WEAA's Ellerbe nurtures the revival and the club

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

If old-school acoustic jazz is on the comeback in Baltimore, no one can claim credit quicker than Gary Ellerbe, a WEAA deejay, New Haven Lounge emcee and general man on the scene.

"In all honesty, I think I had something to do with that," says Mr. Ellerbe, 44, who keeps neither his enthusiasm nor his opinions to himself. "There's stuff I'm playing on the radio that people weren't playing before."

Glib, witty and playful, Mr. Ellerbe is a kind of jazz P.T. Barnum, an extroverted Svengali who uses his charm to promote the musicians who play his brand of jazz and the club that gives them the spotlight.

"When it comes to jazz and it comes to Baltimore, it's the Haven all the way," Mr. Ellerbe says.

He has known Haven owner Keith Covington "for three years going on 40. We think of ourselves as a couple of dinosaurs. Because we love mainstream jazz, and there aren't many of us left."

Mr. Ellerbe, whose beard and close-cut hair have only begun to be touched with gray, shows up at the club in anything from a sharp three-piece suit to kente cloth and African hat. He introduces acts most nights and roams through the club between sets, greeting friends and regulars with hugs and handshakes.

"Nothing soothes like jazz does," he says. "It's like taking a chill pill, as the kids would say."

Mr. Ellerbe's show, which plays on WEAA from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, focuses on swing, be-bop and post-bop styles. Mainstays include Count Basie's big band, Miles Davis' trumpet and John Coltrane's saxophone. Mr. Ellerbe also has an affinity for organists like Jimmy Smith and female singers like Billie Holiday.

"You need to cultivate an audience for jazz. Once the kids listen to mainstream jazz they can't help loving it," he says. "But some jazz is an acquired taste."

Mr. Ellerbe sees himself as a performer, educator and student-at-large. His listeners are always turning him on to new musicians or forgotten recordings, bringing him up to speed in the other arts by giving him calendars of African-American photography or books about the Harlem Renaissance.

"I see all the arts as being related. And from an African-American point of view, it's one of the best ways we can uplift ourselves. We don't have to make all our money playing sports."

But it's not always easy. "I have been fighting since I've been there," Mr. Ellerbe says. He's grateful for the exposure and the audience but wishes he didn't have to fix cars and paint houses to pay the rent. "Life is a battle. Martin Luther King said if a man hasn't got something worth dying for he's not fit to live."

The problem he fights every day, he says, is not with audiences but with "the people that control the goods." In their constant search for profit, record companies indulge novelty and search incessantly for gimmicks to keep people buying.

"It's capitalism," he says. "Create a false demand."

Working for a university station allows him a distance from the marketplace, he says. "Since jazz is a music of creativity, so should the show be."

"He's a big teddy bear," Mr. Covington says of his friend, whose energy he says contributes to the atmosphere and appeal of the club. "I really admire his commitment to the music and to the arts. I know about some of his personal struggles to keep his thing going."

All of Mr. Ellerbe's work at the Haven is done gratis, Mr. Covington says. "This is Gary giving to Baltimore first and the Haven second."

Mr. Ellerbe was born in Baltimore and lived here until age 15. But he really fell for music during his years in New York, and as a teen would spend five nights a week at Harlem's Apollo Theatre.

The Apollo's lighting engineer took a liking to him, allowing him into shows free if he could prove he'd completed his homework.

The turning point came one night when Duke Ellington played at Saint Mark's Methodist Church when Mr. Ellerbe was 17 years old. Ellington spotted the young Mr. Ellerbe playing in the rafters after the show and motioned for him to come and watch from the piano stool. "He didn't do a lot of talking, just played."

Mr. Ellerbe's show has both won converts to jazz and allowed fans to deepen their knowledge.

"Before Gary came on the radio, I listened to the music but I didn't really hear it," says Haven regular Acie L. Williams Sr. A retired Morgan State career counselor, Mr. Williams comes to the club most Wednesdays and Fridays and still bumps into friends from the big band he played with in the '50s.

"If it takes anybody to bring jazz back to Baltimore city, it's that man and his show," Mr. Williams says. "I told Keith, you're gonna have to expand this place."

Mr. Ellerbe moved back to Baltimore from New York in 1978, in order to "get back to nature," he says. "I missed the dirt, I missed the squirrels, I missed being able to go out on a boat with the old folks."

And he missed having room for a garden. "There's something about a man who can put a garden in his yard -- it has a cleansing effect on his soul."

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