Jeff Woloszyn is sitting outside of his establishment at 15th and South streets playing the guitar. It’s 10 a.m. on an uncharacteristically sunny November morning, and South Street Sounds is closed for another two hours. Rather than opening early, Jeff is enjoying the morning, singing about journeying to Chinatown to pick up his favorite dumplings. His tall, lanky frame is folded like a slinky over a stool, spilling on to the sidewalk, and his head is tilted upwards as if he’s singing to the sun. His soothing tenor is more conversational than musical and it decrescendos to a whisper every time someone walks past the store. A tattered mat rests on the stoop with bold black letters and the outline of a guitar — “Welcome to the Music.” As you walk into South Street Sounds, you walk into ‘music’ in its every form. “I call the place South Street Sounds, because I sell anything that makes a sound,” Jeff says in his soft timbre as he navigates through the labyrinth of noise-making devices covering every inch of the small space. Guitars are suspended from every corner over an infinite variety of hand drums, horns, drumsticks and other music accessories. A double-neck guitar that Jeff built himself leans against the checkout counter. Miscellaneous stacks of CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes teeter precariously on top of amplifiers. The place screams 1960s West Coast, with small Buddha sculptures and Taoist art filling the sparse spaces not occupied by instruments. Jeff’s wife, Leona, the store’s only other employee, is behind the counter on the phone with a customer. Even the stairs that lead down to Buddha Zen Studio, which Jeff describes as “the real gem of the place,” are used as storage space. Downstairs in the studio, a pair of old MXL microphones stand suspended over a maple drum set. Through a glass door, a Mac desktop next to a pile of preamps and mixers and two wooden chairs make up Jeff’s workspace. In the studio, Jeff sits back on the drum stool and props his feet up against the bass drum. It’s as if he’s not at work, but rather at home, and he seems quietly proud and content with his set-up and his life.
At 42, Jeff has only been involved in the music business for five years, but he is already a permanent fixture in the Philly music scene. When not selling music supplies upstairs in South Street Sounds, he is in the basement recording a long roster of local musicians covering a plethora of genres. A firm believer in the talent and creativity of Philadelphia’s artists, Jeff has devoted himself to being a major force in the growth and expansion of local music. This wasn’t always the case. After growing up in New Jersey, Jeff moved into a friend’s apartment in Philadelphia at the age of 19. When he graduated from Rutgers, he worked at a mutual fund as Assistant Vice President of Performance. Even then, however, he felt a dormant call for music. “You trade money for happiness,” he says. “My wife would buy shoes to get her happiness and I would buy instruments to get mine.” By the end of his stint in the corporate world, Jeff had collected 12 guitars, several horns he didn’t know how to play and a drum set. Five years ago, Jeff came home from work and told his wife he had quit his job — “one day I was just like, ‘Why is everyone treating me like shit here? I’m one of the best fucking employees here!’” Leona is brutally honest about Jeff’s drastic life decision — “I was upset. In some ways, I still am. But he used to come home from work, looking like the blood had been sucked out of him. Now, he still works so hard, but he is doing what he enjoys, and that makes a big difference.” After figuring out that it was music that made him happy, Jeff began to pursue it full-time. “I could see the top of the corporate ladder and it just wasn’t appealing to me, even with a six-figure salary,” he says. One day, Jeff took the instruments he had collected, the little money he had managed to save and some furniture found in trash bins around the city and opened South Street Sounds and Buddha Zen Studio in the space below his apartment. Charging only $10 per hour on opening day, Jeff has increased his prices as he’s become better at what he does, currently asking $25 per hour. “I initially could charge those prices, because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he says, laughing as he clicks around ProTools as if it’s as natural as tying his shoelaces. “I had 14-year-old inner-city rappers yelling at me because I’d be backed up trying to figure out how to get the sound they wanted.” While Jeff has since developed an expertise at what he does, he still insists that he doesn’t see his prices ever increasing further. “I’ve been close to being rich and it never made me happy. This makes me happy — working 15-hour days, listening to different kinds of music. And I never want to get to the point where money is preventing someone from recording their music.”
It’s Jeff’s selfless philosophy that is making South Street Sounds and Buddha Zen Studio a hub for the Philly music scene, keeping musicians coming back for equipment and recording times. It’s a puzzlingly optimistic philosophy, considering the general aura of negativity in the music industry since the advent of the mp3. Jeff genuinely believes that any band that puts a lot of work into their music can end up making art for a living. “My question to all the bands who think it’s impossible to go anywhere is ‘how many eight-hour days have you put in devoted to music?’” Instead of fighting the artistic diversity that exists in Philly, Jeff has embraced it and opened his mind (and his studio) to a huge range of musical genres. The list of bands he has recorded includes bluegrass singers, death metal bands, teen pop-punk groups, North Philly MCs, reggae groups and more. Paul, a frequent patron of the studio, is waiting in the closed store for his studio slot to begin. By day, Paul operates a forklift at a warehouse, but when his shift is over he becomes Industrial Death, a musician, visual artist, graphic designer and budding novelist who throws “art parties” every other week. Paul has known Jeff as “the friendly, neighborhood music guy” since 2003 when he lived across the street, and he started recording at Buddha Zen in 2006. “There are a lot of circles in Philadelphia,” Paul says, “and in the circles I’m part of, everyone knows this dude.” While he prefers being behind the boards, Jeff is a musician too. As Jason Jeffries, he is the front man for the TaLLtrEEs. Although he’s gotten close to success, being a full-time musician has never really appealed to him. “I treat the band as more of a philosophy. Because I’ve always believed that being in a band is kind of like being married to five people who you don’t get to sleep with.” To harvest Philly’s musical diversity and to counter what he calls “musical prejudice,” Jeff hosts Buddhafest every third Saturday of the even months at the Tritone across the street. The show usually begins at 4:30 p.m. with a Jeff-led open jam that anyone is welcome to join. To encourage a diverse audience, Jeff intentionally puts drastically different music back to back. “I’ll put a really chilled out acoustic jam band right after a metal band. They’ll be like, ‘What are you doing? We’re going to have to play our hardest stuff,’ and I’m like ‘Nah, man. Just do your thing. They’re going to freakin’ love it!” Jeff has no desire to expand his venture into a big record-label or high-revenue studio. He’s happy where he is, finding artists that are just breaking the surface and giving them an opportunity to express themselves — Buddhafest is part of that opportunity.
It is the third Saturday of December and Buddhafest is scheduled at the Tritone. In a cruel twist of fate, a nor’easter is ravaging the DC-New York corridor. Jeff is at the bar talking about the bands that have already called to cancel. People trickle in, complaining loudly about the weather and removing layers as they head straight to the bar to order the Special — a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a generous shot of bourbon for three dollars. By 4:15, there are about 10 people around the bar. Someone selects The Misfits’ “Ghouls Night Out” on the jukebox and the customers mumble their approval. At around 4:30, Jeff takes the stage and after some idle microphone chatter with the audience, launches into some TaLLtrEEs tracks. Before his third song, he humbly apologizes for some cracks in his voice, “sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon.” As Jeff’s set progresses, the crowd grows slowly. During his set, Jeff is in the zone, his tall frame swaying across the stage, and as his set closes he lets out a vocal wail that, run through a web of effect pedals, sounds like a choir. Throughout, Jeff acts as MC, playing both covers and his own tracks in between sets and introducing each band in a way that shows he knows them well. Bluegrass, pop rock, country, acoustic punk rock and a number of sounds that defy classification showcase the versatility of Philadelphia’s local scene. PBR in hand, Jeff frantically runs between the soundboard, the artists waiting their turn around the bar, and into the snowstorm and across the street to South Street Sounds to pick up equipment. Meanwhile, Leona sits and winces at Jeff’s jokes and helps with logistics when necessary. With Buddhafest, Jeff is doing much more than just showcasing some of Philadelphia’s best local artists. He is providing a forum for musicians to network, to branch into genres they’d generally avoid and he is proving that a solid sense of unity can be found in Philadelphia’s musical diversity.
When Jeff’s in the studio, his paradoxical attitude toward his work — utterly laid back yet completely driven — shines through the most. As one band, the Jazz Guardians, finishes up their time slot and before they’ve even made it out of the studio, Jeff is calling from downstairs — “ready when you are, Paulie!” Jeff immediately launches into recording a vocal track for a dub-step infused hip hop song Industrial Death is working on called “It Frees Me.” “This song’s about making music,” Paul says in between takes, “This is where I get to do that.” Jeff knows his way around the artists’ tracks so well that Paul can just mention a section of a lyric that needs work and in half a second Jeff has found the spot on the wave file. When Paul raps “flavorite,” instead of “favorite,” Jeff swiftly switches windows, hits stop and says, “let’s do that again.” After an hour and a half in the studio, Paul rolls a cigarette and steps outside for a break. It’s late and cold, and South Street is deserted. “He’s just a great guy and he knows how to treat his customers, who are also all his friends. Communication’s what you need in a studio space,” he says as he exhales. “He’s also just always working and completely keeps me on task.” As if on cue, Jeff walks out onto the sidewalk, hands buried deep in his pockets, and asks “so what do you want to do next, Paul?” Before Paul can answer, he recognizes someone across the street and calls him over — a rapper who started his career at Buddha Zen. Jeff teases him about his initial lack of talent — “I was afraid to touch you because I was going to get all your ‘white’ on me. Look at me — I’m white enough, man.” But before the rapper, now laughing hysterically, continues on his way, Jeff makes sure to invite him over for turkey on New Year’s Day. Jeff and Paul chat a bit more, then they get back to work in the basement. Earlier that day, as he packed up, the Jazz Guardians' drummer explained, “this place is going to be the next Abbey Road, man — in a few years all the big shots are gonna be like, ‘I recorded at Buddha Zen.’” This may be a stretch, even if Jeff hopes to see the bands he records succeed in the long run. But what is true is that through South Street Sounds and Buddha Zen Studio, Jeff is keeping the Philadelphia music scene alive, in all its multi-faceted glory. And the musicians that keep the place in business are, in every way, keeping Jeff alive too.