Master jazz pianist Ellis Larkins gets back into the local swing

November 27, 1990|By Lawrence Freeny

Ellis Larkins has come a long way. In fact, he's come home.

At age 10, he was proclaimed a prodigy as a classical piano soloist with the Baltimore City Colored Orchestra. By age 18, he had earned a four-year scholarship at the Juilliard School in New York. But soon after starting his final year at the prestigious conservatory, finances forced him to leave school. Undeterred, he carved a career for himself, gaining fame as a master of creative jazz.

Now, having moved from New York back to Baltimore after a nearly 50-year absence, he's showing local audiences what they've missed. Mr. Larkins has appeared throughout the fall at Grille 58 at Society Hill, a restaurant-lounge at 58 W. Biddle St. He will perform as part of a jazz extravaganza Sunday at Bryn Mawr School.

To listeners unaware of his reputation -- earned in clubs, concerts, jazz festivals and recordings -- he is often regarded as a "new," locally unknown or little known, pianist. Yet over many years as a soloist, he has also accompanied such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Anita Ellis, Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams.

"Yes, I'm glad to be back," he said recently at his Northwest Baltimore home. "Even so, New York was good to me; [I] worked there all that time, except four years on the West Coast with Joe Williams, the blues singer, where we worked in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

"I'm still getting reacquainted. Baltimore has really changed architecturally -- big office buildings, condominiums, marinas -- and it's changing gradually in other ways. The tempo here is slower than New York's, but it's picking up."

His words were accompanied by characteristic gestures: raised eyebrows, a smile of pleasure and surprise. He spreads his arms to emphasize the observed changes, then moves his hands in rapid circles to define the city's pace.

Mr. Larkins' personality is as distinctive and understated as his classically influenced piano stylings. Both appear totally assured but lacking in pretense, expressed with a precision that is softened or emboldened through emphasis in words and gestures -- and keyboard tones. It is as though those big, long-fingered hands are as essential to him in verbal expression as in playing.

He has played several solo dates locally since returning -- Churchill's Restaurant and Grille 58 downtown, and Baron's 200 in Hunt Valley, besides many private engagements. In August and September Mr. Larkins performed at Danny's Restaurant on Charles Street.

Providing considerable help in reintroducing the pianist to the Baltimore scene has been Mel Spears, a pianist-singer himself ,, who, after performing for many years in Washington, Philadelphia and upstate New York, returned to Baltimore about seven years ago.

"I was still in high school about the time Ellis left to study at Juilliard, and I began playing soon afterward," -- accompanied Billie Holiday, the great blues singer, a couple of times here, and played sometimes with the Lionel Hampton sextet in New York," Mr. Spears said.

Mr. Spears played for a year at the Belvedere Hotel. Then he moved on to Grille 58 when it opened in 1983, and has since become a fixture there, appearing Tuesdays to Saturdays.

"Sometimes the pianists playing regular jobs around town would get sick, or had to be away, or needed a break; I'd suggest Ellis . . . and he'd fill in. We help each other, you know," Mr. Spears said.

Like any performer, Mr. Larkins appreciates an attentive audience,which is obviously unlikely in restaurants.

"Probably for me the best place ever in that regard was the Carnegie Tavern in New York," he recalled of the wood-paneled restaurant adjacent to Carnegie Hall, where Mr. Larkins always was resplendent in his tuxedo with a ruffled shirt. There, management requested quiet of listeners.

But in an informal setting such as Grille 58, he is informal, chatting with listeners and gladly accepting requests. He doesn't plan what he'll play on a given night, but depends on his judgment of the audience. He may, for example, open with George Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm," then swing into Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't Like They Used to Be."

If there's a small crowd, with hand-holding couples near the piano, "How Deep Is the Ocean" or Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" might be appropriate.

From an immense repertoire, he frequently plays jazz classics, such as Gershwin's "Lady Be Good," "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "I Got Rhythm," or Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," "Satin Doll" or "Prelude to a Kiss."

Mr. Larkins has returned to New York several times, twice to accompany singer Corrina Manetto during engagements in a midtown jazz club, and for recording sessions.

Back in Baltimore, when not performing, he relaxes by listening to classical recordings on his stereo system and, on most Saturdays, hearing the Metropolitan Opera's radio broadcasts.

"Quite recently, Joe Williams and I recorded a Christmas album, as well as a separate retrospective collection of pieces we did together years ago," he said. "Joe looks good, is still singing as well as ever -- and I still think he's the best.'

And he makes time for another pursuit: Even after all these years of piano playing, he still practices, usually about three or four sessions a week in his living room.

"Everyone needs to practice," he said. "Obviously it's important for any musician. But I really feel that practicing every day might induce sameness or staleness, not spontaneity."

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