DeNinno has been bringing Jazz to Center City. Photo: Chris' Jazz Cafe.
DeNinno has been bringing Jazz to Center City. Photo: Chris' Jazz Cafe.

How Chris’ Jazz Cafe kept the tunes playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic

From hosting a East Coast Virtual Jazz festival to broadcasting live sessions for outdoor patrons, the cafe has innovated to stay afloat.


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Mark DeNinno, the executive chef of Chris’ Jazz Cafe, has been involved with the jazz club and eatery for over 22 years.

His loyal clientele would ditch the suburban life and go to the city to catch a glimpse of the authentic jazz music and have a bite of delicious food he makes from scratch on a daily basis.

“The club is named after the original owner, Chris Demitri. He was the owner for about 10 years, then it was sold to two attorneys,” DeNinno said in a recent interview with AL DÍA News.

The attorneys called DeNinno’s consulting company because they were having a tough time seeing a profit.

“Two years into that contract, I told them that if they wanted to make this work, they had to add Jazz as the focus of the club,” said DeNinno.

The previous owners had no intention of putting the proper effort into the renovations and eventually gave Mark all access to the club.

“We took the majority shares of the club and that day when we signed the papers, we also started knocking walls down,” he said.

It was then that DeNinno started to add more jazz elements to the cafe by adding a baby grand piano, getting rid of the pool table that was in the center of the establishment, and adding more chairs to set the scene.

“That was the point when we were really put on the map as a Jazz club in the world,” he said.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Philadelphia in March 2020, Deninno had to shift to virtually delivering jazz music to customers. He closed the cafe to the public, and geared up for a virtual jazz club.

It’s an experience to say the least these days.

“We don’t call it a live stream, because a live stream to us means that there is someone on their iPhone on a bookshelf and they are playing the piano, ours is much different than that,” he said.

For one, DeNinno added better equipment so people at home could better visualize the performance.

“We brought in 4 tilt pans and a camera, audio engineers booth in, we completely redid the lighting and light the back wall with the club’s name,” he said.

He has also arranged a virtual jazz festival that has never been done before: The East Coast Jazz Festival. 

It is a multi-city festival featuring bands from up and down the East Coast.

“I called clubs from Boston to Washington D.C, it’s a pay what you wish event, people can jump from club to club,” he said.

In addition to the new festival that is bringing in new clientele, his old customers have been constantly calling the cafe, asking staffers when the club will be opening its doors.

“It got to the point where customers would be pulling on the door and knocking on the windows,” he said.

So Deninno did what any loyal jazz club owner would do: he installed a 70-inch flat-screen so customers could see the band sessions that were being recorded inside.

“We get a little crowd there on Friday and Saturday that enjoy the music, so we know they are thirsty for this live jazz and I know that once we open up we can quench that thirst,” he said.

As of now, things are looking up for the cafe, and DeNinno believes the establishment can start up again by May.

“Once we get through April and others get their shot, I am sure that as we go through that month the number of people vaccinated will give us a better footing in opening back up,” he said.

Beyond the music, there is also the food to look forward to.

DeNinno expressed that he cannot wait to start serving his classic dishes again. 

One in particular, is his trademark pan-roasted salmon over a truffle potato croquette with Pernod mussel jus and sweet English peas.

“That is a dish that customers ask for,” he said.

As a chef, he is known for his American cuisine with a southern influence.

He also describes his dishes as rustic, “with a french presentation.”

His desserts are also made in-house, including his beignets, which are made to order.

They are deep-fried, filled with jelly and topped with powdered sugar.

“We are proud of it. All of our recipes are from our own ideas,” he said.

DeNinno shows his love of cooking in each and every meal that he makes. 

Since he was a teen, he always wanted to learn how to cook and make remarkable dishes that added his signature touch to them.

His journey to culinary mastery wasn’t the road commonly traveled.

“Culinary school is pretty expensive,” he said.

But that did not stop him.

“Some of the back cooks from my old job would teach me how to cook and teach me how to make demi gloss,” he said.

Eventually, he became a successful, self-taught chef that is known all over Philadelphia.

DeNinno’s future plans for the club are to bring customers back and add all different types of jazz, including Latin Jazz.

Until then, check out Chris’ Jazz Cafe music lineup to discover the various talent that will be featured on the website.


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