Saturday night finds me in West Baltimore at the Caton Castle, a jazz club tucked away in a corner of the city— just beyond the intersection of Baltimore Street and Hilton Avenue— seemingly forgotten by everyone but the police. Mirrored columns sparkle in the darkness against the pale pink stucco walls. Cheerful young women come to the small tables set with white tablecloths to take orders for soul food from the 35 or so folks between the ages of 35 and 65 dressed for a night out. The female patrons pair brightly colored tops with their white slacks and high heels; the men sport white suits, two-tone shoes and even a hat or two.
And then there is the music— straight-ahead standards like “A Night in Tunisia” or “My Funny Valentine” performed with passion and finesse by saxophonist Harold Adams, pianist Greg Hatza, drummer Robert Shahid and bassist Mike Matthew. At the end of the set, as Adams ambles off the low stage praising his fellow musicians (“Good set! Good set!”), hoots of “Yeah, baby!” punctuate the applause. Barry Glassman, the founder of the non-profit Baltimore Jazz Alliance (and my date for the evening), surveys the audience and turns to me, saying wryly, “What we lack in numbers, we make up for in enthusiasm.”
The reports of jazz’s death in Baltimore may be greatly exaggerated, as the old chestnut goes, but as Glassman alludes, the Baltimore jazz scene isn’t exactly healthy either. In a city where during the 1950s you could visit Pennsylvania Avenue to hear Miles Davis or John Coltrane at the Tijuana, Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday at The Comedy Club, or Sarah Vaughan or Cab Calloway at the Royal, Baltimore jazz seems curiously silent these days. Few out-of-town acts are booked in the city’s two jazz venues, mainly because audiences are resistant to paying cover charges to hear live music, say the club owners. And what little audience there is for jazz in Baltimore is aging rapidly. “It’s hard times for the music in this city,” says WYPR program director Andy Bienstock, who hosts the radio station’s weeknight jazz program. “The jazz scene is elusive. It has no locus, no one place.”
Even after the heyday of jazz on Pennsylvania Avenue had passed, Baltimore still had a respectable jazz scene. The 1960s saw musicians like Hammond B-3 virtuoso Jimmy Smith jamming at former Baltimore Colt Lenny Moore’s Sportsman’s Lounge, located near the intersection of Gwynn Oak and Liberty Heights avenues. In the 1970s, the Left Bank Jazz Society was still hosting its Sunday concerts (and just as memorable Sunday dinners) at the Famous Ballroom on North Charles Street, and later in the decade, promoter Mike Binsky brought artists like Chet Baker and Philly Joe Jones to The Bandstand in Fells Point. By the 1980s, Ethel Ennis’ club, Ethel’s Place, had opened (and closed in 1988), Buddie’s Pub and the Café Park Plaza swung on Charles Street, and the Left Bank began its trek around town looking for a new home after the group left the Famous Ballroom in 1984 (the building today is part of the now-expanded Charles Theatre). By 1998, the Left Bank ceased promoting concerts with any regularity. Buddie’s Pub closed in 2002. For a city with such a storied jazz past, the denouement was more than disappointing.
To be sure, jazz music is a tough sell in many cities, even those like Kansas City or St. Louis that are historically associated with jazz. Some of this is due to the aging of jazz’s current audience and the genre’s relative unfamiliarity to younger audiences. “When I came to Baltimore in the 1960s, I would go to the Left Bank Jazz concerts,” says Hatza, who began playing for Lenny Moore at The Sportsman’s Lounge when he was 16. “That listening audience is now in their 70s, and they’re not being replaced. If I see younger people in the audience now, they’re jazz students. [The clubs] are not somewhere younger people just go.”
“Jazz labors under the same handicap as classical music,” explains Bienstock. “It’s not popular music. Young people are not exposed to it. It’s not on the radio. There are no TV programs for it.”
Likewise, young audiences raised on three-minute, three-chord rock songs are often unprepared to listen to jazz. “There’s a different sense of euphoria between a jazz and a rock ’n’ roll concert,” muses Henry Wong, owner of the Mount Vernon music store and performance venue, An die Musik. “In jazz, you sit down, it’s quiet, and the song is 15 minutes long.” Instead of being viewed as a contemporary art form, says Wong, jazz often becomes relegated to “supplement music to dining.”
But ask those in the jazz community— the performers, the club owners, the educators— what’s positive about the Baltimore jazz scene, and the immediate answer is always the talent. Although Baltimore has seen the departure of artists such as pianist Cyrus Chestnut and saxophonist Gary Bartz to New York, there is a strong core of quality performers in town. “The [local] music scene is one of the finest in terms of talent,” says D.C.-born Lafayette Gilchrist, who took up jazz piano while studying at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In a single admiring breath he names a handful of local musicians who play around town, including saxophonists Greg Thompkins and Carl Grubbs.
Musicians who play mostly in Baltimore usually support themselves with other work, including teaching music. For keyboardist Hatza, who says he plays out “more than most” musicians, music makes up about 50 percent of his income (the other half comes from his martial arts school, The Chinese Boxing Academy). Gilchrist plays in New York City and Europe, but keeps Baltimore as his base for both economic and creative reasons. “If I lived in New York City, I would have been pressured to adopt a New York sound,” he says. “Baltimore affords me the opportunity to be myself.”
Several other factors contribute to the limited jazz scene in Baltimore, including the relative dearth of venues and their locations. Although you can hear jazz around town in restaurants like Taste and Sascha’s, at bars like the 13th Floor at the Belvedere and the Tremont Plaza at St. Paul Place, or at historic African-American social clubs like The Arch Social Club on Pennsylvania and North avenues, Baltimore has only three main jazz clubs— An die Musik, the Caton Castle and the New Haven Lounge in Original Northwood, the latter two situated in neighborhoods “that people aren’t happy about venturing into,” as Hatza diplomatically puts it.
And even though the notion of a jazz club in the Inner Harbor has been pitched repeatedly to downtown developers, says New Haven Lounge owner Keith Covington, that jazz club hasn’t yet appeared.
“[A downtown jazz club] sounds sexy,” says Covington. “Every major convention city I’ve been to has a major jazz outlet— except Baltimore. What we really need to have jazz survive in this town is the tourist element.”
Covington has owned the wood-paneled New Haven Lounge for 20 years and has gone from offering live music four nights a week plus weekends, to offering music four nights a week period. He is frank about the challenges of finding a way to both host live jazz and make a profit as a business. “It’s very, very difficult in today’s time and economic circumstance to bring out the number of people you need to bring out a jazz band,” he says. “As we watch manufacturing jobs go from the city, we see our customer base go as well. Even our neighborhood has changed.”
The matter of paying for the privilege of hearing music is also an issue particular to Baltimore. “Baltimoreans are historically known for not wanting to pay a cover charge. The patrons take offense,” says Covington bluntly, “but musicians are playing a job and they need to be compensated.”
The irony of patrons balking at modest Baltimore cover charges is even more profound when you consider the charges patrons pay in other cities. The New Haven Lounge charges an $8 cover; the Caton Castle asks for $5; and the cover at An die Musik varies between $8 and $25, with discounts for students and music club members. Cover charges at Twins Lounge in Washington, D.C., start at $15 and run to $30, while the Blue Note in New York City regularly commands $25 to $35.
So with all the challenges of the business, why has Covington continued to offer music? “Because we have something completely unique to the jazz scene in Baltimore,” he says, referring to the New Haven Lounge’s history of showcasing live jazz music to a racially diverse audience. “And it really should be preserved— whether I’m doing it or someone else does it.”
In the last few years, a variety of someones— both individuals and organizations— have emerged to try to resuscitate jazz in Baltimore. At the forefront is the Baltimore Jazz Alliance. Founded by Glassman in 2003 as a way to promote jazz in Baltimore, the BJA boasts nearly 150 members, and has involved itself in a considerable amount of projects given its short history, including publishing a monthly newsletter, sponsoring “Pre-Cool Jazz,” an event for children that Glassman describes as “a petting zoo for kids where they can touch and hear jazz instruments,” and issuing a CD compilation with tracks by local Baltimore jazz musicians.
The organization is also in the process of relaunching a Baltimore jazz calendar on the group’s Web site, baltimorejazz.com. “We see ourselves as facilitators,” says Glassman, a dapper man with a bristling white mustache. “We want to make things happen on the jazz scene.”
In June, the alliance sponsored a forum that brought together people in the jazz community to discuss the business of jazz in Baltimore. Glassman said he was delighted with the meeting, and pleased with the enthusiasm and “the instant bonding” between various members of the jazz community, and alliance president Mark Osteen was philosophical about the growth of Baltimore’s jazz scene. “I think some of the boomers are coming to jazz,” he speculates, laughing. “Maybe those Rod Stewart albums have introduced them to the standards.”
Although much of the discussion was focused on ways to better publicize concerts, folks also wanted to talk about the different ways to educate the public about jazz.
One way is through the radio. According to WYPR’s Bienstock, jazz programming rarely gets high ratings, yet it can be instrumental in teaching new listeners how and what to listen for. At the Jazz Alliance forum, WEAA’s George “Doc” Manning told the story of the time he played “Monsoon,” a challenging piece by drummer Billy Martin and pianist Dave Burrell, on his Monday evening jazz program. In response, recalls Manning, “This guy calls up and says, ‘Will you please play some [expletive] jazz?’” When Manning went back on the microphone, he took the time to explain why he chose the piece, its intricacies, and what made the piece special. The same listener called Manning back to thank him for the explanation and for teaching him about the music. “And that’s a beautiful thing,” Manning says with a smile.
Baltimore is also lucky to have a number of universities (and even high schools), like Peabody, Towson, Morgan and Coppin State, where jazz is valued and taught in music departments by musicians and teachers of status in the jazz community. (Osteen, a professor of English at Loyola College, has even taught a history of jazz course that included music, history and literature.) Having teachers who also play out is invaluable, says Peabody senior Shareef Taher, who plays Monday nights at An die Musik with three other undergrads as the Peabody Quartet. Taher cites Peabody jazz department chairman and saxophonist Gary Thomas and faculty member and bassist Michael Formanek as great examples of working musicians. “And we get to hang out with them every day,” Taher enthuses. “And sometimes they’ll hire you for a gig.”
For students too young or too old to participate in classes at the local universities, there are jazz opportunities at the vibrant Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center. Saturday mornings find the 31-piece Legacy Band practicing under the direction of local jazz musician and teacher Craig Alston. Culled from musicians from the Baltimore community, the Legacy Band’s youngest member is 18 and the oldest is 74. The practices are open to the public, says Troy Burton, the center’s executive director, and occasionally people show up with their instruments to sit in with the band, which plays concerts at the center and throughout the community.
The center also runs a summer music program for students from grades 4 through 12, and offers a Sunday concert series, as well as the artist showcase series that allows performers to stage their own concerts.
This summer, Baltimore hosted the PAETEC Jazz Festival, a three-day festival around the harbor that included performances by local artists Lafayette Gilchrist, the Todd Butler Group and the Michael Thomas Quintet and national acts like Etta James. Although the festival also featured some distinctly non-jazz performers, the Baltimore Jazz Alliance still expressed excitement that PAETEC chose Baltimore as its festival site. “Baltimore actually [hosted] a major jazz festival,” says the BJA’s Glassman. “And that’s wonderful news to everybody.”