“I’ll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places”

–A nostalgic look at the jazz scene of yesteryear and questions for the future

It was a dark and stormy night … not really; it was actually rather drizzly, but nobody walked through the doors of the old club on Pennsylvania Avenue, The Sphinx Club, without shaking a little drizzle off their hat or wiping down some of the wetness on their sleeves.  Wordlessly making their way through the yellowish subdued light, filtered by the fog of burning cigarettes or cigars. Making their way to the brightness of the bar or the loneliness of that side table, they settled in, maybe ordering some wings or that great fish sandwich or meals from the kitchen. sinking back and listening to the tinkling of glasses as the barkeep poured whiskey into one glass after the other and hearing the gravelly voice of Biddy Wood, sage and mentor to patrons and performers alike, holding court in the corner. Some gravitated upstairs to the smaller bar for small-time gangsters, legal and illegal, gathering to parlay great deals that would either grow or destroy their empires.

 I sat down in front of Charlie at the bar, ordering my Johnny Walker Red and water, scouting out the femme fatales. Beautiful ladies holding court with the dreams of young men, both in age and imagination.

Normal activity. It was all like that old tune sung by the likes of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn – “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.”

Conversations grew louder and louder until the air was filled with the cacophony of sound.  Then the rhythms of conversation ceased to be consistent, broken by the staccato of people noticing an entrance—a face, a walk designating a possession of what everybody was there for. Who was this that just walked in?  It was a face familiar to those in the know, the man coming in with his ax, his sidemen, maybe a sax, somebody lugging in a drum set–there was always a drum set there, but drummers tend to bring their own accoutrements. He may have sat down at the piano or the house Hammond B3 or stood in front of the microphone, but the staccato of the voices slowly settled down for an evening filled with the rhythms of the night. Conversations quieted, punctuated in volume at intervals in between each familiar tune.

Couples moved a little closer together while hunters and huntresses–wondering if they could share that cab drive home, or maybe a bed, or maybe even more, a shared dream for a moment–began making initial approaches to each other. Between sets, the rain outside issued a pad upon which the worries of the day were washed away.

One war was over, its scars still in the faces of older patrons who had returned, and a new war had begun, the burden carried on the shoulders of my generation. One economic struggle was big news, but the daily economic struggle was reality for most of us.

It was the birthplace of mainstream thought, emotion, and spirit. It was also the garbage pit where all those who had been discarded gathered. There was a soaring sound of hope in the air and the somber blues of the struggle of the loss. There was a hope of tomorrow still intermingled with all. Maybe he or she will be my next bride, wonder the hunters; maybe he will be my next husband, wonder the huntresses; maybe this fantasy in my head will come true, maybe tomorrow we find freedom.

All this remembrance prefaces this article, which is a question but not to the patrons.  The question is to you who create the music, the platform upon which dreams have been built–you, the musicians.

I put these questions forward because each generation each moment in time has an impact on all your creative voices. Yes, I have reached back into a time that some of you may fondly remember, or some of you may not even know, but it marks a change attained, a mental change in expression.

From the juke joint, to the jazz club to the spoken word venue, it has all been a reflection of the times in which it was created

Today we have a new challenge. Whether you want to call it a pandemic or a moral episode, or an escape from the bondage of the past, or the prophecy of doom, we have a change–a paradigm shift as some may call it. In every challenge, conflict, or crisis that has face society, there are shifts if not in the genre of the music itself but in presentation, intonation, messaging, and style.

So I pose to you, the musician, this question: how has this current climate influenced you as an artist? This question does not ask about the platform of your delivery, but the messaging that is attached to your stylistic endeavors. Sure, it is to be noted and considered–the arena of the live performances subdued will bring changes in your method of presentation. But musicians, especially good creators, express themselves in their anger, their pain, their joy, even in their boredom.

The desperation of oppression that drove us to cling to houses of worship eventually led to a genre we know as gospel that led to jazz. That same desperation led musicians to plaintively wail about their life and cultural servitude, and therefore we have the blues. With all this confronted in rigorous attacks in the 60s, we morphed jazz, blues, and folk to into rock, protest genres of the spoken word, and reggae and house and rap.

The question is simple:

  • What have you noticed that is different to your approach to your music?
  • What have you noticed that is different in your message?
  • What have you noticed that is different in the constructs that you have pulled from in the past and are pulling from now?
  • How do you reinforce your unique ideas to your audiences, to the world?

Please give your response below or on the Facebook page of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance, to begin a conversation, an investigation into how you, the artists, are expressing yourself –which will forecast our next step forward.

On the corner, carved in stone, Billie Holiday opens her mouth in a perpetual scream at an empty lot that echoes back to her from across the street. Her scream is not asking where has it all gone? Her scream shouts forward, asking, where do my children go from here?

1:45am– time for one more Johnny Walker Red and water, before hearing the bartender sing his old familiar tune. “You don’t have to go home, but you have to get out of here.” 

Walking back into the Baltimore night, the clouds have dispersed and stars are in the sky, and somewhere you know that the dawn will break. The ground is still damp from the rain the night before, but there is a new clean, crispness in the air. You look at the sky while waiting for a cab to menacingly take you to tomorrow, you know that you will return, and you say to yourself, “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”

Kwame Kenyatta-Bey has worked in journalism as a reporter and editor. He holds a degree in theater arts from Morgan State and has years of experience in theatrical production work. He is currently president and CEO of JAG Productions, which curates and produces new, contemporary and classical theatre.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *