Luminaries To Help School Celebrate Its Rich Musical Legacy

April 26, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

Talk about Smalltimore.

Ethel Ennis, Baltimore's grande dame of jazz, was in Oslo in 1990 to perform the national anthem at a ceremony commemorating the first American killed in World War II. In the audience was Anne Brown, the American soprano who, literally, put the Bess in Porgy and Bess - George Gershwin became so enraptured with her singing, he expanded both her role and the title of a new opera he was writing, originally called, simply, Porgy.

Ennis and Brown met afterward for the first time, just a couple of world-class artists who happened to have graduated at different times from the same school halfway around the globe - Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High.

They'll be reunited, in a sense, this Saturday, on the stage of Douglass' auditorium where Ennis, 76, will be the featured singer at a concert by students and alums paying tribute to Brown, who died last month at age 96 in her adopted hometown of Oslo.

The audience will be treated to a recording of Brown singing the iconic "Summertime" - part of a tribute that includes snippets of an interview that Ennis' husband, Earl Arnett, taped during that 1990 meeting in Oslo - followed by Ennis' live performance of it.

"Oh, oh, when you hear a voice like hers, well, I don't call myself religious, but when I hear her voice, I think, 'God lives,' " Ennis said of Brown. "It's just a spiritual connection."

Ennis will put her own uniquely Baltimore spin on "Summertime," prefacing it with her rendition of how the a-rabbers would call out what they were selling from their horse-drawn carts that day. (Believe me, you've never heard anyone make "watermelon" or "peaches" sound quite as luscious as Ennis.) "That was summertime to me," she said of her childhood in Baltimore.

But the concert is as much about looking forward as backward. The school's alumni have organized the performance to ensure that Douglass' rich musical tradition continues into the future. Alums say the concert will showcase a side of the school that tends to be overshadowed by grittier depictions, such as HBO's Hard Times at Douglass High, the documentary that aired last summer. School district administrators say the documentary is dated - it was filmed several years earlier - and that the school has since improved its curriculum, and graduation and college acceptance rates.

"They only recorded the bad things and not the positive things," said Randolph Gardner, a graduating senior and a drummer with the school's award-winning jazz bands. He says he's not so much "nervous, but more excited" about Saturday's concert, in which he'll play along with professional musicians, most of whom graduated from Douglass. "It is going to be one of the biggest concerts in my career, playing along with the professionals."

"I'm very, very excited about it," agreed Jessica Connor, the graduating class' valedictorian and a member of the school choir that will sing with Ennis and other professional musicians at the concert. "It's an honor to share the same stage with them."

Like other students, Connor - who received a full scholarship to attend Towson University this fall and hopes to become a doctor - is well aware of the musicians who preceded her at Douglass, from Cab Calloway and Ellis Larkins to Brown and Ennis. Calloway's grandson, Christopher Calloway Brooks, will also perform Saturday, along with alums such as Ennis' brother Andy, a former bandleader and musician for Ray Charles.

The musicians are donating their services, and proceeds from the concert, which is part of a whole weekend of alumni events, will go to the school, said Joe Smith, a retired GM worker and past president of the Douglass alumni association. The alums took over governance of the school, in partnership with a Hopkins program, after Douglass landed on a list of failing schools that the state was threatening to take over.

"I still dream about the halls of that school," Ennis said fondly. "It was a great time for me."

Ennis took private music lessons as a child, but it was at Douglass that she began her career, playing keyboard with an instrumental group that got "little gigs on the outskirts of town where my age wouldn't be questioned." One night, she believes in Randallstown, an audience member kept plying the band with tips and asking them to sing some songs. One of the members asked Ennis if she could sing, and she thought, why not? She would go on to an international career, touring with the likes of Benny Goodman while remaining based in Baltimore.

The 30 student musicians have been working on the concert for some time now, but will begin rehearsing with the professionals Monday. Most have notched many performances on their musical belts during their time at Douglass - in marching band, jazz ensembles and choirs, said David Burton, the school's band director, and now they're looking to take their place in the school's history. "It will bring some well-deserved light," Burton said, "on what we're currently doing at Douglass to maintain its musical heritage."

Tickets to the Musicians for Douglass concert Saturday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the school's auditorium, are $25. For more information, call Joe Smith at 410-960-8041, or the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council at 410-523-4500. Tickets are also available at the school.

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