He played regularly at the Saloon Restaurant in South Philly after he unofficially auditioned and got a gig on the spot for Monday and Tuesday nights.
For a couple years until Kahn got his driver’s license, his father would drive him into the city for four-hour sets and come back to pick him up.
By 1968, when he was 16, he formed his first — and only — professional trio, The All-Star Jazz Trio, including the same drummer, Bruce Klauber, he plays with today.
By 20, Kahn started a recording studio with his brother Walter, Queen Village Recording Studios — occupying an old paint warehouse from the family’s business — which became a popular place, as well-known performers stopped by, including Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Grace Kelly.
He managed to score a hit gold record in 1978 with “Hot Shot” by Philly singer Karen Young topping the disco charts. Later on, Kahn often played piano at benefit concerts for ActionAIDS to help raise money.
But Kahn took a “long break” from the industry — 25 years — to work for the family business.
He bought the family’s paint distribution and decorating business, Southwark Decorating, from his father in 1985. Kahn’s grandfather opened the storefront in 1918 on Fabric Row.
Like many others on Fourth Street, the store closed in 2010, but it still operates a window treatment business, which was added to the company in the late ’80s.
“It’s a tribute to both my father and grandfather — who kept that business going — not because it makes so much money but because I just wanted to make the 100-year mark,” the 65-year-old Kahn laughed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do after next year.”
Kahn descended from a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, like many who occupied Fabric Row.
“It was all pushcarts and delicatessens — and a paint store,” he noted proudly.
Kahn’s father grew up above the storefront and became a Bar Mitzvah in the home in 1933.
“They expected about 12 people to show up, and the whole neighborhood ended up coming,” he said. “They had to take all the [wooden] crates that the paint came in … and take the paint cans out to create seats for people to sit.”
Kahn and his partner, Bruce Cahan, 73, took over the business together.
The couple met in 1979 at what is now Voyeur nightclub, which Kahn called the “Studio 54 of Philadelphia back in the day.”
On March 28 of that year — Kahn still remembers, as that was also the night that the nuclear meltdown known as the Three Mile Island accident occurred near Harrisburg, so “something was bound to happen that night” — they got together for a dinner date. They’ve been together ever since.
The couple married in 2015 with a small ceremony at Dante & Luigi’s, officiated by family friend and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham.
Kahn returned to music about 10 years ago after remixing “Hot Shot” and putting it back on the charts; it sat in Billboard’s top 10 for five weeks.
The trio became active again, too. Along with bass player Bruce Kaminsky — and often veteran vocalist Peggy King — the trio still plays regularly at Chris’ Jazz Cafe and other local joints.
Every Wednesday, the trio occupies the second floor of Chinese restaurant Square on Square. About four years ago, Kahn and his partner were eating dinner there when he asked the owner out of curiosity, “What’s upstairs?”
He responded sarcastically, “The second floor.”
Kahn took a closer look and immediately envisioned something like the Village Vanguard in New York. He asked the owner if he and the trio could play there and, to his surprise, he gave them carte blanche.
“We redecorated the entire restaurant, first and second floor. We turned the place into a really swinging place,” he said. “It’s turned into a real hangout. … We’ve really developed quite a following there.”
As a jazz musician and stylizer of the Great American Songbook, Kahn noted that many of the composers of the first half of the 20th century he admires are Jewish: “The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Jerome Kern.”
“These were amazing composers of a whole era of music that came from the libraries of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, for everything,” he said. Kahn has since taught these legacies and musical stylings at a few local schools and out of his Center City apartment, and also serves as the artist-in-residence for Jacobs Music Co. and represents Steinway & Sons on their Spirio grand piano.
The jazz trio recently released a 10-track CD of a live performance from Chris’ Jazz Cafe, but Kahn is also working on a Great American Songbook-inspired solo album.
“I’m a big promoter of the composers, not the songs — the stories behind the songs, the way they got written, stories behind the composers themselves and their careers. It’s a fascinating thing — and the majority of them are all Jewish,” he said. “They just seem to have gotten into that genre.”
Kahn developed his skills on the keys effortlessly.
“I have a picture of me at 7-and-a-half months old sitting at the family grand piano playing with both hands, sitting there upright, smiling for the camera,” he remembered.
Although he recently discovered a new passion for teaching, that wasn’t always the case.
Once vehemently against taking piano lessons, Kahn didn’t learn how to read music until he was 18. His tutor wanted him to play a particular song for a recital, but instead Kahn played two tunes from My Fair Lady.
“The teacher turned green and she absolutely had a heart attack over it, and I got my first standing ovation at the age of 8,” he laughed. He told his parents after, “You see, I don’t need lessons.”
He’s since come around to the idea of passing his passion on to the next generation.
“[Teaching] is really my biggest passion right now, and it’s what I see as my opportunity to give back on a career that has spanned over 50 years,” he added.
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