A room aglow with brightest light of jazz

Musicians gather to celebrate history of African-American music in Baltimore

Baltimore ... or Less

February 09, 2003|By Linell Smith | By Linell Smith,Sun Staff

Bass player Montell Poulson arrived a bit late -- he had just come in from another gig. Poulson used to play the Royal Theatre in Baltimore and the Howard Theatre in Washington. He roamed the East Coast with the Rivers Chambers Orchestra, playing for "heavy pockets" society events. He played with Eubie. He toured with Billie, Fats and Ethel. However, he began his set last Sunday by acknowledging another bass player seated near the front of the audience.

"My mentor's Charlie Harris, who played with Nat King Cole," Poulson said, pointing him out. Then he waved to saxophone player Whit Williams: "I see you back there, too, 'Police Dog!' Go ahead, stand up!"

Drummer James "Peanut" Saunderlin was finally ready for him. "Now we're just going to play a little bit," Poulson said. "Is there a pianist here?"

Justin Thomas raised his hand.

"We're doing 'Now is the Time,' " Poulson announced. "And we'll play it in the Key of Whiskey."

It was a key everybody seemed to know well. Fingers snapped and feet began tapping as the trio entertained their friends and colleagues.

The group of musicians -- many in their 70s and 80s -- had gathered at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center to celebrate the history of African-American music in Baltimore, history they had helped create. They had come to hear some good music and stories that stretched from corner churches to Carnegie Hall.

Officially, they were attending the opening of "Sounds and Stories," an exhibit of photographs and interviews with people who were part of Baltimore's legendary musical community in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

But it quickly became a warm reunion of folks who remembered each other from the Royal Theatre, the Great Hymns Choir, the Colored Symphony Orchestra -- or all of the above. That so many of the roughly 75 elderly guests could move seamlessly between classical music, church music and jazz went without saying.

"We have never had so many famous people together in one room," Camay Calloway Murphy, director of the Eubie Blake Center, told the gathering.

Among them were Charlie Harris, bass player for Nat King Cole; Douglas MacArthur, whose band, the Blue Notes, launched singer Ruby Glover; Murray Schmoke, who sang with the Great Hymns Choir and spent some time directing it; pianist and accompanist Audrey McCallum, now of Morgan State University; Morris Queen, choir director at Sharp Street Methodist; Fannie Newton Moragne, soloist with Baltimore's Herman Schwartz Singers; Lucille Brooks, who replaced Eubie Blake's teacher as organist at Waters AME Church; sax player Arthur "Pigmeat" Garner; and vocalist Louisa Lara Gross, who toured with Lionel Hampton when she was only 16 years old.

Testing the piano

The event also marked another historic moment: The launching of the "Sounds and Stories" Web site, the result of years of work on the part of Elizabeth Schaaf, head of archives at the Peabody Institute, composer Charles Kim, Peabody musicologist John Spitzer and Johns Hopkins history professor Ron Walters. Funded by the Maryland Humanities Council and Maryland Historic Trust, the current project grew out of an earlier show on Maryland's African-American music that Schaaf also organized. The Web site is still a work in progress, but many of the oral histories are up and running, and make for great reading.

After the unveiling of the Web site, it was time for entertainment. Standing at the ready was the Baldwin upright that belonged to another Baltimore legend, Ellis Larkins. His wife Crystal donated the piano to the center last year after Larkins died.

"We were keeping it on display, but Ellis was telling us this afternoon that that piano's gonna be played -- tuned or not," Murphy said.

First to test it was McCallum, who played a moving arrangement of Great Is Thy Faithfulness. Next was Reppard Stone, professor, pianist, writer and a fixture of the Baltimore music scene.

"Today is my anniversary," he told his audience. "I've been married for 46 years. So I'm going to play 'You Don't Know What Love Is.' "

Stone was followed by Justin Thomas, one of several musicians at the party who had performed with Lionel Hampton. What made Justin a standout in this crowd, however, was his youth. Known principally for his talent on the vibraphones and steel pans, the 15-year-old Baltimore School for the Arts student pulled off a classy performance of "Memories of You," one of Eubie Blake's signature pieces.

"See how politically correct some of these youngsters are?" Murphy teased.

While the gallery filled with music born in the old days, guests posed for pictures with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It took a while to realize that something was missing.

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