A city once so steeped in jazz needs an infusion of enthusiasm to grow

July 31, 1998|By James D. Dilts

WHY DOES jazz have such a low profile in the town that provided some of its greatest, most enduring names: Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, as well as some of its most dynamic current players: Gary Bartz, Cyrus Chestnut, Bill Frisell, Antonio Hart and Gary Thomas? Why do well-known ** jazz artists so seldom appear in Baltimore and why are they so often ignored by the local media when they do?

Why aren't there more clubs to cater to those who love the music, to help young musicians hone their craft, and to fulfill an essential, if little recognized, function by offering common ground where the races can meet on equal terms with shared enthusiasm? A great social leveler, intolerant of prejudice, jazz asks only one thing of aspirants: Can they play? One of the finest creative ornaments of American democracy (although performers are often more popular abroad), jazz traditionally has been hated by totalitarian regimes and for good reason: Jazz is freedom.

Jazz clubs come and go, often a measure of the health of the urban economy. Over the past three decades, clubs that came and went here included the Red Fox on Druid Hill Avenue, where Ethel Ennis once reigned as a vocalist; Ethel's Place across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; and the Bandstand in Fells Point. The last ended in a manner that symbolized the future for jazz in Baltimore: It imploded.

Yet clubs still manage to carry on here. To assess their current health, why not, as the car ads used to say, ask the man who owns one?

The Cafe Tattoo on Belair Road features jazz several nights a month. It's Thursday and there is a seat at the end of the bar by the door. At the other end, regulars converse.

Some pages from a reporter's notebook:

Band, Jazz Caravan, headed by drummer Ron Tanner, much improved over past year, more confident and relaxed. Still mostly a cover band, but covering Wes Montgomery, Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross -- and creditably, too. Also playing sinuous be-bop originals by sextet's guitarist. Powerhouse singer Julie Bauer explores new material, issues droll asides. (Cafe Tattoo shows double as dress rehearsals.)

Indian philosopher enters carrying book bag, stashes it behind bar, orders glass of water, circulates. Pair of attractive young women walk in tentatively, ask for phone change, leave for a long time, come back and sit down.

Odd thing happens. Cafe Tattoo alchemizes into Five Spot, Lower Manhattan, late 1950s. Tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse plays umpteenth chorus of "Green Chimneys" while pianist Thelonious Monk, wearing snap brim bowler hat and bamboo-frame shades, stands facing wall, feet shuffling, elbows flapping in odd dance he does when he is digging the band. Mere background music for ringside table of animated conversationalists: artists Jackson Pollock and Grace Hartigan, poet Frank O'Hara, critic Clement Greenberg. (Must be off night at the Cedar Bar.)

My reverie disintegrates as the figure of Rick Catalano looms up, Cafe Tattoo owner. We talk.

"Why aren't there more jazz clubs in Baltimore?" I ask.

"Why aren't there more places where they hit you in the head with a baseball bat when you go in?" Catalano fires back. "Because there isn't a whole lot of demand for it."

At the Cafe Tattoo, you can spend Tuesday nights with fusion guitarist Carl Filipiak and guests, and on other nights find anything from small groups to big bands. You can also eat decent barbecue and even get a tattoo. Cata- lano's wife, Elayne (who he claims was the first and only woman licensed as a tattoo artist by the state of Maryland), recently retired, but another tattoo artist is on premises.

Catalano is a former musician: "I played bass. It was the only instrument that made sense to me, you know, four strings, four fingers? You didn't have to know too much if somebody yelled out the chords. Besides it was a good way to meet girls.

"Anyway, I knew Carl Filipiak from the neighborhood. About seven years ago, he came in and said he wanted to do Tuesday nights. Because of his being here, a lot of other musicians have come in. Carl doesn't even take any money. The thing is, I don't have any money. Bands call up and say, what can you guarantee us? Electricity, I tell them. They have to bring in the crowd."

The 20 to 30 people in the Cafe Tattoo that night paid a $3 cover, which the band split, seven ways. The musicians obviously aren't in it for the money, so they mean what they play.

Meanwhile, downtown on Saratoga Street at the Maryland Art Place, director Jack Rasmussen, another erstwhile musician, has opened a jazz club in MAP's basement performance space. A seven-day liquor license made it possible; the drinks pay for the music.

Rasmussen left college in Seattle to become a jazz musician, but decided that "the world didn't need another mediocre trombone player." So he got a degree in art. Rasmussen has headed MAP for six years. This spring, he opened the jazz club, which features local and out-of-town players on weekends.

"The problem seems to be the economics, but I'm starting to be less depressed," Rasmussen said. "It takes a while to get a reputation so that the people who like the music can find you." Low maintenance seems to be the way Baltimoreans prefer their jazz; big, expensive clubs do not last long here. (Please, no Bubba's House of Jazz in Baltimore.) Even so, respectable, even outstanding music can be heard several nights a week at a dozen small, unobtrusive, genre-mixing rooms around town where musicians and listeners meet to explore the age-old jazz question: What's new?

James D. Dilts directs Jazz in Cool Places, a new Baltimore concert series combining music and architecture.

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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