Then I decided to go perform in the street and see what happens. I had seen Aijee Evans play cello outside growing up and thought, she has an exotic instrument out here and she’s done well—she has a whole business now—and Rickey The Violinist. All started with getting gigs from street performing.

My cousin Connie—I call her “my 72-year-old gay cousin Connie” cause she was out since 22, she’s so cool—she also played a big part in getting me outside. She had the idea for the trailer. She would drive down from Northeast to pick me up in the morning and drop me off at City Hall like, “Have a good day! Get your money, girl!”

WXPN: Do you think about your appearance when you play in public?

HR: It’s funny, I guess the stuff I wear is “provocative,” especially to an older generation. I have a lot of older women I talk to, old wise ladies, and they love me and my music, but they ask like, “What are you wearing?? What is the point of what you’re wearing?” And I’m like, “It’s not for the male gaze.” I’m a lesbian, and I say, “For the girlies that get it, they get it.” I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life because I push this vibraphone around the goddamn city! [Laughs] But I like to be stylish. I’m choosing something that I want to pursue, and I feel healthier than I’ve ever been. I want to look as cool as possible to myself, I like to be comfortable when it’s hot out, I love baggy clothes, and I love the 90s.

[River on her clothing style]: For the girlies that get it, they get it.

Hudson River & Friends | photo by Melissa Simpson

WXPN: Describe how you planned your performance at Chris’s, inspired by the memory of your bandmate.

HR: February 15th was the same date that my good friend Ben Glackin died. He committed suicide on that day in 2022, eleven days before his twenty-fifth birthday. He played next to me on my first day in drumline at Upper Darby, where so many of us became best friends. Some of us hadn’t seen each other since 2014 when we came together at his funeral, dressed up in black. But the ceremony brought us together, so some of us started playing music together again and I wanted to honor him in this show.

Our idea was to sandwich both sets with drumline music from “The Long Walk Home,” for Ben. Our 2014 Upper Darby show, the show that changed my fuckin’ life, that I got the tattoo for. In the sense of Sankofa, “going back to get it,” we got sheet music from the same emails Mike sent ten years ago. It was a military show, and some of the music was based off “Taps,” and based off Phillip Phillips’ “Home.” Mike put that together. We also did “Nutshell” by Alice In Chains in the first set—I don’t think anyone else has played Alice In Chains at Chris’—that’s Ben’s favorite song. Then we went right into Brielle’s song “Big Poppa,” dedicated to her father, who passed too, and his birthday was February 13th. We set the intention of the show like, “This is for us, and the reason that we’re here now is because of these people that were with us.”

Hudson River & Friends - I Care 4 U

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Hudson River and her band continue their residency at Chris’s Jazz Café on Thursday, April 25th. The February show featured Anthony Butler, Nate Hart, Alex Hart, Malik Robinson, Brielle Kimmins (AprilFoolChild), Wesley Williams, Candice Murray, Sammi Di Giacinto, Meech (Trey) Coachman, and Anthony Hughes.

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