Hoping to create a new powerhouse on jazz scene

New club opening at Annapolis hotel

January 23, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Ever since last fall's closure of the legendary King of France Tavern on Church Circle, the Annapolis jazz scene has been strangely silent. But listen carefully and you just might hear the sound of Joe Byrd's bass tuning up for what he hopes will be a memorable performance.

Tonight at 8, Byrd - brother of the late jazz legend Charlie Byrd - will perform for the opening of the Powerhouse, a new club at the Loews Annapolis Hotel on West Street. The club is a collaborative effort of Joe Byrd, wife Elana and Loews general manager Larry Beiderman.

After decades in the music business, the Byrds could comfortably call it quits. But with the city's jazz scene in limbo, the couple is working to revive it.

"I will go as far as I can with this," said Joe Byrd, 70, who wears his grayish-blond hair in a ponytail. "When we played a tribute to Charlie last year, the fans came running - so we know they're out there. We just hope we can get them coming back on a regular basis."

"We're doing this for the next generation of musicians," added Elana Byrd, 61, who is her husband's business manager. "We hope to pass the jazz legacy on."

Cozied up in two armchairs in the living room of their Edgewater home of 27 years, the Byrds recalled their early days in Annapolis, before their name became synonymous with the local jazz scene.

That scene took root in 1973 when Paul Pearson, founder of the King of France Tavern at the Maryland Inn, asked the Charlie Byrd Trio to play at his new club. At the time, the band's members - Charlie Byrd on guitar, Joe Byrd on bass and drummer Chuck Redd - were performing all over the world as goodwill ambassadors for the State Department. Although they continued to travel, the trio spent several months a year on stage at the tavern, inviting jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, George Shearing, Joe Pass and Monte Alexander to play along.

The tavern "became my home away from home," said Elana Byrd, puffing on a slim cigarette in the couple's colorful sunroom, decorated floor to ceiling with exotic art and antiques. "That's part of the reason I was so sad to hear the news."

Last fall, a manager from the Maryland Inn called the Byrds to tell them the tavern was closing, embroiled in a bitter dispute with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers over copyright fees.

Tavern regulars were stunned.

"Everyone who had ever been there was very unhappy," said Annapolis' Joe Sachs, 69, who says he spent about three nights a week at the King of France. "It was the only place in town that brought in great music."

Although the tavern was cramped and dark, the Byrds said it had character: beamed ceilings, barrel-top tables, brick walls and wood floors. The waitresses wore colonial-style skirts, and every table was topped with a candle.

"Back in the glory days, people used to get dressed up to go there," Elana Byrd recalled.

By the early '90s, however, Pearson had left the King of France and, the Byrds said, the club suffered. Managers came and went, five in 10 months, finally leaving the tavern's fate in the Byrds' hands.

"It was a struggle with the King of France, and I grew weary from it," said Elana, who gave up her career as an attorney to work as a booking agent for the club.

Two Annapolis venues have moved to fill the void left by the club's closing: 49 West, a cozy coffee shop on West Street, and the nearby Rams Head, which offers nightly entertainment ranging from jazz to country. According to Kris Stevens, booking manager for the Rams Head, that club has increased its seating capacity from 217 to 242, and has booked well-known jazz acts such as Diane Shur and Lalah Hathaway, who performs there Wednesday.

At 49 West, local jazz musicians have found a more intimate stage. Annapolis musician Rob Levit, who's played at 49 West for several years, called the coffeehouse a lab for new music.

"I loved the King of France, but it was old-time and lacked a forward focus," said Levit. "49 West is very supportive of jazz and lets musicians do what they want." Still, Levit acknowledged that 49 West is too small to accommodate the kind of crowd the Powerhouse hopes to attract.

Located in a brick structure adjacent to the Loews Annapolis Hotel, the new club is an airy room with high, beamed ceilings and tall windows. Some say the venue will have to work to draw a large crowd - one Beiderman hopes will rival Blues Alley, the renowned Washington jazz club.

"The only question is: Will people come?" said Andy Bienstock, who is host of a jazz program on WYPR. "Jazz has always been popular, but only with a minority. The Powerhouse can be successful if it gives people a nice evening out."

The Byrds said the club will do just that, offering ticket prices that include dinner at one of the club's two restaurants. Eventually, Beiderman hopes to expand these packages to include deals on rooms at Loews.

For the club's opening - which sold out several weeks ago - the Joe Byrd Quintet will play "Brazilian Nights," a tribute to Charlie Byrd, who was known for fusing jazz with Latin sounds. Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, a jazz fan who encouraged Byrd and Beiderman to open the space, will preside over a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Joe Sachs and other old-timers from the King of France Tavern plan to attend.

On opening night, as he strums on his bass, Joe Byrd said, he will think about his brother, and one of the final requests he made shortly before he died: Carry on the music.

"I think Charlie would be very happy to hear that's what we're doing," said Joe Byrd. "We are carrying the torch."

Opening

What: Jazz at the Powerhouse

When: Tonight at 8

Where: Loews Annapolis Hotel, 126 West St.

Admission: $20

Call: 410-263-7777, Ext. 3411

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