An endangered species of music is thriving in a smoky little club Jazz Haven

April 06, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

If you were in a hurry, you could miss it.

A small, dimly lighted sign no bolder that the one marking the card shop next door announces the New Haven Lounge. It's a humble setting for a serious jazz club and one of Baltimore's best-kept secrets. The kind of place that used to thrive on Manhattan's 52nd Street or Greenwich Village in the '40s and '50s, the Haven is a relaxed, racially mixed club packed with smoke, atmosphere and enthusiastic fans of modern jazz.

Tucked away in Northwood Plaza, a generic strip mall that also offers a Hechinger's and Bill's Carpet, the place is anything but mundane inside. A collage of images from jazz's past -- murals of Cab Calloway and King Oliver, cocktail waitresses in black and white suits, patrons in goatees, suits and berets -- make the place seem far from northeast Baltimore.

It's also a place not afraid to show a taste and a sensibility. "I don't want to appeal to absolutely everybody," says owner Keith Covington, with characteristic gentle defiance. He built the club out of his dream of the past, and out of the memories of older jazz fans he cultivates as friends who recall the great New York clubs of the '40s and '50s.

"I like the club scene back then. I like the look of the era," says Mr. Covington, who, at 40, admits he's too young to remember any of it. "I like the hats the women wore, the flow of the dresses, the flow of the music. Men were gentlemen, and men wore hats. The way the shadows fall when we watch the black and white clips."

Mr. Covington's taste comes across through the artists he books for Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. They come almost exclusively from styles termed "mainstream modern" or "straight-ahead" by radio programmers. Contemporary, New Age, or fusion musicians rarely appear.

"They sell millions of records, but you're not going to hear them at the Haven," Mr. Covington says of contemporary artists.

The club's rise to prominence -- nationally if not locally -- is the result of a seven-year battle that now enlists three key players. They are: Mr. Covington, the intellectual and soft-spoken owner of the Haven; Larry Jeters, gruff and laconic owner of Dimensions in Music, a Charles Street record store devoted to black music; and Gary Ellerbe, a warm and gregarious WEAA deejay whose show gives mainstream jazz its only steady on-air exposure in Baltimore.

The turning point in the club's evolution was a sold-out December show featuring tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman. Mr. Redman, a 1991 Harvard graduate who turned down Yale Law School to play jazz in New York, earned headlines not only for his story but for his warm, informed and inspired tenor playing.

As Mr. Redman won raves and musician of the year awards all over the country, he seemed more and more like the kind of artist Baltimore couldn't draw. Mr. Covington didn't think so. He now jokes that he took enough at the door to pay the band, cover costs and down a couple beers afterward. But by bringing '93's hottest jazz player to Baltimore for a reasonable price, the club helped convince skeptics in and out of town. Many record labels and management in New York heard the club's name for the first time.

"Once he got Joshua Redman down there, that was the ball game," Mr. Jeters says. "Once you get somebody like that to play in your house, you're cool."

One of the club's best drawing cards is that musicians like to play there. Four major national artists -- Mr. Redman, Benny Green, Antonio Hart and Cyrus Chesnut -- recently played the Haven after cutting their rates. To book them at all was a coup; to book them as cheaply as the club did attests to the good will Mr. Covington and the Haven have generated.

"It's nice to have a decent place to come home and play," says Mr. Chesnut, a Baltimore native now based in New York whose rise to prominence this year nearly matches Mr. Redman's last year.

"I believe what Keith is doing is setting a great precedent for the other clubs in town," says Mr. Chesnut. "I believe the people in Baltimore have been looking for a decent place to go hear jazz. Baltimore has always been a jazz town. I think what happened was, it may have gone to sleep for a minute. Now it's waking up."

The Haven, Mr. Chesnut says, attracts an educated audience that knows his music, and he enjoys the place's informality. "I like closeness, the intimacy. You and the audience are right smack up into each other. You feel the fire, you feel the energy."

Why is the Haven succeeding where other clubs have failed?

"I think it's just a question of timing now," Mr. Chesnut says. The emergence of young players -- Mr. Redman, Mr. Hart, Roy Hargrove, the Marsalis brothers, and Mr. Chesnut himself -- has brought jazz to younger audiences and helped erode its image as "old fogey music."

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