February 8, 2013
Every year, The Historic Charles Street Association devotes a special newsletter issue to Black History Month. In 2012, we uncovered evidence of the Underground Railroad in Baltimore. This year, we take a look at Jazz music – its important roots in Baltimore, and some of the country’s best jazz musicians living here, today
You don’t need to drive to New York or Washington, DC to hear good jazz; Charm City has an amazing jazz music scene!
Baltimore is home to several historic firsts in jazz. You might even say that we had a Jazz Renaissance. But for some reason, Baltimore’s fascinating jazz history has remained largely unsung.
|Image Courtesy Ryan|
Well, I’m hoping we can change that. This issue highlights the seismic musical shifts that happened within our city limits. It might just inspire you to seek out some ‘living history’ (i.e. a jazz performance) in Baltimore this weekend. So let’s begin!
A ‘Soul-Filled’ Song
To understand jazz’s beginnings, you have to start in church.
That’s because many jazz greats, such as Eubie Blake, Rivers Chambers and Marian Anderson, began their careers in the early 1900s by singing or playing the organ in the church choir.
Not a lot of people know this, but the musical form known as Gospel was attributed to a man from the Eastern Shore. In the sleepy marshes of Berlin, Maryland (just a few miles outside of Ocean City), Charles Albert Tindley was born in 1851.
The son of slaves, Tindley worked by day as a laborer, but at night, he taught himself to read by studying patterns on scraps of paper. After Emancipation, he graduated from a theological correspondence course and became a very popular minister, with parishes in Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.
Tindley was a gifted composer who combined the choruses of work songs sung by slaves with simple lyrics and ‘hopeful melodies.’ His New Songs of Paradise was published in 1916 and included such standards as “Stand By Me”, “The Storm is Passing Over” and “I Shall Overcome Someday” (which, during the Civil Rights Movement, became “We Shall Overcome”).
At the same time Gospel music developed, so did Jazz. In fact, as NPR beautifully illustrates, jazz and gospel go hand in hand: Jazz musicians often improvised on gospel music.
The Afro American newspaper heralded the arrival of jazz in Baltimore in 1917. In 1919, a progressive social group called the Cosmopolitan Choral Society sponsored Marian Anderson’s performance at the Trinity A.M.E. Church. That church still stands at 2140 East Hoffman Street.
Baltimore and the ‘New Sound’
|Photo courtesy New York Public Library|
Eubie Blake, one of Baltimore’s best jazz legends, taught himself to play the family organ in the 1890s. He was captivated by the lively, syncopated sounds of Scott Joplin’s Ragtime.
Joplin, another African American composer, had sent shockwaves throughout America with his new style of music. He melded the compositional sounds of German, Polish and other European immigrants with the rhythms of African song.
“When my mother would go out and wash white folks’ clothes, I’d play music lessons the way I liked,” Blake said. “And when she came home and heard me, she’d say, `You take that ragtime out of my house. Don’t you be playing no ragtime.’ ”
“Anything that is syncopated is basically ragtime,” Blake said, “I don’t care whether it’s Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody’ or Tchaikovsky in his ‘Waltz of the Flowers.’” Blake improvised the right hand and let the left hand wander all over the keyboard, all while keeping the beat. This style would come to be called Stride.
Blake would sneak out of his parent’s house to a nearby bordello called Miss Aggie’s – located at the corner of Gay & Aisquith Streets – and play through the night. The Baltimore Sun says a passerby could tell if Blake was playing by ‘listening to the left hand.’
Blake moved to New York and brought Baltimore’s jazz sounds to Broadway. He wrote the songs for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was a breakthrough for jazz music. Its runaway success led to better hiring practices of African American musicians and actors, and served to integrate theater companies across the country.
But even Eubie Blake wasn’t immune from segregation’s sting. When Shuffle Along came to Ford’s Theater, he was told he couldn’t bring his own mother. (He did anyway, the story goes – by sneaking her in through the back).
Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue
I wish I could tell you about the jazz greats who played on Charles Street; but there were none. In 1930s segregated Baltimore, jazz theaters were on the West Side. And Pennsylvania Avenue was the place to be. It was known throughout the city as “The Avenue.”
At its hub was the Royal Theatre. “It was a beautiful building, ” Lena Boone told The Baltimore Sun. “The curtains were gorgeous; the carpet was so thick and plush; the ushers were dressed in their uniforms… I remember as a kid, as soon as you would see the marquee, you would start running and get your ticket.”
The Royal was the Baltimore stop on a musician’s circuit from New York to Washington DC. In fact, it was known to have a more critical audience than Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Charlie Parker played there, to name just a few.
The theater, both a landmark and a painful reminder of Baltimore’s segregated past, was demolished in 1971, but you can see images of the thriving shops and businesses along Pennsylvania Avenue at The Maryland Historical Society.
|“Royal Theatre, Pennsylvania Avenue,” Paul Henderson, 1949, MdHS, HEN.00.B1-001|
The Henderson Photograph Collection contains over six thousand negatives and several hundred prints taken by Paul Henderson, a staff photographer for the Afro American. He captured the every day moments of Baltimore’s African American community. But only a small fraction of the subjects in his photographs have been identified. The Historical Society is actively asking the community to help with the rest, so be sure to check them out.
Once More, With Feeling
|Courtesy Enoch Pratt Library|
Billie Holiday was born in Baltimore in 1915 and suffered a tragically violent childhood. She lived in New York for most of her life, but Baltimore embraces her as our own, for her lasting contribution to music as well as that powerfully emotive voice.
Before Holiday, singers rarely gave the impression they lived what they were singing. She changed that.
In the 1930s, music publishers kept the best songs for white singers and society orchestras, so Holiday and her band were left recording old Tin Pan Alley songs. But that didn’t matter. Her own, powerfully unique sound came through and mesmerized listeners the world over. I like how PBS describes her voice – both quiet and strong.
I also like to think that Baltimore is a city that embraces individuality. We’ve seen that now, in numerous Charles Street Insiders — throughout history, whether we’re standing up to the British in 1812 or refusing to enact Prohibition Laws, our city’s fiercely independent spirit showed through. And that’s why I think we love Holiday. Above all, she was an individual.
The Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954. But did you know that Baltimore’s musical institutions ended the practice more than a decade before that?
In 1938, Baltimorean Ellis Larkins became the first African American student at the Peabody Conservatory. (He’s most famous for his collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald). Larkin graduated from the piano program and attended New York’s Julliard School of Music. NPR has a nice profile about this soft-spoken man who touched the keys with a ‘rainbow of interwoven musical textures.’
From 1941-1958, the Peabody Conservatory was led by a progressive thinker named Reginald Stewart. He was also the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. In 1946, Stewartinvited the African American composer A. Jack Thomas to conduct his Etude en Noir with the Symphony.
Jazz Greats in Baltimore Today
|Hopkins Club photograph by Wasin Prasertlap|
Don’t think Baltimore’s storied jazz history is behind us. There are a number of renowned jazz musicians living in Baltimore today. And the Peabody Institute is making sure they have a venue to perform in.
Last year, the Peabody partnered with Johns Hopkins University to launch a new jazz series called Jazz at the Johns Hopkins Club. It was a great success. Most of the shows sold out and to this day remain one of the hottest tickets in town!
“Through this concert series, the Johns Hopkins Club continues to tie together Baltimore’s rich history of jazz music, the Peabody Institute’s world class jazz program and the appreciation for live music felt across our campus and our city.” says JHU President Ron Daniels, “I look forward to welcoming jazz enthusiasts to the Homewood campus.” (President Daniels is a big jazz fan too.)
Performers and bands of the best caliber have been selected by artistic director Gary Thomas, with substantial financial backing provided by Daniels himself.
This year’s series begins next week! There will be monthly shows through May, culminating with a performance by the luminary pianist Chick Corea.
February’s event, taking place on Saturday, February 16, features Marcus Strickland and his Quartet.
|Marcus Strickland photograph by Jati Linday|
Since emerging on the scene, Strickland’s influential sound and steady acknowledgement from every credible jazz critic has earned him a rightful spot among the very best.
His latest release is Triumph of the Heavy: Volume 1 & 2, on the Strik Musik label. Jazz Times calls it “Serious play, imbued with the kind of tough-won joyfulness that bespeaks maturity-musical, personal, emotional-along with undiminished delight.”
You can hear the Marcus Strickland Quartet on Saturday, February 16th. Sets begin at 8:30 pm and 10:00 pm and super affordable tickets (we’re talking $25!) can be purchased by visiting this link.
In March, the Jazz at the Peabody series will feature Jason Moran and the Bandwagon. For complete program details – and information about the Chick Corea show, be sure to visit the Jazz at the Hopkins Club Website.
Jazz at the Hopkins Club is located at 3400 N. Charles Street. Free parking is available.
The Peabody’s Student Jazz Ensembles
Tomorrow’s jazz stars are playing today in the Peabody Jazz Orchestra. In fact, performance is the key objective of the Peabody Conservatory’s program.
Led by Director Michael Formanek (who has performed and recorded with Elvis Costello, Chet Baker, Mingus Big Band and more), the Jazz Orchestra will play on Friday, February 15 at 7:30 pm in the Peabody’s club-like East Hall. Tickets are $15 for adults and can be purchased online.
On Thursday, February 28 at 7:30pm in the East Hall, the Peabody Improvisation and Multimedia Ensemble will perform. It is made up of strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion and vocal talent – and the really neat thing is, they often incorporate other forms of creative expression, like dance, visual art and poetry, into their pieces.
Led by the Peabody Jazz Department’s Founder, Gary Thomas, an internationally known tenor saxophonist, flutist and educator, this is sure to be a great show. The box office number is 410-234-4800 (reserving your seat for either performance is a good idea, as they often sell out). The East Hall is located at 1 East Mount Vernon Place.
I hope you enjoyed our jazz discussion; this is just the tip of the iceberg. Our city has been on a remarkable musical journey that continues today. So the next time you hear about the world’s great love of jazz music, you’ll know where many of the very best got their start – Baltimore!
Until next time,
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Elizabeth Schaaf, curator of the Peabody Institute exhibit “The Storm is Passing Over: Celebrating the Musical Life of Maryland’s African-American Community from Emancipation To Civil Rights.” Her online resources are a treasure to Baltimore history and music lovers.
The Historic Charles Street Association (HCSA) is a non-profit organization, 501 (c)(3),whose mission is to support and promote the businesses, cultural attractions, entertainment venues, restaurants and retail establishments along the Charles Street corridor. HCSA serves as a problem solving and information resource for its members, as well as provides a forum for networking, communication and collaboration.