Chronicling city's jazz history

Vocalist, and now author, Tamm E Hunt is compiling Baltimore's rich music legacy

June 22, 2008|By Alex Plimack | Alex Plimack,Sun reporter

Jazz vocalist Tamm E Hunt is an encyclopedia of jazz knowledge: She rattles off names of Baltimore jazz musicians, past and present, as if she were reading from the phone book.

An accomplished performer, Hunt is now using her breadth of knowledge to write the book Jazz Baltimore: The Unsung Mecc a. The book, she says, is the first of its kind, because the history of local jazz has never been properly documented.

Hunt says that being a jazz performer has given her the necessary insight into a culture that she says is like a religion.

Though she was born in New York, Hunt grew up in Baltimore. She left the city years ago, but moved back in 2000 when her son was murdered. She quickly became involved with the jazz scene and performs every Thursday at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

There is no set release date for her book.

IN HER OWN WORDS : I'm a history buff. I was going through pictures in the library, scouring things and I thought, 'Wow, Baltimore has an incredible history of jazz.' I approached Arcadia Books, and they were very excited, but somehow our relationship went sour. They wanted a certain style of writing which is kind of an insult to my education. So I backed away from them, but we parted kindly and friendly. I continued to keep building the book and doing oral histories and finding people who have information they could share with me.

WHY A BOOK : I don't think that the information has been documented well. There's a book [about] African-American entertainment. It inspired me to want to expand the knowledge. Me as a jazz lover and an appreciator of what Baltimore has offered to this world is why I'm inspired to write this book. I think it needs to be told. When people talk about Baltimore, they think about Pennsylvania Avenue. [But] the music was so broad throughout the city. It was not condensed to simply Pennsylvania Avenue. Somehow, the universe has designated me as the one to compile the information.

THROUGH THE YEARS : [The book chronicles] Baltimore's jazz starting with the ragtime in the late 1800s all the way up to now. It has an entire listing of musicians who play jazz around here and who have in the past and in the present. I go out and interview all these people who were intrinsically involved with jazz and the promotion of jazz, the development of jazz or who just love jazz and remember Baltimore for all of its fanfare.

USE OF ORAL HISTORIES : We continue to know about our history, whether its from the African-American perspective or from a Jewish perspective or a gentile perspective ...because there was always an elder who could tell some story and, along the way, someone documented those words that they heard. Those people are commonly known as griots in the African community; the people who carry the story. It is the oral history that tells the history of any particular art form or life experience.

GOING THE EXTRA MILE : [Peabody Conservatory archivist] Elizabeth Shaw stopped me one day and said to me, 'You're accepting less by writing a little picture book. Don't do that. Because of your stature and the mind you have, you can do a great thing.' Baltimore very well could be a birthplace of jazz. And if not a birthplace, definitely an incubator of jazz music, because so many great jazz musicians performed here. There was always something happening with the music. Baltimore had its own renaissance. And it needs to be documented. And the only person that's really reported it in any way is Elizabeth Shaw and, hopefully, myself.

CURRENT STATE OF BALTIMORE JAZZ : I think Baltimore's jazz image is unfortunately being bastardized by self- righteous control freaks. They have created a conflict for jazz musicians to be able to get paid. People try to get you as cheap as they can get you. That's what's unfair. They want it for free. People have to eat. Some of us make a living as performers; it's not a hobby for everybody.

AN END IN SIGHT? : I still have a little more work to do. Every time I think I'm ready to put a period on it, something else comes along to give me just a little bit more meat. So right now, I'm in an editing place and I'm gathering oral histories and I'm hoping these oral histories can be turned into a CD. It can be a companion piece to the book.

alex.plimack@baltsun.com

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