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A Blueprint for Building Baltimore’s Jazz Scene

Jazz can play an invaluable role in creating and sustaining a city’s cultural identity. Jazz provides a means for individual and group expression.  It also has the power to build bridges between various ethnic, religious, social, and economic groups.  When jazz is allowed to thrive in a community, the result often resembles a multicolored tapestry, where the integrity of each thread is strengthened by its contribution to the whole.  Consequently, this blueprint for building Baltimore’s jazz scene involves more than a single genre, more than music alone. 

Like many cities, Baltimore suffered economically during the pandemic, and to borrow a phrase from Joe Biden, the time has come to “build back better.”  But what does that mean, exactly, when it comes to strengthening the city’s jazz scene? Returning to conditions from 2019 isn’t good enough. Baltimore’s musicians and audiences deserve better. We need to borrow techniques from city planners and think outside the box. 

This blueprint for building Baltimore’s jazz scene involves five basic steps: 1. Identify the jazz community (musicians, venues, presenters, audiences); 2. Explore in depth the needs of the jazz community; 3. Identify city government policies that will benefit the jazz community; 4. Engage the broader arts community to get their buy-in; and 5. Develop audience interest.

Steps one and two could be effectively achieved by completing a music census, and as a new member of the BJA board I hope to lead this vital mission. A music census is basically an anonymous, on-line survey that is available for several weeks. The data gathered offers a snapshot of the current jazz ecosystem that can inform important decisions on the local level. The most difficult thing about launching a census is getting buy in from the jazz creative community. The best way to do this is to spend several months hosting public forums and organizing meetings with all interested parties: musicians, venue owners, educators, arts advocates, non-profits, etc. These conversations are vital; they help determine which questions should be included in the survey.  They also strengthen the community, because the data gathered will be shared with the entire community. The results will be posted on the BJA website.

Step three involves responding to the data collected in the census and pursuing change through public policy. As noted in the 2016 report, The Mastering of a Music City (IFPI and Music Canada): “Government policies have a direct impact on the ability of music businesses such as live performance venues, recording studios and rehearsal spaces to operate sustainably.” In Baltimore, jazz is directly impacted by decisions involving business licensing, transportation and parking, land-use planning, and noise ordinances. As advocates for jazz, we should make sure that decisions coming from local government do not unnecessarily hinder the growth and well-being of the jazz community.

Like many cities across the country, Baltimore is facing challenging decisions related to gentrification and urban growth. Currently, historically significant music properties are being threatened or have already been lost. Solutions to these challenges might include heritage designations, cultural zones, and policies based on the “agent of change” principle (the person or business responsible for the change must also be responsible for managing the impact of the change).

Data from the survey will also confirm needs surrounding local training and education programs, professional mentoring programs, access to hubs or incubators, and affordable housing. By attending to public policies like these in an informed, data-driven manner, the BJA can continue to build a supportive environment that enables Baltimore’s jazz musicians to focus on what they do best: making great music.

We can’t expect local government to understand instinctively the unique issues of the jazz community, but we can present a unified, coherent message that will educate them about our needs.

Step four, engaging the broader arts community, involves acknowledging that the arts community, in general, is stronger when it is united.  Although music, theater, visual arts, dance, etc. have different needs and challenges, we will all profit more by collaborating and sharing insights and information.  Arts organizations shouldn’t see themselves as competing with one another for public funds and audiences.  BJA has already started this process, shown in its partnership with the Bromo Arts District, but there are more connections to be made.

Finally, success in step five – developing audience interest – can only come, I believe, if we dedicate time and energy to steps one through four.  Baltimore has many untapped audiences for jazz: college students, all-age groups, and fans of other genres/artforms who haven’t yet been properly introduced to jazz.  We are lucky to have listening venues devoted to great music, and restaurants and non-profits committed to supporting local artists.  But there is room to grow and a need for sustainability.  Now’s the time! The possibilities are endless!

Anna Harwell Celenza

Anna Celenza is a professor at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of several books, including Jazz Italian Style, from Its Origins in New Orleans to Fascist Italy and Sinatra (2017) and The Cambridge Companion to George Gershwin (2019). She’s also published eight children’s books, including Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. In 2016 Celenza co-founded Music Policy Forum, a non-profit that advises local governments about how to create sustainable music ecosystems

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