- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

On the second floor of a beautifully sculpted white marble building in the heart of Baltimore’s arty Mount Vernon district, a movement is gathering energy.

This is An die Musik Live, tucked away above its record shop in the former home of the Eubie Blake Center on Charles Street, Baltimore’s major cultural thoroughfare. It’s the city’s most unusual performance space — and it’s at the center of a jazz renaissance in a town that has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs in the music business.

Baltimore is steeped in jazz tradition. The music’s roots can be traced to the innovative ragtime piano playing of a teenage Eubie Blake, who honed his craft in turn-of-the-20th-century Baltimore bars and bordellos. Singer Billie Holiday was raised in the city and began her career in places such as the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue during the 1930s.

That was a high point during a golden jazz age for Baltimore. It peaked in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, then fell into decline. One by one, clubs, including the Famous Ballroom, the Jazz Closet and the Bandstand — where legends Dexter Gordon, Tommy Flanagan and Milt Jackson once played — closed their doors.

Now a spirited new venue, a couple of old mainstays and an influx of young musicians are resurrecting jazz in the city.

• • •

The miniature concert hall at An die Musik Live exemplifies the resurgence: Fueled by weekly concerts by the Peabody Conservatory’s Jazz Orchestra — a big band led by bassist Michael Formanek that favors the compositions of jazz masters such as Charles Mingus and Thad Jones — and regularly scheduled performances by world-class musicians, it throbs with energy from week to week.

Last Friday, legendary tenor saxophonist David Murray, accompanied by Baltimore’s own Lafayette Gilchrist on piano, played an exclusive pair of shows. The next evening, Chicago pianist Andrew Hill played two concerts as part of an invitation-only series arranged by An die Musik’s director of jazz and improvisational music, Bernard Lyons.

“We’ve been building up our concert series slowly with about two major performances each month, around which we also try to give an opportunity to give local and regional artists a place to play,” Mr. Lyons says.

The weekend shows were sandwiched between performances by the local Trio Ricochet, a group of twentysomething improvisational virtuosos, and the start of the Peabody Jazz Orchestra season, which coincides with the new semester at the Peabody Conservatory, the Juilliard of Baltimore.

The young musicians in both groups can make a listener feel that the world is still full of wonder. And don’t let the “student” tag fool you: Though they’re young, the students in the Peabody Jazz Orchestra have spent their lives in music.

Other performances scheduled for An die Musik Live include the Ethnic Heritage ensemble with a pair of shows Feb. 4 and Baltimore vocalist Alicia Carter, in two shows Feb. 11.

• • •

Jazz in Baltimore may not have returned to the lofty heights it enjoyed decades ago, but it survives and is nurtured by musicians, fans and such devoted club owners as Keith Covington of the New Haven Lounge — “The Haven,” as it is more popularly known.

“It has been hard to make jazz work in Baltimore. It’s fragile: The market isn’t as great as it used to be. But those of us who do it, do it for love, not money. We’re rich in spirit,” Mr. Covington says.

The Haven, where the focus clearly is on the music, is perhaps the most celebrated, and certainly most critically acclaimed, live jazz venue in Baltimore. For the past 15 years, both City Paper and Baltimore magazine have voted it Baltimore’s best jazz club.

Located in a North Baltimore shopping center, the club has been a landmark in the city since 1935. It’s a family operation, bought in 1987 by the Covington family and now owned and operated by Keith Covington, whose brother Gary acts as manager a couple of nights a week.

“We’re a black-owned club, but we have people from all races coming in, people who really know their jazz,” Gary Covington says on a recent Saturday night during a performance by Washington saxophonist Paul Carr and his group.

Mr. Carr and his band mates play original straight-ahead jazz, contemporary and bebop-influenced. Their turn includes an impressive series of extended solos by Mr. Carr and band members Eric Byrd on piano, Bhagwan Khalsa on bass, Tommy Williams on drums and guest vocalist Janine Gilbert-Carter.

At the Haven, all eyes and ears are on the performance. A floor-level stage directly in front of the bar occupies the middle of the room. It’s surrounded by more than a dozen seating booths, all of them facing the bandstand. Television monitors provide live video feeds to tables and to a lounge in the back that has no direct view of the stage.

A standing-room area circles the back of the stage in front of the bar; there patrons can get an up-close view of the musicians playing their instruments. Murals of famous jazz musicians and black-and-white photo portraits adorn the walls. Framed certificates of awards and honors are also displayed proudly.

Mr. Carr, who plays the Haven with assorted groups of musicians six to eight times a year, is part of a regular rotation of Baltimore and D.C.-area jazz musicians who contribute to the club’s reputation as the city’s premier live jazz venue.

The Haven also brings in nationally known performers such as Eddie “Fat Head” Newman and Joshua Redman and has served as a launching pad for local musicians including pianist Cyrus Chestnut.

Indeed, the club gave Mr. Chestnut a send-off party before he went to play with Betty Carter in New York about eight years ago.

“Our goal has been to revitalize jazz in Baltimore,” Gary Covington says. “We bring in the best bands we can afford. We’re willing to take that chance.”

It appears to be paying off. With live jazz scheduled every Friday, Saturday and Wednesday, the place is packed with a diverse crowd of enthusiastic jazz connoisseurs from in and around the city.

Tom Pulcinella, 24, a graduate student in education at Towson University, attended Mr. Carr’s recent Saturday-night show.

“Everyone seems to be here to hear good music and have a good time. I love the level of intimacy and how close you can get to the band, and how well you can hear the music,” Mr. Pulcinella says.

Lawrence Shumacher, a Baltimore plumbing and heating business operator, and his girlfriend, Allison Dickinson, monitor the local jazz scene and make frequent visits to New York jazz clubs.

“I like the mix of people at the Haven. Everybody is friendly and relaxed and enjoying the music. I like the overall ambience. … It carries the feel of a classic jazz lounge where black and white people meet,” he says. “We’ve sat down at tables with total strangers and felt like we’ve made new friends.”

• • •

Though the Haven is unparalleled in serving up steady jazz, seekers of nostalgia who are willing to journey to a harder-edged part of town will find a jumping juke-joint atmosphere at Maceo’s Lounge.

The West Baltimore neighborhood surrounding Maceo’s, on North Monroe Street, may be daunting in the dark of night, but the club is a fun and friendly place. Lively upbeat jazz is delivered to an enthusiastic audience by Tiny Tim and the Do It All Band on Wednesdays and the Bobby Ward Trio on Thursdays.

Opened in 1956, Maceo’s is a bastion of a bygone era. In its cozy confines, a small, elevated stage is positioned adjacent to a narrow, smoky bar, right behind another narrow, smoky bar on the street level.

Drummer Bobby Ward is a local legend who has been beating the skins in the city for more than 40 years. His resume includes stints with Little Richard, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Teddy Pendergrass. Mr. Ward has played at Maceo’s with accompanying bands every Thursday for 10 years.

That’s “a good while,” Mr. Ward says, “for playing jazz and keeping them interested.” He adds, “Baltimore is not easy.”

A storehouse of the city’s jazz history, Mr. Ward recalls playing at a plethora of places that no longer exist, rolling off his list during a break between sets on a recent Thursday night.

“Sportsman’s Lounge, the Birdcage, the Closet, the Famous Ballroom — all the good places have gone by the wayside,” says Mr. Ward, who also remembers the musicians he played with during the 1960s.

“They were the elders — Mickey Fields and Shirley Fields, Charlie Covington and Bill Bird and Chico Johnson. Now we are the elder statesmen, because the others have passed on,” says Mr. Ward, sitting at a table with longtime band mate Marshall Booze, who is in attendance but not playing on this night.

After the break, Mr. Ward resumes his place behind the drums. He leads a brand-new trio that includes relative youngsters Benji Perecki on keyboards and Gregory High on trumpet.

The group begins its next set with a smoking rendition of legendary Hammond B3 organist Jimmy Smith’s “Back at the Chicken Shack.” Mr. Ward also contributes a spirited vocal performance for the next number, “On a Clear Day,” which receives a rousing response from the audience.

A week later, he is joined by organist and long-time band mate Tommy Hurley, who began playing in 1954 and recalls shining shoes at Maceo’s just so he could come in to hear the jazz.

“West Baltimore has always been the place for jazz,” Mr. Hurley says.

An order of jazz on the side

Much of the jazz to be heard in Baltimore — perhaps even more than in the traditional nightclub setting — can be found in restaurants and hotel-lobby bars, which hire jazz musicians to play background music for dinner. While the music still represents jazz in its pure form, the focus is rarely on the music.

“They come in to dine, and if they listen, that’s neat for us,” says pianist Jeff Wilson, who plays with bassist George Hyde at the Prime Rib steakhouse on North Calvert Street in the historic Mount Vernon district, a neighborhood studded with restaurants and hotels.

The Prime Rib is a Baltimore institution where every night is a black-tie affair. There, the jazz serves mainly as background music to power dinners, power dates and businessmen’s three-martini happy hours.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, Mr. Wilson plays jazz standards at a glass-topped grand piano a few feet from the bar at the entrance to a luxuriously appointed dining room. On Wednesdays, he is joined by Mr. Hyde, who has worked this gig for 10 years.

The volume is low, and it’s hard to tell how many people are paying attention to the clean and polished performance by this highly professional duo. Mr. Wilson describes the pair’s “meat and potatoes” repertoire as a mix of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington classics. Their style is also heavily influenced by the bebop-era compositions of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker and pianist Oscar Peterson.

“We can play whatever jazz we want, within reason. In this day and age, we feel lucky to be working five days a week,” Mr. Wilson says. The pair is joined Friday nights by saxophonist Brad Collins.

At The Club at the Colonnade on West University Parkway in the Charles Village neighborhood, it’s pianist Bob Butta who’s the draw. An outgoing, cheerful sort, Mr. Butta has been honing his skills in Baltimore for the past four decades and has played with just about every jazz musician in town.

According to Keith Covington of the New Haven Lounge, “When heavyweights come to town and need a keyboard player, Bob Butta gets the call.”

For the past couple of years, Mr. Butta has played in a tight space between the bar and the dining room at the Colonnade. On a recent Saturday night, he was joined by bassist Amy Shook, a classically trained violinist who converted to the upright bass 18 years ago, five years after graduating from the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton School of Music.

Miss Shook, who also plays gigs with guitarist Rob Levit at 49 West Cafe and the Galway Bay Irish pub in Annapolis, delivers strong, prominent bass lines that serve as much more than just accompaniment to Mr. Butta’s blazing fast runs up and down the keyboard.

“I love Bob. We have a great connection musically. It’s not work at all,” she says.

On the other hand, it has been work at the Copra Restaurant and Bar on North Charles Street, where the view from the front windows reveals bustling traffic. Copra opened here in fall 2003, on a site once occupied by Buddies, a night spot known for many years for its live jazz music.

In September last year, Copra’s management decided to return to its jazz roots.

“That’s what started the idea, the fact that this used to be Buddies,” says restaurant manager Jay Day. “The place already had a jazz following.”

Copra sectioned off a small portion of the dining room for live performances by bass clarinetist Todd Marcus and a variety of accompanists. Mr. Marcus also hosts an open-mike session in Copra’s swanky downstairs lounge Tuesday nights.

Mr. Marcus, 29, is a student at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory and is joined in his current trio by pianist and Peabody classmate Joel Holmes, 22, and Howard University music student Eric Wheeler, also 22, on bass.

Copra’s dining room begins to fill around the band just after the Marcus Trio begins its first set at 8 on a recent Saturday night. The audience responds with generous applause after the first number.

It’s a good scene, Mr. Marcus says.

“We really have a beautiful thing going on here on Tuesday nights. They liked it so well they asked us to do Saturdays as well. They’ve decided that jazz is the way they want to go,” he says.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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