Peabody Ragtime Ensemble concerts pay tribute to a rich musical legacy


February 16, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro

Singing is just one of the things Delores Lynn does.

Just as she performs volunteer work, caters, designs clothes, works as a security guard at the National Aquarium, moonlights at Harrison's at Pier 5, upholsters furniture, tends to four children, eight grandchildren, a stepmother, father, and 89-year-old aunt who raised her, Ms. Lynn sings jazz and blues.

Her voice is a natural gift, unpolished by formal training. Once, she sang professionally around town to support her family. But as demand diminished for ballad singers with the heart of a Sarah Vaughn or Betty Carter, she turned to other things. And the voice, which some say bears an uncanny resemblance to Billie Holiday's, was put on hold.

Until Ed Goldstein, leader of the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble and the group's tuba player, coaxed Lynn on stage at an Aquarium party where they were performing. Mr. Goldstein heard enough to invite Lynn to sing with the septet at subsequent concerts, including this weekend's tribute at the Maryland Historical Society to four Baltimore musical greats: Ms. Holiday, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, and Chick Webb.

As a talented but shy artist, with no grand aspirations of fame, Ms. Lynn will enhance her reputation as an anti-legend when she performs Holiday standards "Billie's Blues," "God Bless the Child," "Not For Me" and "Good Morning, Heartache" tonight and tomorrow in "Baltimore Jazz -- Legends From Our Past."

She and the ensemble will be joined by Baltimore jazz pianists Ellis Larkins and Mel Spears.

Planned as a tribute to Black History Month and a fund-raiser for the historical society, the concert is also a gathering of old friends. Mr. Goldstein and Louis Hecht, chairman of programs at the Historical Society and jazz devotee, have worked together for years.

"Jazz is the one true American art," Mr. Hecht says. "We have four very dignified, well-thought of leaders, all of whom made distinct contributions to jazz. Plus, they're all African-Americans from Baltimore. This will be really special."

By the time Mr. Blake died in 1983, a century old, the spunky ragtime composer and pianist had received a handful of honorary degrees from schools that would never have admitted him in his youth. "Blake refined ragtime to a virtuoso form. Amateurs keep away from his music because it is so complex and treacherous," Mr. Goldstein says.

Even though her career tragically self-destructed on a freeway of drugs and alcohol, Ms. Holiday, born in Baltimore in 1915, profoundly influenced a generation of jazz musicians. "She was a singer's singer," says Mr. Goldstein of the incomparable "Lady Day," who died in 1959. "She could take a song, digest it, and stretch it in a logical, yet totally innovative way."

Bandleader and drummer Chick Webb paved the way for big bands like Benny Goodman's and soloists such as Gene Krupa, Mr. Hecht says. "Most of the white kids who grew up listening to those bands had no idea that their ideas came from Webb."

Born in Baltimore in 1909, Mr. Webb took on rival bands in cutting contests" at the Savoy Ballroom from a raised platform, especially constructed to accommodate the diminutive hunchback. The "King of the Drums" died in his 30s of tuberculosis, at the height of the big band era.

Cab Calloway, slick, comic, majestic, even as he croons "Minnie the Moocher," and other songs of dissolution, is still going strong at age 84. "His Royal Highness of Hi-de-ho" began his career as a singer and dancer, and graduated to bandleader of an orchestra once called "extraordinary in every respect, in its clean musicianship, jazz kick and brilliant showmanship."

The Peabody Ragtime Ensemble, dedicated to the preservation of vintage American jazz, will bring the compositions and trademark works of these Baltimore-born geniuses alive, along with the support of several other local musicians.

When Ellis Larkins was a 10-year-old classical piano soloist with the Baltimore City Colored Orchestra, he was declared a prodigy. Recently returned to Baltimore from New York after nearly 50 years away, Mr. Larkins has accompanied Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Sarah Vaughan and now plays regularly at Cafe Society Hill.

Mr. Larkins' friend, Mel Spears, also returned to Baltimore about seven years ago after years of performing in Washington, Philadelphia and upstate New York. Mr. Spears has performed with Tiny Grimes, Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday herself.

And then there's Delores Lynn. Mr. Hecht and Mr. Goldstein refer to her in a unanimous rapture: "Close your eyes, and I swear, you'll think you were listening to Billie Holiday," each man says, unaware of the other's comment.

Ms. Lynn does not agree. "I don't try to sound like her. I'm not an imitator," she says of Ms. Holiday. Though occasionally, while singing a Holiday song, she'll toss in a signature grace note in recognition of the great singer.

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