The collaboration between Mark Christman of Ars Nova Workshop and Evan Clancy of Fountain Porter brings a new kind of jazz club to the site of former South Philly indie rock venue. Ars Nova Workshop finally has a home to call its own.
For over 20 years, the Philadelphia jazz and experimental music nonprofit institution has led an itinerant lifestyle. Founder Mark Christman pursued what he half jokingly calls “the business of presenting unpopular music” in nomadic fashion.
Ars Nova has a reputation for challenging and original programming, from esteemed acts like Art Ensemble of Chicago, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, and Philadelphia bassist Anthony Tidd, who joined Ars Nova this year as chief creative catalyst.
While bookings are adventurous, they’ve also been all over the place — in terms of Philadelphia geography, that is. From from Plays & Players Theater (where the first Ars Nova show was staged, with Chris Speed’s yeah NO in 2000) to the Painted Bride Art Center to Ardmore Music Hall — Ars Nova has been on the move.
This month, Solar Myth opened as a nighttime live music venue and all-day cafe and jazz bar in the South Philly space formerly occupied by rock club Boot & Saddle.
Solar Myth’s opening should be cause for celebration for anyone who grew distraught when the Boot, which opened in 2013 in a space that had been shuttered for 17 years, went out of business in 2020.
But the new iteration of the space with a history as a country music bar stretching to the 1950s will have a different aesthetic than the indie outpost booked by Union Transfer and First Unitarian Church promoters, R5 Productions.
For one thing, Solar Myth — a nod to Afrofuturist visionary Sun Ra, who briefly used the name Sun Ra & the Solar Myth Arkestra in the early 1970s — will not measure success by the quantity of shows it puts on.
The aim is not to bring back the indie rock bands that played the Boot — some of which can now be found further down Broad at the Dolphin Tavern, or at PhilaMOCA, where R5 has shifted many acts.
Instead, Ars Nova will present one-of-a-kind residencies and collaborations in the tin-ceilinged back room, with an avant jazz and experimental focus.
In the new year, Lansdowne-raised guitarist Steve Gunn plays Jan. 6 and 7. Vibraphonist Joel Ross is Jan. 10 and Philly trombonist Kalia Vandever is January 19. Upcoming bookings include Kahil El’Zabar Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Nduduzo Makhathini, Marc Ribot’s The Jazz-Bin, Xylouris White and Claire Rousay.
Whether there’s a show or not, bartenders in the brightened-up up front room will be spinning vinyl behind the bar, most donated by Philly jazz fan Joe Lex.
Rival Brothers coffee and pastries, sandwiches, and tomato pie from nearby Mighty Bread are being served, along with natural wine and mostly local draft beer. “Coffee 7 AM,” it says on a sign stenciled by the door. “Bar Noon.”
“The idea is for it to be a seven-days-a-week neighborhood hang,” says Clancy, an Ars Nova fan and supporter who became fast friends with Christman after the two met on Zoom in 2020.
“And on top of that, there’s a cool show happening a couple of times a week. It’s going to turn a lot of people on to Ars Nova.”
Christman and Clancy weren’t plotting to team up, but when the opportunity arose in the spring of 2021 to take a look at the Boot & Saddle space, a partnership became a possibility.
“I’ve always kept a toe in the full time venue conversation,” says Christman. “It’s hard not to, when you’re picking up shop and breaking it down on that hamster wheel. It’s exhausting. And expensive.”
Teaming with Clancy will allow Solar Myth to thrive, he adds, saying that Ars Nova’s reliance on grants and other sources means only 20% of its budget comes from ticket sales.
“This is an opportunity for two organizations that work in their own environments at their own speed to make something that’s much bigger than either entity.”
Christman believes Philadelphia can easily support a new venue in addition to clubs like Chris’ Jazz Cafe, South Jazz Kitchen, Heritage and Time.
“There’s plenty of room for there to be a 100 to 175 room space in Philadelphia to host the greatest American invention, which is jazz,” he says.
The 21-year-old free jazz sax player Zoh Amba played a soft opening last month. Charlie Hall, drummer for the The War On Drugs, led his 10-piece Get Up With It band, dedicated to Miles Davis’ early 1970s jazz-funk, for two nights.
Ethiopian jazz quintet Qwanqwa got bodies moving in a Tuesday night dance party. And 98-year-old Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen fronted a small combo.
For those performances, the back room was packed. “All of those shows reflect the ideas and history we are going to very modestly continue to present and showcase here,” Christman says.
Philly musicians seem equally eager.
“It’s rare to have a place where the music is curated on a super high level with a point of view that’s not corporate driven or booking agent driven,” said guitarist Chris Forsyth while Kamasi Washington’s The Epic played on the sound system. “And it’s great just to have another independent venue, with a cool vibe.”
“It was great to be back in that room,” Hall said via email, adding that the venue’s front room “reminds me of some of the great Japanese listening room bars.”
“Rooms have souls. They have history. You can feel it at Solar Myth. … I wasn’t sure how shoehorning a 10 piece band on that stage to play the very electric music of 1969-75 Miles world would fly, but it was amazing. The place was exploding with joy. LONG LIVE SOLAR MYTH!”