Where Jazz Still Echoes

The lights went out long ago in Pennsylvania Avenue's jazz clubs, but people still remember the stars.

Cover Story

December 08, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | By Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

A soft breeze ruffles the grass and weeds on the vacant lot on Pennsylvania Avenue where the Club Tijuana once filled the night with jazz. The Tijuana is long gone. But in this empty space there is room enough for the music to echo in the memory.

"Everybody you could name, if they played in Baltimore, they played at the Tijuana," says Ruby Glover, who started singing on The Avenue something like 50 years ago. "It was just swinging all the time, all the time. The glamour. The gorgeous feeling. The energy!

"I look at the grass, but I don't see the grass," she says, standing at the chain-link fence on the edge of the lot at Clifton Avenue. "I see the building. I see the people. I see and feel the energy. It's just fascinating. And then I look at all of this. How could we just let it go away?"

Pennsylvania Avenue was the main stem of black Baltimore in the 1950s and jazz was its pulsating theme song. But jazz is all but gone from The Avenue now and Glover searches through the shards like an archaeologist at a holy site.

"It is like walking on hallowed ground," she says.

The Tijuana was the top jazz house on the upper part of The Avenue. The Comedy Club was the premier spot below North Avenue.

"The Tijuana was a real, real hip avenue bar and a beautiful place to go [and hear] jazz," Glover says. "The Tijuana offered you an opportunity to see the giants, and touch them and be in the midst of them."

Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two of the great innovators in modern jazz, played the Tijuana. Billie Holiday sang there. During one stretch in the mid-1950s, the Tijuana had the Billy Taylor Trio, followed by Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Stitt, Chris Connor, Ben Webster, Lou Donaldson, Art Farmer with Gigi Gryce and Chet Baker with Russ Freeman.

The Comedy Club was just as hip. One summer lineup in the 1950s included Lester "Prez" Young, the "president" of the tenor saxophone; J.J. Johnson, who practically invented the bebop trombone; Terry Gibbs, the relentless vibes player who still leads a band; and Lee Konitz, the searching alto sax player. Both Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday performed there.

Ruby Glover, who turned 73 on Dec. 6, still sings a lot, all around town. But she also teaches jazz appreciation courses at Sojourner Douglas College. And she regularly brings her students over to The Avenue to see where it all happened. She's doing The Avenue on this day from end to end, about 23 blocks, stretching southeast from Fulton Avenue.

"I'm taking a historical walk," she tells mourners at the funeral of pianist Ellis Larkin. "So I can identify what used to be. We're starting at the top, Fulton and Pennsylvania."

The first stop is the Red Fox, which was actually just off The Avenue on Fulton. Ethel Ennis sang here for nearly a decade before going to Europe with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Glover took her place.

A liquor store called The Red Fox carries on busily at the corner but the lounge seems shabby and derelict now. The jazz club got its name from the red hair of the wife of George Fox, the owner.

"He liked to face the door," Glover says. "He was heavy, real heavy, but gentle and a very beautiful person. He'd always keep four silver dollars in his hand, which he would just tap on the top of the bar, and if the music was playing he was right in time with the music."

Henry Baker, a musician and beauty salon owner, had the Peyton Place in the block between The Red Fox on Fulton and the Tijuana at Clifton. He had a haberdashery farther down on The Avenue with a back room where musicians could shower and change clothes.

"If you didn't have clothing," Glover says, "he would take them off the rack and he had a tailor to make them look good."

Musicians were sharp dressers in those days. Even Miles Davis wore a suit and tie.

"Because Duke [Ellington] always said that the music was a lady and you had to dress for her and he always dressed for her."

She remembers Count Lantz, who played vibes with Ethel Ennis at the Red Fox, as a fashion plate who wore "a wonderful Homburg hat and carried a cane all the time."

A block south at the grassy lot at Clifton Avenue, she says, "That little club called Le Coq d'Or sat right there where that little tree is. Fuzzy Kane and them would be playing there. Le Coq d'Or was small, intimate, a nice place."

Baltimore has turned out generations of fine musicians, going back to Eubie Blake at the start of the 20th century. Some stayed, like Mickey Fields, the bebop master of the tenor; Jimmy Wells, the veteran vibraphonist who still plays; Claude Hubbard, who would play piano at The Prime Rib for years; Donald Bailey, who played rock steady bass; Freddie Thaxton, who played piano like Thelonius Monk; and Tracy McCleary, who led the band at the Royal Theatre, "The Royal Men of Rhythm."

"Freddie Thaxton dedicated his life to bebop," Glover says. "I performed with him at the Red Fox and I have his daughter in my class."

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