Tucked away in the corner of Dahlak Paradise in West Philadelphia lies a hall of mirrors, transporting you to another universe. Emblazoned on the wall is a fluorescent neon purple sign that reads “If these walls could talk … ” One brisk Wednesday evening in late October, an eclectic group milled about in that very room. The conversation came to a halt as the first note rang out.
Body enrobed over his trumpet, KooF Ibi pressed his only–sock–wearing feet on the pedals of his looper machine, layering his rich, toned melodies to ultimately create a breathtaking world of sound. The mood was instantly transformed into a sea of soft, serene foot tapping and head bobbing, enchanted by the aura emerging from Ibi and his beloved trumpet. You could feel the passion in his music, the vibes mellow and ethereal, as a talented percussionist accompanied the siren–like quality of Ibi’s melodies.
At that moment, the neon sign bore its truth: Great musicians had played in this very space before, the walls steeped in the legacy of countless local musical legends. As Ibi closed his eyes and began to play, the walls hummed with resonance, and at that moment, he etched his name alongside the greats who had graced the same stage before.
KooF Ibi is a local trumpet player who is breaking the mold of what it means to be a jazz musician. He is a composer, improviser, and educator who is bringing his unique sound to audiences far and wide. A master of improvisation, his solos transcend all genres, revolutionizing the very definition of jazz and blues right here in Philadelphia.
Born Koofreh Ibi Umoren, Ibi grew up in Mercer County, New Jersey. His affinity towards music began from a young age, as he would sit in on his older sisters’ piano lessons. “I just wanted to be in the room with the player on piano,” he said, sticking around until he was old enough to receive his own lessons.
Soon after, Ibi modeled himself after his cousin and picked up the trumpet, playing throughout lower school. He quit the trumpet at the beginning of high school until one day, he decided on a whim to rejoin the band for a trip. Here, he connected with his beloved high school music teacher, Ron Heller, whom he attributes to reigniting his passion for music.
Heller introduced young Ibi to his alma mater, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. After high school, Ibi followed in Heller’s footsteps and moved to Philadelphia, where he pursued a degree in education and music. He studied education in order to pay his love of music forward and inspire the next generation of aspiring musicians to realize that the connection lies deeper than scales and charts. When he’s not performing, Ibi’s other pastime is teaching his passion for music. This challenging yet rewarding task is where Ibi truly shines. Breaking the confines of a typical classroom, Ibi is an educator of the city, unearthing the hidden musicians of Philadelphia. Through establishing private lessons and community programs, Ibi succeeds in reigniting the flame and sharing the light of his many talented students and peers. “I’m still a teacher,” he says, “I keep saying that if you’re around me and say that you used to play an instrument or that you can’t play an instrument, I’m going to teach you how to play an instrument. I want to get people to recommit themselves to music that they feel separated from.”
After graduation, Ibi quickly became a fixture on the Philadelphia rhythm and blues scene. He is known for his innovative and soulful playing, spanning regular jazz standards to his masterful improvisation. His solos fiery and passionate and his methods unorthodox, Ibi’s musical inspirations are fittingly as diverse as his skill set.
“The notes in my head are influenced by all the different styles of music that I played,” he says. From salsa bands in college to the Balkan Brass of the West Philadelphia Orchestra, Ibi has accompanied a wide range of performance ensembles. “That style and those scales have influenced my playing, and trying to utilize them all at times adds a different flavor to what I'm doing,” he shares.
Ibi’s unique sound marries together soul, avant–garde jazz, and techno–beat. His earlier music memories stem from his Nigerian background. On an average Sunday afternoon, his mother would play Nigerian church music on tape. The religious chants were interlaced with upbeat Nigerian rhythm, a tempo you could dance along to and “truly feel the spirit.” His mother also introduced him to Fela Kuti, a Nigerian Afrobeat artist who Ibi claims as his longest–standing musical influence to date.
As Ibi became more integrated into the jazz canon, he was inspired to play outside of the norms by Thelonious Monk, an American composer and jazz musician. Ibi shares his admiration for Monk, who played alongside classic contemporary musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. “He had a completely different style that no one else was doing at the time, but still fit pretty perfectly,” says Ibi. The same could be said for Ibi himself.
The final piece of his performance, his use of an electric looper and beat pad, is inspired by Björk. Ibi was drawn to her optimistic perspective on the digitization of music and the world at large. Björk dared to break traditional music norms, embracing new technology in order to elevate her sound to serve as a powerful voice for pressing threats on Iceland’s marine habitats. Ibi raves about her innovative and boundless creativity, inspiring him to intertwine the sounds of the future with the reverberations of the past.
Ibi doesn’t view any music genre as unworthy of appreciation. Whitney Houston and New Kids on the Block sang the soundtrack of his youth, and nowadays, he enjoys all genres, from radio pop to heavy metal and Dolly Parton. “I've always tried to keep my ears open to what's going on,” he shares. “It's not going to be played on the radio if nobody likes it. There's something to be taken from that. There's something to be learned about that.” He develops his craft by listening and learning what’s out there. All in all, incorporating the universal sounds of today into his music definitely sets him apart as a jazz trumpeter.
One of his favorite performances was playing with Japanese Breakfast, an indie pop band lead by Michelle Zauner, back in 2022. The show consisted of similar circles in Philadelphia coming together for one purpose: to raise money for the city. They did so in a beautiful harmony of genre and styles. Out–of–the–box collaboration for the purpose of humanity was right up his alley.
Ibi also utilizes his artistic talents of film photography and videography to portray the many talented musicians he performs with. His creativity for the sake of unity is boundless. He shoots almost all of his own album and music covers and promotions for solo or collaborative gigs. Through his empowering lens, he also highlights a plethora of local Philadelphia musicians with unmistakably unique sounds in his video gallery project, Random Tea Sessions.
Now, however, Ibi is ready to take to the stage by himself. He’s covered a vast expanse of music as a collaborative artist, but as he sets out on his first solo tour performance in Vermont and many more cities to come, he’s bringing his unique sound to audiences all over the Northeast.
He wants to show people that it’s easy to play music that feels good. Beyond the scales, charts, and the three brass pedals of a trumpet lie endless possibilities. The most important goal, he reiterates, is education. Through his remote private teaching while he’s on tour and his inspirational playing, Ibi aims to foster a renewed appreciation among individuals for the music that once resonated deeply within them. Figuring it out along the way and forging his own path are some of the lessons he has learned of musicians past while also taking the path less traveled. From a small town in Vermont to the underprivileged, aspiring musical youth of Philadelphia, KooF Ibi is determined to share this wild passion for music with everyone in his path.
Ibi urges us to “value the times and the people that share music with you.” Some of his most invaluable lessons were learned in and out of the classroom during his time in college, especially from mentors and students who were unafraid to fuse genres. He encourages students to connect with professors, professionals, and like–minded peers circling the music industry and most importantly, students should venture beyond campus and experience the plethora of sounds vibrating throughout the Philly music scene.
To catch Ibi live, he plays at Abyssinia every second Thursday and frequents Clark Park as well. One might be so lucky to discover the next hidden gem of the Philly sound, as revolutionary talents like Ibi can be found busking on the streets. With every performance, Koof Ibi leaves a long–lasting impact on his audience, just as he did that Wednesday evening in the small back room of Dahlak Paradise in West Philadelphia.