Tradition of jazz in Baltimore is hot again

September 15, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

ANY DOUBTS that jazz is a fine art were laid to rest last year when New York's prestigious Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts announced that it was elevating its Jazz Department to equal status with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet.

Yet even Lincoln Center's artistic imprimatur couldn't change the unhappy fact that jazz, America's singular cultural contribution to the world, is no longer a vibrant, living tradition.

Though one can still hear good jazz, both live and on record, the world in which the music was created and in which it once thrived no longer exists. For better or worse, the 20th-century American tradition that produced the great works of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane is as dead as the 19th-century European tradition that produced Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Verdi's "La Traviata."

Jazz's passage from being a vital creative expression of its era to cultural museum-piece reflects both the changing tastes of contemporary audiences and the stupendous social upheavals of this tumultuous century. To acknowledge this transformation is to recognize the need for new institutional conservators of jazz's unique musical legacy.

That is why the Baltimore jazz scene stands to be immeasurably enriched by two new institutions established in the last year, the Baltimore Jazz Orchestra and the Baltimore Jazz Foundation.

The foundation, which was established to support the activities of the orchestra, is headed by Baltimore businessman Louis G. Hecht, possibly the city's most enthusiastic jazz historian and lifelong devotee of the art form. Like the orchestra, the foundation is dedicated to preserving for future generations this city's rich jazz heritage.

Baltimore's heritage

David Simon, a member of the Baltimore Jazz Foundation board and former director of the Baltimore School for the Arts, says the orchestra and foundation essentially want to do for jazz in Baltimore what Lincoln Center has done for the music in New York.

"The problem is there are 17 guys and it costs a lot a money to support this kind of musical organization," he said. "Even Basie and Ellington could only make money by going on the road. What's going to be difficult is getting a paycheck for these guys."

But what a bunch of guys! The lineup of the Baltimore Jazz Orchestra, a 17-piece ensemble led by Edward Goldstein, principal tubist of the Annapolis Symphony, is rich with Baltimore-area jazz talent, including up-and-coming younger artists like bass trombonist and arranger John Nave and guitarist Michael Raitzyk as well as veteran players like saxophonist Thomas "Whit" Williams and trombonist David Steinmeyer.

"What impresses me most about the group is that virtually all the sidemen are really incredible players," said Simon. "They can all improvise beautifully, and they have incredible facility on their instruments. So when you hear them play these arrangements they remind you of the best of Basie or Ellington, yet they don't sound at all dated."

The orchestra is designed to showcase music of the Big Band era, which lasted from the 1920s through the 1950s. That incredibly rich period saw the rise of such legendary bandleaders as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, as well as countless instrumental and vocal soloists -- Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster -- whose individual styles and often flamboyant personalities left an indelible stamp on the musical life of their times.

Along Pennsylvania Avenue

Many of these artists regularly performed in Baltimore, which during those years was home to a thriving jazz scene centered on the dense network of nightclubs along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Clubs like the Royal, the Dreamland Cafe, Gamby's, the Wonderland Cafe, the New Albert Auditorium, Club Tijuana and the Comedy Club were renowned for their swinging "house bands," world-famous touring acts and elegant ambience.

Here, audiences could marvel over such local jazz legends as pianists Eubie Blake, Mel Spears, Howard "Church" Anderson and Ellis Larkins, drummers Chick Webb and Cuba Austin, bassist John Kirby and trumpeter Pike Davis.

An after-hours spot in the basement of local pianist Kenneth "Skin" Forbes' house at Pennsylvania Avenue and Gold Street became a magnet for cognoscenti, where the world's greatest musicians gathered to play together all night. Here, coteries of friends and fellow musicians got a glimpse of the musical avant-garde from world-class performers like Eldridge, Hawkins and Holiday.

For years along Pennsylvania Avenue, the joint was jumpin', to borrow a phrase from a famous Fats Waller tune. A resourceful entrepreneur named "Banjo" Denny owned a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue that served only two dishes -- fried fish and potato salad. But he became famous around the world because he fed the greatest musicians of the era.

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