'Cool Jazz,' a year-old bit of clever improvisation, has historic neighborhood in the market for a comeback.


November 12, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Friday night in the Avenue Market and Tessa Hill-Aston is pumped. Half of Sandtown and Upton is here, standing shoulder to shoulder, filling the back half of the market as Carlos Johnson and his Zone One Band swing through another tune.

"Didn't I tell you?" she says. "Look at 'em. They're still bringing in chairs."

A Rasta brother who calls himself "Africa" is here to be with what he calls "my family"; "Sister" and her girlfriends are here; "Slinky" is here, waiting for "Scooter," his partner in the Tasmanian Devils dance duo. It is 8: 30 p.m. and some folks have been here almost four hours already.

Hill-Aston, 48, makes her way through the crowd and calls to an acquaintance: "Hey, Thelma. Next Friday is one year."

"One year?"

"You know I was supposed to be here 60 days. Next Friday is 365," she says, her voice full of sass and "I told you so" confidence. "Next Friday is the night. One year. One year."

Hill-Aston is an unlikely impresario, an executive assistant in the city's Housing Authority. She thinks of herself as a "black Martha Stewart," a home-and-garden gal who grew up in Cherry Hill, graduated from Forest Park High School and Coppin State. She says she likes nothing better than sitting down with a few friends, a few brews and a few dozen steamed crabs. Tonight, though, she is here, grooving to her creation: "Cool Jazz on the Avenue."

On Friday nights, this one-time city market in the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue becomes part jazz club, part reunion hall. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, come for the free shows. The early birds claim the tables. Some regulars bring their own chairs.

"Everybody comes here and there's no difference of lifestyle," Hill-Aston says above the music. "Here, it's just common ground. They shake hands, have a beer and meet a friend."

The concert series started a year ago when city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III asked Hill-Aston to see if she could come up with anything to turn the market around. Nearly a year had passed since the market reopened after a $4 million renovation. It had new paint, a new name, even an Afro-centric theme. But there were few customers. Merchants were struggling and complaining.

Jazz seemed the remedy. It tapped into the avenue's rich history. Everyone remembered the old days, or had a story about the Royal Theatre, the Penn Hotel, Ike Dixon's Comedy Club. Henson could look at a current photo and point out the building that once housed Pop Kelly's.

Mention Pennsylvania Avenue and black Baltimore goes into a nostalgia jag about the good old days when the joints were jumping and Nat King Cole, James Brown, the Orioles and Billie Holiday came around. They talk about those days and no one mentions segregation. But, as Duke Ellington once said, "Things ain't what they used to be."

No trouble

The neighborhood changed, in some ways for the worse. Before starting the concerts, Hill-Aston asked some co-workers to act as security guards and escorts. Ronnie Johnson, 46, was one of those who helped out.

"I knew that it needed [it]," says Johnson, who works in city human services. "And knowing the neighborhood like I do, I figured I would get some respect. But nothing really big happened."

Nobody, it turned out, came for trouble. They came for the music and a little fun. That they came at all surprised Clifford Kidwell, 35, who with his wife, Stephanie, 33, runs Shuckers on the Avenue.

"I didn't have a real bright outlook at first, but after the first couple of nights and I saw the turnout, I said, 'Tessa. We got to keep this thing going,' " he says, standing near two deep fryers filled with bubbling, boiling oil. "Honestly, I hope it never goes away."

Friday nights are big nights for Shuckers, bringing in more receipts than in two or three other days. People line up two and three deep at the counter. And some come back during the week.

The jazz shows were supposed to last only eight weeks. But people kept coming, more each Friday. An entire neighborhood of 40-somethings turned out. Chess nuts commandeered a table. The turning point came at the end of the second month.

"I was up by the microphone and people just walked up and started dropping money. I started crying," says Hill-Aston. "Everybody said, 'Thank you for giving us something to do.' "


Now the concerts are paid for with contributions dropped into a donation box that is pushed around the room all night long. Tomorrow night should bring in a good take. Carlos Johnson is playing. He grew up around here and did pretty well in the music business. During a break on this night he stands by a door and tries to give a quick bio, but people keep interrupting, shaking his hand, showing him a photocopy of a 30-year-old news clip.

"Hey, Carlos," smiles one old fan. "You're the only reason I'm down here."

"How you doing, brother?" says Johnson.

A woman presses close and says, "I'm getting me a hug," and Johnson obligingly breaks away for a moment.

"It's just a pleasure to do this," he says. "I've been all over the

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