Photo by Alex Zimmerman
This Friday, April 24, will mark the last time Joe Negri fans will get a chance to catch him play his regular set at the Omni William Penn Hotel — a decision made by management that has angered some in the local jazz community.
"When he announced the gig was ending and it wasn’t by his choice — and he’s being replaced by a DJ-turned-amateur-singer ... it just [felt] like this isn’t the way to treat Joe Negri,” says Michelle Kienholz, a fan who has regularly attended his shows at the Omni Downtown. She's encouraging supporters to attend his last show in solidarity. He'll perform with pianist Daniel May from 5 to 7 p.m.
Negri, who has played at the hotel once a month for five years, is a renowned classical guitarist who co-starred as "Handyman Negri" on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Negri says that hotel management approached him about two weeks ago and said they "wanted to change the music format, try some different things. It kind of came out of the blue."
"They treated me pretty well for a long time," the 88-year-old Negri adds, surmising they "might be looking to go for a younger crowd.”
Bob Page, the Omni's director of sales and marketing, says the decision to end Negri's residency was made to "freshen things up."
"We just needed to make a change in entertainment for a little bit of variety to stimulate some additional business," he says, adding Negri may still be invited to play special events. "Joe has always been very respected by this hotel. It’s a little frustrating that people are making this out to be a negative thing.”
Page would not say who the hotel planned to book as entertainment down the road, but Carlton Leeper, a local DJ and vocalist who performs jazz, R&B and pop, confirmed he will start performing at the Omni in May, two Fridays a month.
"We’re catching flak for this," Leeper says, noting he had no idea the hotel was ending Negri's residency when Leeper auditioned. People have approached him to encourage him not to take the job, Leeper says, but he's planning to honor the commitment, because "whether we
do it or not, someone’s [doing] the gig."
The hotel's move puzzled Tania Grubbs, who is a vocalist and helps organize jazz concerts offered Wednesday through Saturday at Downtown's Fairmont Hotel. “There are people that are really pissed off, because they see it as a nice thing in our jazz community that’s gone," Grubbs says. "Joe is a national treasure. ... I think it might be a little shortsighted on their behalf to eliminate him from their lineup."
Regardless, she adds, “Friday, that lobby will be packed.”