Benny Kearse, 67, jazz society founder who helped stage Sunday night concerts

July 03, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Benny Kearse, who founded the Left Bank Jazz Society in 1964 to showcase top musicians in inexpensive and friendly Sunday evening cabaret concerts, died of heart failure Tuesday at St. Agnes HealthCare. The West Baltimore resident was 67.

For 20 years, Mr. Kearse held concerts that brought legends John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck and Count Basie to Baltimore. Admission was usually less than $5, and aficionados brought picnic dinners. Because of the relaxed, family atmosphere, many musicians often reduced their fees to play the Left Bank.

In the group's heyday -- with sellout crowds of 600 packing the Famous Ballroom on Charles Street every week -- Mr. Kearse gazed around and said, "Sometimes I think I'm in heaven."

Born in Allendale, S.C., Mr. Kearse moved to Baltimore as a young man. For 23 years, he was the Pratt Street dispatcher for the Norfolk-Baltimore-Carolina Line, a barge line that hauled lumber. For the past 13 years, he had worked at the reception desk at the Ambassador Apartments at Canterbury Road and 39th Street.

Mr. Kearse also taught a course in jazz at Sojourner-Douglass College. He did not play an instrument, but his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz was widely admired and respected in Baltimore. He engaged hundreds of musicians to play here and had newspaper articles, reviews and photos of his favorite musicians that filled nearly 100 boxes.

"He could listen to a record and tell you who the sidemen were. He was also a good negotiator with musicians' contracts," said Vernon L. Welsh, a Nunnery Lane guitar instructor and professional musician who helped found the society. "Everyone loved him."

Mr. Kearse was remembered as a snappy dresser, typically wearing a suit and tie with a cap or small-brimmed hat, who rarely drove.

"I can see him now, with a couple of newspapers rolled under his arm as he left Penn Station to get some talent lined up," said Ruby Glover, a jazz singer who lives in Oldtown. "He had the charisma to make it all work."

In 1965, The Sun described Mr. Kearse as "an endlessly enthusiastic young man [who] has been promoting jazz and musicians in Baltimore ever since his high school days."

After graduating from what is now Morgan State University, he served four years with the Marines on a Mediterranean tour, listening frequently to the be-bop sound of Charlie Parker. Returning to Baltimore after his discharge, Mr. Kearse joined the Interracial Jazz Society, which met in Northwest Baltimore.

"A lot of people couldn't understand how a clubhouse on Madison Avenue, in the middle of a black neighborhood, could cater to whites as well as blacks," Mr. Kearse said of the group, which disbanded in 1958.

Led by Mr. Kearse and Mr. Welsh, local jazz enthusiasts founded the nonprofit Left Bank Jazz Society in 1964. For seven years, Mr. Kearse was president of the group, which sponsored 47 concerts a season at its peak.

The Left Bank's first gig was held at the Al-Ho Club, in the 2500 block of Frederick Ave., the year it was founded. After three moves, the society established a long run at the Famous Ballroom in 1967. The hall is the site of the expanded Charles Theater.

Mr. Kearse left the society, which continues to promote concerts, in 1984.

Funeral services will be held at noon Tuesday at March Funeral Home, 4300 Wabash Ave.

He is survived by a cousin, Lena McKoy of Baltimore.

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