Classical Jazz

As a piano prodigy, young Ellis Lane Larkins had the finest training and a rave review from the first lady. But his heart and his hands would soon be swayed.

February 03, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Once, Ellis Lane Larkins was known as the "Negro Prodigy." He spent his youth playing Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Mozart in Baltimore's black churches and schools. There's a picture of him wearing a Buster Brown outfit and standing beside a grand piano.

He grew up to become a master of jazz piano accompaniment. His easy, swinging touch at the keyboard caressed vocals by Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams and others.

Now he is an old man -- 76 this May -- with memories of a musical career that began in the segregated Baltimore of the 1930s.

"You had singers for days. Piano players. Those that couldn't read the notes could still play," he says one afternoon in the ninth-floor Bolton Hill apartment he and his wife moved into not long ago. "There was always music around."

His father, John W. Larkins, was a violinist in the City Colored Orchestra and often rehearsed string quartets in the family living room. Every home, it seemed, had a piano. Every block had a music teacher.

This is the world captured in "The Storm Is Passing Over," an exhibit celebrating the musical history of Maryland's black community. More than 70 photographs, vintage recordings and historic documents have been culled from the collections of musicians and historians and put together by the Peabody Institute.

A wealth of musical talent filled Baltimore. Many black musicians were comfortable playing a swing dance in the Greenspring Valley one day, a classical concert in West Baltimore the next day and a gospel service on Sunday.

Touring bands made a point of getting out into the community. Duke Ellington thrilled student assemblies at Douglass High School with renditions of "Mood Indigo" and "Sophisticated Lady." Ike Dixon's Comedy Club and the Royal Theater helped make Pennsylvania Avenue the street for night life.

R. Nathaniel Dett, a black composer of classical music, gave lectures and offered his opinion of jazz. Dett didn't like the music. He wasn't alone. Jazz was considered low-class music in many homes. City schools stressed the classical tradition.

"That was the whole idea when we were squirts, to have an appreciation of the jazz and the classical. The jazz, they knew you could hear outside," says Larkins.

The exhibit features such jazz greats as Billie Holiday, Eubie Blake and Chick Webb along with trumpeter Roy McCoy and bandleader Tracy McCleary, local stars of Baltimore's music scene. The lesser-known worlds of gospel and classical performance are also here. The exhibit's title is taken from a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley, considered one of the early giants of gospel.

Musical diversity

"One of the things I hope people understand is how rich it was," says Elizabeth Schaaf, the exhibit's curator. "They could play a Rossini overture and then blow the roof off the place at night on Pennsylvania Avenue."

Larkins' life illustrates how one man moved through the worlds of classical and popular music. He spent his childhood as a classical musician. He knew not to be caught playing the syncopated rhythms of jazz and Harlem stride piano. The elders frowned on that kind of playing. It wasn't refined, and it certainly wasn't art.

"They all thought jazz was banging, all those Harlem hamfats players," he says with a sly smile. "I wasn't allowed to play jazz in the house until I got to a certain age, say 17. I'd sneak in the house with the boys."

Early on, he didn't mind a steady diet of Rachmaninoff, Schumann and Chopin.

"That's what I loved. I didn't give a damn," he says, puffing a Dutch Treat filtered cigar. "I liked the other, too, but that's what I preferred at that time."

The family's Knabe grand faced out the back window of their home in the 1500 block of West Lanvale Street. He remembers working through hours of scales, technical exercises and repertoire, looking up to see his friends on the fence, laughing and pointing at him. They were playing basketball, while he was stuck playing a Carl Czerny etude.

"They'd heckle me a bit, but you expect that," he says. "But they were my greatest fans when I performed."

He made his debut in June 1934 at age 11, joining the City Colored Chorus and the City Colored Orchestra for a combined concert at Douglass High School. Larkins picked up $10 for that performance. A year later he was the pride of black Baltimore. "Pianist, 11, Is Feature of Mrs. Roosevelt Meet," read a Dec. 7, 1935, headline in the Afro-American.

The celebration of the National Urban League's 25th anniversary on Dec. 12, 1935, was a huge event in black Baltimore. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave the featured address. Gov. Harry W. Nice, Mayor Howard W. Jackson and Judge Joseph N. Ulman, president of the Baltimore Urban League, all spoke during the evening.

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