Music travels through city

Tunes: At free summer concerts, a big band's nostalgic repertoire warms the hearts of audience members.

July 22, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Under a dusky summer sky in a North Baltimore courtyard, everyday sounds of human voices in the Village of Cross Keys gave way to "Call Me Irresponsible," played by Baltimore's Big Band.

When the band launched into "That Old Black Magic" by Harold Arlen, a listener stirred at the melody coming from the 80-year-old trumpeter in the back right corner of the 18-piece band.

"That's Tanglefoot playing right now," said Don Arnold, a musician himself. "Sounds nice."

Roy "Tanglefoot" McCoy, senior member of this municipal recreation and parks group, is probably one of the few active trumpet players in the year 2000 who can say he once played with Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Lionel Hampton, all at the Royal Theater in its heyday.

Earlier, while the red-shirted band warmed up for its seventh gig in its free 10-stop summer series Thursday, McCoy was clearly treated as the big band's village elder.

"That's the man!" said Dave Russell, a bandmate.

"I can't practice as often as I used to," McCoy protested.

"Wealth and knowledge right here," said trumpet player Kyle Funn, 24, the band's youngest member.

The band leader, Gene Walker, a saxophonist with a white beard, has been with the troupe since its inception in 1970. For 30 summers straight, he has heard the tunes, rehearsed with the band, chosen the program for whatever part of the city they happened to be in.

"Each neighborhood has its own flavor and taste," said Walker. "Generally speaking, older people like music more quiet and smooth. When we go to the Streetcar Museum [Monday] we'll have more clarinet and Glenn Miller, more of that kind of thing. I try to match the taste as much as you can."

The band's repertoire is "a little bit of everything," he said, including well-loved songs such as "Willow Weep for Me," "Angel Eyes," and "When I Fall in Love."

A Pittsburgh native raised in a musical family, Walker said the Cross Keys crowd was the largest and most enthusiastic he had seen this season. So far, they have covered the city from Cherry Hill to Ashburton. The band has three more free concerts: Sunday, 8 p.m. at St. Benedict's Church on 2612 Wilkens Ave.; Monday, 8 p.m. at Baltimore Streetcar Museum, 1901 Falls Road; and Tuesday, 8 p.m. at Northside Baptist Church Grounds, 1100 E. Northern Parkway.

"It's like being on the road - unusual for a big band these days," said Joe Palanzo from the trumpet section.

But the tradition must go on. After all, free public municipal concerts were practically invented in Baltimore, circa 1860. Bureau of music superintendent Stephanie S. Esworthy said the budget for the big band and the separate municipal concert band summer concerts is about $60,000.

"It brings neighborhoods together, to greet and meet," Esworthy said.

The crowd at Cross Keys seemed to confirm that.

For Marion Hirsch, the Enoch Pratt Free Library volunteer coordinator, the songs were "nostalgic."

For the young mother, Paula McCarthy, whose small girls moved to the music and smiled at their drummer dad, Joe, there was a practical aspect: "You bring them to one of these concerts and they sleep good at night."

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