Although Baltimore's connections to things like the "Star-Spangled Banner" and Edgar Allan Poe never lack for widespread attention, another of the city's claims to fame deserves a bigger boost. That's the aim of an engaging new book, "Music at the Crossroads: Lives and Legacies of Baltimore Jazz."
In addition to the appeal of the subject matter, the way the book came to be has its own attraction. It was produced and published largely by students of Loyola University Maryland, which has a student-staffed, faculty-mentored publishing company on campus.
The 406-page book contains a collection of essays on such luminaries as Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday, Chick Webb and Cab Calloway. A section on innovative artists covers the careers of Ethel Ennis, Ellis Larkins, Cyrus Chestnut and others. There are chapters on Baltimore's once-thriving jazz district along Pennsylvania Avenue and the rich history of the Left Bank Jazz Society.
The story behind the book starts in November 2008 with Frank Graziano, a New Yorker who was a junior at Loyola then.
"I was in a book publishing class," he says. "We had to come up with an idea for a book that was economically feasible, and you had to find someone to write it. I had gone through five or six other plans that didn't work. I had been listening to jazz around that time, discovering it, and thought I could do something with that."
Learning how many jazz artists had ties to Baltimore, Graziano thought about a book on that subject.
"I did the first thing you do to see if a project is worthwhile," he says. "I looked online. The only mentions about Baltimore jazz I found were in books on African-American history and culture."
Once settled on his topic, Graziano began looking for a writer. After a few dead ends, he e-mailed the Baltimore Jazz Alliance. "There was no name on the e-mail address," he says, "so I didn't know who I was writing to."
It turned out to be the president of the alliance, Mark Osteen — or Dr. Osteen, as he is known by students at none other than Loyola University, where he's an English professor. Small world.
The Montana-born Osteen is also a jazz saxophonist who has performed for years in the Baltimore area.
"When Frank approached me, I was reluctant, but a voice kept saying, 'You should do this,' " Osteen says. "Baltimore has a great jazz history. That history evaporates if no one follows it up." (He and Graziano are credited as the editors of "Music at the Crossroads.")
Osteen found an ideal outlet in the university's publishing business, Apprentice House. "The students do original research, and they do the editing and the designing," Osteen says.
He began recruiting participants for the book in the spring of 2009. A few he knew from their playing in the Loyola Jazz Ensemble; others came to his attention during a course he taught last fall, "Blue Notes: Literature of Jazz." Recommendations for other students came from the history department and elsewhere.
In the end, eight students joined the project, along with a few outside contributors, all facing an April deadline. The students were not a particularly musical group — their list of majors includes biology, economics and journalism.
"Some of them didn't have any kind of knowledge of jazz," Osteen says. "The beauty of students that age is that they are not completely formed in their interests. By the end of the year, the students all came to love jazz. They're into that world now."
Cathleen Carris is a case in point. She took the assignment of recounting the history of the Left Bank Jazz Society, which was launched in the 1960s and presented concerts for the better part of three decades, many of them at the Famous Ballroom on North Charles Street.
"For my chapter, you didn't have to have a music background," Carris says. "Researching part of Baltimore's history was right up my alley."
Contacts led the writer to source material from a founding member of the society, including meticulous notebooks that chronicled appearances by an eye-popping list of jazz greats — John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Carmen McRae, Coleman Hawkins, George Benson, Ahmad Jamal; the bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman.
"That was incredibly impressive." Carris says. "And so was the number of things the society was doing for the community. First of all, it was an interracial society. It contributed to a lot of organizations and helped out with music in the schools. There were separate chapters of the society in two penal institutions in Maryland. I was amazed at everything the society did."
The Loyola students edited one another's work and that of the outside contributors. "It definitely got crazy at times," Carris says. "There were many late nights arguing about commas. But we were very open to criticism. We all just wanted a really good book. We're certainly very proud of it."