Great playing in great places Arts: James Dilts, a fan of both architecture and jazz, launches a concert series that combines the two.

December 03, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The late-afternoon sun slants low through the names on the windows inscribed "Our Pastors" and burnishes the sanctuary of Lovely Lane Methodist Church with a soft, warm, autumnal glow.

This simple, restrained auditorium with columns and paneling and pulpit of black birch and a fading star-strewn mural overhead is one of Baltimore's great architectural spaces.

Lovely Lane was the first church designed by Stanford White, the inspired turn-of-the century architect. He envisioned this Romanesque church with its 10-story tower of Port Deposit granite as the cornerstone of the college community that would be named for the pastor, Dr. John F. Goucher.

The oval sanctuary, where even the century-old theatrical seats were designed by White, seems to demand the kind of sermons the pastors memorialized on the windows preached, great circuit-riding preachers who swept Methodism across Maryland and through much of the United States at the turn of the 19th century.

But James D. Dilts, architectural connoisseur and jazz aficionado, has a different idea for this space. He thinks Lovely Lane would be just a great place in which to hear jazz.

Stanford White might have welcomed the idea. He was a bon vivant who would get himself shot dead in a scandal that has been recounted often as the case of "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing."

Dilts, co-author with John Dorsey, The Sun's art critic, of the definitive "A Guide to Baltimore Architecture," has also written frequently and authoritatively on jazz and jazz musicians.

So he has combined his two loves to launch a new concert series, "Jazz in Cool Places." It debuts Dec. 5 at Lovely Lane with a solid new group called the Manhattan Project. "Cool," need one explain, in this case means hip, not unheated.

"I think this is a way of looking at music and architecture," Dilts says. "There's nothing contrived about it. These are actual jazz musicians coming to play in an actual building. There's nothing made up about it. It's the real thing. It's not cute or anything. It's a kind of a natural thing."

He's sitting in one of White's cast-iron seats under the balcony, where the splendid acoustics project a whisper across the sanctuary.

"When you're constantly bombarded through the media with the shooting du jour and all of that, even I, and I know better, begin to think that is what Baltimore is about," he says.

"A small part of this idea is just a way of showing people that's not what Baltimore is. That Baltimore's more than that."

He first had the idea to bring jazz musicians into great buildings a couple of years ago, when he was working on his book about the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, "The Great Road."

"I spent some time out at the B & O museum and I would wander around the roundhouse and I thought about Gerry Mulligan and this great album he did called the 'Age of Steam.' "

Mulligan, the superlative baritone saxophone player who did many of the arrangements for the Miles Davis landmark "Birth of the Cool" sessions, was a big train fan. His Age of Steam group was a small Ellington-style big band.

"He had a tune on the album called 'K-4 Pacific,' which was a Pennsylvania Railroad engine, and the tune was done Ellington-style.

"And I thought it would be great to get Mulligan down here with some group and play in here in these surroundings. I got tears in my eyes thinking of if he did something from the 'Age of Steam' in there and what that might be like. And then he died!"

But the idea stayed with him as he and Dorsey researched the third edition of their book. He explored a lot of older buildings downtown and talked to their owners and managers.

"I've been looking at buildings in Baltimore for 30 years, and some of these spaces I had never seen," he says. "I was just amazed by some of the things that are in these buildings.

"Like the One East Lexington Building," he says, "the former Central Savings Bank at the north end of Charles Center. There's a beautiful little light court that goes all the way to the top floor. They have offices with fireplaces in them!"

Office space in these older buildings was hard to rent a few years ago, he says.

"In real estate terms this was Class B and Class C office space. But it's also Class A architecture."

The market's rebounded now, he says. But there's still room for music.

"Take the Masonic Temple, now again a big question mark," he says. He toured the building when writing about the Masons.

"They have this hall in there that looks like an Egyptian temple," he recalls. "I was thinking if you could get an audience in here and get somebody like the Modern Jazz Quartet, these distinguished gentlemen in tuxedos, playing this semi-classical music.

"You know maybe somebody that came in to listen to the music might see some commercial potential and figure out some way to keep the building. It is an important building, designed by Edmund G. Lind, the guy who designed the Peabody Library."

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