All That Jazz

Ethel Ennis and Ruby Glover come from a golden age of their genre. And their work is being honored Saturday night at Center Stage.

September 12, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Two marvelous women, paragons of jazz-singing, talk with warm, generous camaraderie of lives well-lived, songs well-sung, with laughter and good humor for the good times and no trace of bitterness for the bad.

Ethel Ennis and Ruby Glover, women of somewhat more than a certain age now, chat at a table in the Center Stage cafe, radiating youthful enthusiasm as if they had just come on the scene a minute ago. They talk in unison, solo and in counterpoint.

They'll be celebrated as jazz divas at Center Stage Saturday night at a benefit concert for the Women's Housing Coalition. Two arts scholarships for WHC women and children will be inaugurated in their honor. They'll be joined in concert by two younger divas, Joyce J. Scott, artist and singer, and Lea Gilmore, blues and gospel singer and civil libertarian.

Glover and Ennis came up during a golden age of jazz, the bebop revolution of the 1940s and '50s, which still lives today, not least in hip-hop sampling.

"Baltimore was a hopping town," says Glover, who'll be 73 in December. She calls Ennis, approaching 70, "my young sister."

Both she and Ennis have full jazz lives right now. Besides regular performance gigs, Ennis sings with an adventurous contemporary orchestra at the Saluzzo Spring Festival, near Turin in Italy, and at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho.

Glover has been active in the city's Billie Holiday Vocal Competition since it started 13 years ago. She teaches two packed jazz appreciation courses at Sojourner-Douglass College, in a building where she was a student when it was Dunbar High. And she leads a jazz workshop project, which is expansive enough to include all the lively arts -- theater, dance and whatever -- downstairs at Xando cafe, at 31st and Charles streets.

"You can jazz anything," Ennis says. "I jazz food. You can jazz clothes."

She jazzes oatmeal with onions and celery, which Glover thinks is just fine.

And even though she came from a strict, churchy family, Ennis began singing at about 15. A band called Abe Riley's Octet was looking for a piano player and the drummer said: "Why don't we get Ethel?"

Ennis laughs.

"So Ethel became the only female in this group. We used to play the outskirts of Baltimore, you might say, where my age wouldn't be questioned. This was when bebop was coming up, talking about 1947-48."

She confesses she wasn't playing real hip chords. But she got better. She'll be playing piano when she sings for the BLEWS, the Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore, at a testimonial on Wednesday for Dr. Calvin J. Burnett, the retiring president of Coppin State College.

"I remember being in Randallstown at Odd Fellows Hall or somewhere," she says. "And someone says we have this money here, we have this big tip, do you know the song `In the Dark.' Abe says: Ethel do you know the song? Yeah, I know the song."

She was the only one in the band who did. It's a sultry ballad a blues singer named Lil Green had a big hit with under its full title, "Romance in the Dark."

"So I sang the song `In the Dark,' Ennis says. "It's kind of funny. At the tender age of 15 I'm singing this song: `In the dark it's just you and I, not a sound, not one little sound, just the beat of my poor heart in the dark.' "

Glover's humming along and then they laugh and laugh together, especially when Ennis puts a sexy little curl around the word "heart."

"So I sang that song all night," Ennis says. "That's the only one song I knew, you know. I thought I'd get paid doubly. No. Two dollars and fifty cents a show.

"We weren't allowed to have that kind of music in the house," she recalls. "Noooo. I used to hear that music coming from downstairs. In the projects, Gilmor Homes -- brand-new Gilmor Homes, little different now, I used to hear the neighbors. They used to have the cornbread and Saturday-night fish fries and the blue and red lights and the bass booming, and I'd hear all these blues coming up 'cause all we could do was just our lessons and church hymns. My grandmother talked about the people in the Bible like they were living next door."

And Glover, in a sort of counterpoint, says "Isn't amazing how the women, grandparents and even the mothers, quoted the Bible and told you about the good and bad women in the Bible, hopeful it would push off on us."

"It did," Ennis says.

"It did," says Glover.

And they take hands and laugh again together.

But her parents insisted Ennis and her brother, who she calls "Andrew" and Glover calls "Andy," learn an instrument. Andrew, who played for nearly a decade with Ray Charles, is an accomplished tenor saxophonist who collaborates with Glover in her Xando project.

Glover was already singing when she was 6 years old.

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