Mel Spears, 78, jazz pianist who played at clubs, restaurants for six decades

April 03, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Mel Spears, a jazz pianist who played and sang at restaurants and clubs for six decades, died of cancer Sunday at the Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center on Loch Raven Boulevard. He was 78 and lived in Northwest Baltimore.

Known for his renditions of "The Lady Is a Tramp," he delighted Baltimore audiences with his smooth, calm and melodic style, reminiscent at times of Nat King Cole or Fats Waller.

Born Melvin Isler Spears in East Baltimore, he attended Dunbar High School. Family members said he began playing gospel music by ear when he was 8 years old. He received his musical training at the old A. Jackson Thomas music school on Madison Avenue, where many budding musicians in the city's African-American community received jazz training in the 1940s.

During World War II, he served in the Army and played the piano at USO shows.

On returning to civilian life, he began picking up jobs playing at the old Club Astoria nightclub in West Baltimore and at Jones', a West Lanvale Street bar, among other venues.

"He was a charismatic guy who bridged a couple musical generations of style," said Ed Goldstein, director of the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble. "He could play like Fats Waller or James P. Johnson, then go to a modernistic style of a Bill Evans. He was really good at it."

In a 1990 Sun interview, Mr. Spears said that he began playing while in high school. "I accompanied Billie Holiday, the great blues singer, a couple of times here, and played sometimes with the Lionel Hampton Sextet in New York," he said.

During the 1980s, attired in a white dinner jacket, he enjoyed a long stand at the Society Hill Hotel Grille on Cathedral Street.

"The man was a walking melody. He greeted you with a smile and when he started to play, the magic happened," said Phil Warfield, a Catonsville piano company owner who knew Mr. Spears for more than 20 years. "There is not a professional, competent musician in this town who does not love Mel Spears."

Mr. Spears also performed at the Belvedere Hotel's 13th Floor, the Rusty Scupper on Key Highway, Phillips Harborplace and Da Mimmo's in Little Italy. He also serenaded shoppers at the Nordstrom department store in Towson.

"He was an excellent player, certainly one of the best around here," said Bob Fields, a jazz pianist who teaches at Peabody Institute and the Community College of Baltimore County's Essex campus. "He was a natural, very much influenced by Art Tatum."

"He played very well and was versatile. He was a nice guy, great to work with," said Tracy McCleary, a former band leader who headed the pit orchestra at the old Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue. "Spears was cooperative and he'd come to my rescue when I needed a piano player. He had a tremendous musical memory, he could come up with the tunes from way back when."

"In every way, form and fashion, he was a legend for Baltimore," said jazz singer Ruby Glover. "His style was like the early '20s and '30s. He was a sophisticated, society pianist, with both hands going to get that sound. In him you could hear Art Tatum, Eubie Blake, Teddy Wilson or Noble Sissle. All of them were right there when he sat down to play."

Ms. Glover recalled Sunday afternoons at a home Mr. Spears owned in Churchville in Harford County. "He set up a piano outdoors under a canopy. It was like the Royal Theater had come alive on his front lawn," Ms. Glover said. "He would sing a little bit and the sounds of those years -- the 1930s and '40s -- would come through."

In the 1980s, Mr. Spears participated in a Maryland Arts Council program to introduce jazz to students who had little exposure to it.

Funeral plans were incomplete yesterday.

Mr. Spears' wife of 15 years, the former Eleanor Thomas, died in 1990. Survivors include two aunts, Leona M. Baker and Irene Spears, both of Baltimore, and nephews and nieces.

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