A local artist, who has toured with Jill Scott and Adele, is performing in this weekend’s Center City Jazz Festival.
By Lindsey Nolen
Growing up in Southwest Philly with a pastor for a father, Eric Wortham II spent his childhood fulfilling the role of “church kid.” This exposure to a church set- ting at such a young age helped shape his passion for keyboard instruments, and on April 29 he will be returning home to Philly to showcase his talents and assume the role of a featured artist at the Center City Jazz Festival.
Despite being asked to perform due to his present-day piano mastery, the South Philly resident recalls a time in his childhood when his only wish was to accompany his two older sisters, Ebony and Erica, to the piano lessons they were given in-home by a neighborhood teacher.
“You could tell my sisters didn’t like [the lessons], but I loved them. I loved listening to the different notes and watch- ing the teacher’s fingers move,” Wortham said.
In the summer of 1989, not long after the second of his sisters voiced that she no longer wished to participate in the lessons, Wortham found himself in attendance at a Bethel Temple Churches youth convention in Baltimore. Despite being just 6 years old, he remembers standing on the edge of a choir loft that was overlooking the organ and watching organist Vincent Sneed move his fingers over the keys.
“It just looked like magic, and I’ll never forget thinking to myself, ‘Wow, look at how through his mastery of this instrument he’s able to affect everyone’s emotions,’” Wortham said.
Leaving the convention, Wortham rushed home and immediately took to his sisters’ keyboard and, without any instruction, began practicing on it. Wortham realized he had a natural ear for the music and was able to play roughly 15 percent of what he heard Sneed play.
Demonstrating a rapid musical progression, Wortham begged his parents to enroll him in piano lessons. However, they were hesitant because of their denomination, frowning upon secular music and wanting him to play strictly gospel music.
“So, rather than sitting with my parents in church I began sitting next to the organ, paying very close attention to the songs, chords and things of that nature,” he said. “I would go home and stay up all night trying to remember the configurations, writing them down. After six months from starting this, I had working knowledge on how to get through any song they would play in church.”
FINALLY, IT TOOK a family friend, who was also an organist, seeing Wortham play to convince his parents to put the young musician in piano lessons. Wortham remembers the friend telling his father, Pastor Eric Wortham, “This young man has a gift, you need to put him in school.”
At his advice, Wortham, who was now 8, began taking lessons at Gibson School of Music and Arts where he learned many of the basics, such as modes, sighting reading and how to read note values. However, he was eventually taken out of the school when his parents could no longer afford to continue sending him there.
“I had just enough working knowledge to where I was able to go to the Free Library of Philadelphia and pick up books and self-educate myself,” Wortham, who was attending Hill Freedman World Academy at the time, said. “I would find sheet music I could barely understand, having to cut school and go to the library to be able to make it home at the hour at which I was expected.”
Then, at the end of eighth grade, Wortham heard of the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, 901 S. Broad St., and its rigorous music curriculum that rivals many universities. Although his parents stressed he attend high school at either Mathematics Civics & Sciences Charter School or George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science to become an engineer, Wortham secretly applied to the CAPA music pro- gram and was asked to come in for an audi- tion. He was granted early acceptance and, without telling his parents, wrote back and accepted the offer. After “massaging” the idea of attending
CAPA into his mother’s head, his family agreed, and upon entering the school, the young musician saw his education in music transform dramatically.
“I met some peers, as well as some teachers, who changed the way I approach music, life and being a professional,” he said. “The biggest contributor from that was my high school music teacher, Kevin Rodgers.
That man changed it all.” Wortham explained Rodgers was able to
take him from music theory I to the most advanced theory, and showed him how all of the modes, transcriptions, scales, chords, inversions, etc. made sense in the world of music.
Wortham improved so much during his four years at CAPA that the school created a variety of AP music classes for him and approximately six of his peers. Upon graduation, Wortham knew the instruction he re- ceived had changed his life and there was a lot of buzz around what direction Wortham would pursue. Wortham chose to sign an in- dependent record deal with a label based in New Jersey that is no longer in existence.
“From there, I went on tour with myself, played music how I wanted to play and get- ting the attention of a lot of artists in the tri-state area,” Wortham said. “After my tour, musical director Adam Blackstone reached out and said he knew of an artist who needed a piano player who could sight read really well and who played with a lot of feeling to practice with for an upcoming audition for the Broadway musical, ‘The
Color Purple,’ so I agreed.” Driving to the artist’s house in New Jersey, Wortham noticed the homes becoming increasingly extravagant and wondered who this performer could possibly be. To his surprise, he ended up at the door of R&B songstress Jill Scott.
Wortham remembers feeling as though he and Scott began a dance they had per- formed many times before. This immediate connection led to Scott’s request that Worthan accompany her on tour from 2009 until 2015. He was also given the opportunity to record four songs with her and to perform a duet with her at numerous awards shows.
After the tour, Wortham found himself performing a small gig when he received an email from the manager of Scott’s percussion player. The manager asked if Wortham would be interested in an 18-month tour with another artist.
Being asked to perform the Adele songs “Someone Like You” and “One and Only” for his Skype audition, Wortham had an idea of which artist the audition may have been for, but it was not until Adele’s face graced the computer screen that he was sure. After the seven-minute audition, Wortham couldn’t sleep and remembers getting the email officially asking him to join the Adele band at 4 a.m. the next morning.
“I’m a black kid from Philadelphia, I didn’t grow up thinking I would become the piano player for the biggest artist in the world,” Wortham said.
While his tour with Adele is still ongoing, Wortham is on a short break and has begun to think of his future aside from be- ing an accompanist. In the years to come, he hopes to concentrate as a solo artist and pianist, and he will be performing in this fashion at the Center City Jazz Festival (6:15 p.m.-7:15 p.m. April 29) at Time Restaurant, 1315 Sansom St.
“Playing Adele’s iconic, epic and time- less songs and being entrusted by the art- ist who wrote them is the greatest honor,” Wortham said. “But for now, I’m just re- ally excited to be back in my hometown. There’s no nerves, I just can’t wait to get up there and play.”
For more information, visit ccjazzfest. com.