A singer's life of jazz and Buddhism

Tamm E. Hunt's home is changed but welcoming

February 15, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The glowing Buddhist shrine with its scroll of Chinese calligraphy illuminates the room where Tamm E. Hunt talks of jazz.

"I'm a Buddhist and a Mahayana Buddhist," she says. That's the Buddhism of the Greater Wheel, one of the mainstreams of Buddhist thought. She chants daily before the shrine.

"We're about self-improvement and self development," she says. "There are millions of us."

Singer Tina Turner and jazz musicians Herbie Hancock, the pianist, and Wayne Shorter, the tenor saxophone player, all practice Buddhism. Buddhism is the center of her spiritual life, jazz the heart of her musical life.

"Jazz is a religion," she says, "and I am a disciple."

She grew up in Baltimore but she's carved out a rich jazz life for herself over the last couple decades in New York City. She's a sultry, smoky-voiced singer who has performed with a galaxy of jazz luminaries that includes Dorothy Donegan, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, James Carter, Mulgrew Miller, Roy Hargrove and Antonio Hart.

With Doris Sydnor Parker, the wife of the late alto saxophone great, Charlie Parker, she founded the Harlem Jazz Foundation, and its offshoot Adopt-A-Kid-4-Jazz, "a free music/business education program for talented youth at risk, meaning all youth." She's acted (and sung) in Billie Holiday the Legend, an off-Broadway show. She narrates her tribute Bebop Revolution on Mac Gollehon's CD, In the Spirit of Fats Navarro.

And she's even written a jazz cookbook, which features her fried wings, cornbread and collard greens with tomatoes and onions.

She's been back in Baltimore since October when she returned for the sad duty of "representing" her son at the trial of the man accused of killing him. Michael Aaron Hunt was found shot to death off Bloom Street in West Baltimore, a few blocks from where she's now living on Division Street. After nearly a year and a half, the man has not come to trial.

She grew up on Division Street.

"I had pretty good childhood," she says. "It was a different Division Street, trust me. It was a different Baltimore. I'm amazed at what I see here now and all of the news I hear. The drugs and the murdering, very tumultuous, heinous environments here. In all the neighborhoods. It's not even isolated."

"I look outside and I think, my goodness, what can I do to make it better to help the children?" she says. " ... In no way am I a martyr. But I am a way-shower. And the best way I can contribute is through art and culture, music."

She's doing some singing and she's approached Mayor O'Malley about a program similar to Adopt-A-Kid-4-Jazz.

She called an old friend, Eddie Harrison, the guitar player and drummer, "to let him know that I was in town and looking for the music." He took her to Maceo's Lounge on Monroe Street where Tiny Tim Harris and the Do It All band perform Wednesdays. Harris invited her onstage and she sang a few standards: God Bless the Child, Teach Me Tonight, My Funny Valentine.

Carlos Johnson, the veteran alto sax player, was in the audience. "He immediately invited me to sit in at his gig at Duffy's." Duffy's Restaurant is on Frederick Avenue across from the National Cemetery at Loudon Park.

"Nice little place," Hunt says. "And they have fabulous food. They were very receptive to me as well."

She sings tonight at the Caton Castle with her own trio - Donald Smith, piano, George Gray Jr., drums, and Curtis Lundy, a premier bass player who often accompanied Betty Carter - and Gary Bartz as a special guest on saxophone. Bartz, a Baltimore native, too, is an old friend and one of the very best alto sax players in jazz. They've appeared together many times, made a CD, Tamm E. Hunt Live at Birdland and even appeared in a movie, Meviut Akkayya's A Jazz Story.

Caton Castle is one of Baltimore's newer jazz clubs, at 20 S. Caton Ave., a block west of Baltimore and Hilton streets.

Hunt has sung at some pretty classy jazz joints in New York, like the old Iridium, St. Nick's Pub and at Jazz in the Parlor on Sugar Hill sessions at the Harlem Jazz Gallery. But her first paying job was here in Baltimore, early in her singing career. Very early.

"Oh, wow," she says, "the first time I got immersed in singing I was 6 years old. And I'm not going to tell you how old I am. I sang at School 104 at a school bazaar, and the song was Heart and Soul.

"My piano player was my first-grade teacher, Florence Ray. Miss Ray played Heart and Soul for me. And of course I told her how to play it. It's a little common ditty that you'd play by one hand. Afterward she said you were just wonderful and went into her pocket - and I'll never forget it - gave me a quarter."

Tamm E. Hunt

What: Jazz singing

Where: Caton Castle, 20 S. Caton Ave.

When: 9 p.m. today

Tickets: $25 at the door; $20 advance

Call: 410-566-7086

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