A handmade sign taped to the front door of the building reads “Musicians Gathering.”
Inside and upstairs, the studio of Rittenhouse Soundworks in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood is full of people catching up with one another. Their joyful chattering on a recent Sunday evening bounces off the exposed brick walls and cathedral ceiling the same way the music does.
Acoustics echo perfectly, ensuring that everyone gets the same listening experience no matter how far away from the performers they are.
The first act sits in front of the crowd and the chattering gradually lowers, as though someone manually turned down their volume. There’s complete silence for a few beats. Everything is still.
Then, one of the musicians runs a mallet around the outside of a bowl. The hum it emits echoes through the room at near deafening volumes. She repeats the action on a few other bowls, each sounding at different pitches.
Before the humming from the final bowl dies off, a violinist draws his bow over the strings of his instrument, matching the sound coming from the bowl.
Members of the audience lift their hands into the air and shake them back and forth, sign language for applause. The performance continues with additions of acoustic guitar and hand drums.
In the front of the room, off to the left corner, sits Jim Hamilton, nodding in time with the music. He’s the founder and owner of Rittenhouse Soundworks.
“If we don’t make arts available for each other, no one is going to do it for us,” said Hamilton, the owner of the studio located in the heart of Germantown at 219 West Rittenhouse St.
Making music together
He’s part of a group of people in Germantown who are fighting to bring exposure to the arts into their community in the face of threatened federal budget cuts under the Trump administration. Anne Levinson, another musician, is working alongside Hamilton to spearhead the campaign.
On Sunday, May 7, as part of the the Germantown Arts Festival, they will host and perform at three Germantown sites within walking distance: Rittenhouse Soundworks; 410 Specialties, a BMW repair shop at 216 West Rittenhouse St.; and a house on Price Street, whose address will be given to festival-goers when they purchase tickets. The music runs all day.
For as long as he can remember, Hamilton had a passion for music. “I was just in the environment,” he explained.
Hamilton came from a family with a drive for bringing art education into low-income areas and those ideals were passed down to him. His father owned a dance studio in Kensington, where they would bring musicians in during ballet practices. Half a block away from his father’s studio, he would sneak into Mastbaum Area Vocational/Technical School and watch the school band rehearse.
The early exposure to music led to his decision to peruse it as a career.
On tour with the Boyz
Hamilton traveled the world on tour as a percussionist with different music groups. The most noted was Boyz II Men, a popular R&B group from Philadelphia who rose to fame in the late ‘90s on Motown Records. Now, he performs with percussion groups in the city and runs the recording studio at Rittenhouse Soundworks.
Levinson found her love for music early in life as well, though not quite as early as Hamilton.
“When I was 10, I played the flute and I thought ‘Well, this is it. This is what I’m gonna do,’” Levinson explained.
Though her career paths have wavered over the years, Levinson has found herself returning to music. She currently teaches flute at a school in West Philadelphia and gave lessons at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls before moving west in the late 80’s.
In 2014, however, Levinson and her husband decided to move to Germantown. Why? Jim Hamilton.
“He [Hamilton] was the catalyst of it all,”she said. “I was coming back from California to take care of my parents who were elderly and needed help. Tony (her husband) had a recording session here (at Rittenhouse Soundworks) and he took me one night. That’s when I met Jim.”
“It was fate,” he chuckled.
What interested Levinson about the Germantown community was the thriving artistic culture the area nurtures. The musical talent the environment has fostered spans all genres and forms from Grover Washington, Jr.’s smooth jazz to punk rocker Patti Smith.
“Jim started talking, ‘Oh, you have to meet this one and this one’ and we just thought this was the coolest place. Both Tony and I always wanted to be in a community of music and artists,” Levinson said.
Passion over wealth
Living in Germantown made her feel more alive than living in San Diego, she said. “Being in the suburbs and upper middle class, I just felt that there was no one with passion about anything except making money there. I came back here and this was what we decided we wanted to do.”
The passion about music is palpable at the Musicians Gathering. It is a friendly, open and judgment-free environment where self-expression and creativity are encouraged.
“Where we are in our history right now is that the bottom has fallen out of that plastic American way of being and thinking,” Hamilton said. “People of all ages are asking themselves what the value of life in the United States actually is. This community (in Germantown) is an experiment in rebuilding what a community means, how it can create power and how it can use that power. We always say that ideas are the most powerful currency. It’s not money.”
However, in Philadelphia and other big cities, it takes money to gain access to the arts. The average performance at the Kimmel Center, for instance, typically exceeds $60 — a hefty price for many in Philadelphia, including Germantown, where 26 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
All three venues participating in Sunday’s music festival are charging between $10-15 for individual shows, while all-day access passes are available for $40.
“[The ticket price] is about one-fourth of what it should be, that’s why we’re asking people to come out,” Hamilton said. “We can only really do it if an amount of people come out to really support it. That creates the sustainability and, by creating the sustainability, you’re creating the community.”
He added: “The whole thing about creating a community is, often times when gentrification happens, it happens from the top down, instead of from the bottom up. This is our opportunity (for) the kind of change we want to see be created from the bottom up.”
On the other hand, the musicians can’t work for free. “The musicians have all worked hard and deserve something,” Levinson said. “When musicians keep doing things for free and keep giving things away, it demeans and takes away from all the lifelong work they’ve done to get to where they are. That has to be respected, too.”
Music for all
Expect all kinds of music at Sunday’s music festival. The Germantown Flute Trio, which includes Leviinson, will be perform classical music at noon in a house on Price Street. The Jim Hamilton Duo will perform traditional Brazilian music at 2 p.m at 410 Specialties BMW repair shop.
At 4 p.m. the Monnette Sudler/Diane Monroe Quartet will perform jazz there as well.
Rittenhouse Soundworks will be hosting the final two shows of the night. At 6:30 p.m., The Epoché Sax Quartet will perform from their array of classical and jazz music. The Jōst Project, which describes itself as “classic rock in a jazz format,” will play at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets to the Germantown Arts Festival can be purchased on the group’s website or in person at Rittenhouse Soundworks at 219 West Rittenhouse St. Those in need of financial assistance may contact Hamilton at email@example.com. Seating is limited and some spaces may fill up quickly.