A smooth, intimate set of jazz

Annapolis couple brings musicians, fans together in cozy surroundings of downtown coffeehouse

July 28, 2006|By MARY JOHNSON | MARY JOHNSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the cozy back room of a downtown coffeehouse, bassist Joe Byrd and his wife, Elana, are helping to keep jazz alive in Annapolis.

The space at 49 West Coffeehouse and Wine Bar resembles a vintage 1970s clubroom in a historic home where brick walls are adorned with artwork, and windows reveal a city street scene.

Seating a maximum of 40 people - mostly at tables for four - this room has great acoustics that allow the audience to catch every mellow note and each word from the musicians.

It's become a second home for the Byrds, who started "Jazz in Annapolis" in 2002, three years after the death of Joe's brother Charlie, a legendary jazz guitarist.

Now on the first and second Wednesday nights and the third Saturday night of the month, other musicians join Byrd. He is often part of the fourth weekend of the month - Powerhouse Weekend -where the Byrds bring in larger bands and well-known names.

The setting at 49 West lets guests get up close to the musicians, to see their facial expressions and watch their hands move with assuredness and sensitivity.

During a recent performance, Byrd, whether accompanying guitarist Jim Cunningham or playing solo, confirmed his renown as a lyrical bass player. While playing the melody, he gave distinctive rhythm and always knew where to go with each essential note. Nothing was superfluous. It added up to perfection.

Having enjoyed a few shows arranged by the couple at Loews Annapolis Hotel's Powerhouse, where jazz takes a summer holiday, I recently checked out the more intimate surroundings.

The evening began with a Duke Ellington favorite, "Satin Doll," which allows limitless interpretation. On this mid-July night, "Satin Doll" gained a new dimension from Byrd's bass. This was followed by Ellington's "Mood Indigo" that seemed more wistful than melancholy, with a skipping, almost happy, breezy beat.

Byrd offered a few vocals starting with a laid-back version of Ellington's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," sung with an innate sense of rhythm and a twang from his Chuckatuck, Va. roots and reminiscent of composer Hoagy Carmichael's singing style.

From Henry Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses" to some '60s and '70s happy blues tunes, the choices seemed elemental and right. Byrd also celebrated his brother's legacy of introducing Antonio Carlos Jobim's exquisite bossa nova melodies with Jobim classics like "Meditation" and "The Girl from Ipanema."

For 30 years, Charlie made Annapolis a swinging place with his performances at the Maryland Inn's King of France Tavern, which closed in 2003.

Jazz wasn't Maryland Inn's only magic. That's where Joe and Elana met in 1973. After their 1977 marriage, Joe continued to tour with Charlie nine months of the year, with Elana moving her law office into their Gingerville home so she could travel with his trio.

After Charlie died in 1999, Joe wasn't sure that he wanted to continue playing.

"Charlie asked me to honor his commitments - he died on Dec. 3 and he was booked in January in Bethesda. I did that date with some really good musicians, and found it OK," he recalled. "We had a couple more dates, and I found I wanted to keep doing it."

Soon he was back at it, and Elana scaled back her days in the law office to do booking and public relations for her husband.

When King of France closed, Elana said, "I had to find venues in short order and was welcomed by 49 West and Reynolds Tavern. Shortly thereafter I contacted the Loews Hotel manager, and Joe and I created Jazz at the Powerhouse as a monthly weekend event."

These Powerhouse concerts often play to sold-out houses, as do the intimate jazz sets at 49 West.

"Joe Byrd is so well known that his name is a draw, and his jam sessions really pull in people and are amazing," said waiter Chris Murray.

And since 49 West isn't a bar, Elana encourages children to attend the shows.

"In fact, we actually press for parents and grandparents to bring kids who play instruments to come to the Joe Byrd Jams at 49 West on Wednesday nights," she said.

For further information, e-mail elanabyrd@comcast.net or call 410-266-7338.

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