Black Arts District in Focus

Near the intersection of Pennsylvania and Lafayette Avenues in West Baltimore, there stands an ornamental replica of the marquee of the storied Royal Theater.  A short distance away stands the statue by Black sculptor James Earl Reid (1942-2021) of Baltimore’s hometown jazz diva  Billie Holiday in a full-throated pose, a half-block away from the Royal Theater’s original location.  In October of 1937, a returning Holiday, age 22,  triumphantly appeared there with the Count Basie orchestra.

 The faux marquee is more than just a historical marker.  It is also a community signboard, sometimes announcing events sponsored by the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts and Entertainment District, a non-profit group commonly known as B.A.D. (Black Arts District). One of many such official (involving tax breaks and grants) Arts & Entertainment Districts statewide (four in Baltimore), B.A.D. is dedicated to the promotion of black cultural expression in its targeted community under the able leadership of its Executive Director, Lady Brion Gill. She’s a youthful spoken-word artist acclaimed for her “slam” poetry.

     Another member of the B.A.D. Board of Directors is a familiar figure on the local jazz scene; that is, Todd Marcus, an outstanding bass clarinetist in the post-bop tradition and a longtime community resident. During a recent conversation, Marcus extemporized about the atmospherics surrounding B.A.D. and the Pennsylvania Avenue mystique. “Music is still there,” said Marcus, “I mentioned the [B.A.D. sponsored] Legacy Festival because you had a bunch of [talented] artists, one is a colleague of mine named Rachel Winder, a saxophonist, flutist and vocalist.”

     Marcus continued, “One of the beautiful things specifically about jazz is that it has always incorporated different styles; whether it’s Latin or classical or in my case I’ve incorporated Middle Eastern influences– I’m half Egyptian– and a lot of artists include pop and rock and hip hop. The modern artists reflect that.”

     Old-timers often wax nostalgic about club-hopping among such bygone Pennsylvania Avenue musical hot spots as Club Tijuana, Comedy Club, Club Casino, Sphinx Club, Peyton Place, Avenue Cafe, Red Fox and so on. “What’s notable about the Black Arts District with events like the recent Legacy Festival is that, I think, there’s a mistaken perception that [the music] is all gone,” said Marcus. “It’s not. It’s still there. It’s about providing more settings to showcase what is still happening. You’ve got a venue like the Arch Social Club that has stuck in there all of these years and occasionally host events. The Black Arts District is highlighting things that are happening and putting on events of its own.”        

     Pennsylvania Avenue’s cultural roots run deep. The landmark building with Grecian nymphs adorning a decorative arch that has housed the Arch Social Club since 1972 actually opened for business before the First World War. According to Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Movie Theaters (2017), veteran Baltimore Sun photographer Amy Davis’s informative and picture-filled coffee table book: “Frederick W. Schanze built a theater for vaudeville and moving pictures next door to his popular pharmacy and soda fountain on North Avenue in 1912. The building’s most distinctive feature is the two reclining muses on the pediment. The serene Shanze ladies have surveyed Pennsylvania Avenue ever since.”

 Noting more recent events, Marcus gave a shout-out to Jim Hamlin, owner of  nearby The Avenue Bakery and a stalwart supporter of B.A.D. activities. Its website, theavenuebakery.com, explains Hamlin’s mission: “…to provide unique products freshly baked here in our community. It is also our mission to support the efforts of the ‘Royal Theater & Community Heritage Corporation’ to pass the history and legacy of this great community that contributed so much to both our city and our country.” Incidentally, the menu specialty, “Poppay’s rolls,” gets rave reviews.      

Both The Arch Social Club and The Avenue Bakery were at ground zero in the 2015 Freddie Gray riots, an eruption of racial unrest in the city following a deadly encounter between police and a young black man. For Marcus, the turmoil inspired his quintet’s high-energy “musical portrait of our community,” a CD entitled On These Streets: A Baltimore Story (available on Amazon).

Dialectically, culture both leads and follows social developments– it evolves. How does B.A.D. envision the artistic future of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor? “I don’t think that we can realistically expect to see a re-creation of the past,” said Marcus. “Jazz is still significant to us, but there are other styles that are the popular music of the times now, and I think that we’re going to see new venues come up but […] there will be different venues, including jazz.”

Donations in support of B.A.D. are tax-deductible and welcomed. Visit the website for information about contributing, signing up for email notifications, as well a schedule of activities: blackartsdistrict.org. In addition, you can look for B.A.D. coming attractions posted on the Royal Theater marquee.  

Gregory L. Lewis is a longtime Baltimore attorney whose jazz reflections frequently appear under the Caton Castle’s “show review” tab at catoncastle.com and at reflectionscatoncastle.blogspot.com     

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