“When you think of Jazz in Baltimore, what tune or performance first comes to mind?”
This month, I reached out to a few jazz fans and practitioners in the greater Baltimore region and posed a simple question: When you hear the words “Baltimore Jazz,” what tune and/or performance comes to mind first? The answers were varied. Some respondents reached back into the city’s music history for an answer. Others chose music that might serve as a soundtrack for the Baltimore they know. Still others latched onto the question as the opportunity to give a shout-out to a favorite local musician. Below are a few of the answers I received. I’ve expanded each response with some extra details about its connection to Baltimore’s jazz scene, both past and present. For those of you who would like to listen to the music, you can access the playlist on the BJA website.
Henry Wong, proprietor of An Die Musik said: “I always think of Nina Simone’s ‘Baltimore’ when I am asked by others about jazz in the city. I am sure it is a silly answer, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind.” [The feature photo is of Nina Simone. Source: CNN]
“Baltimore” isn’t a silly answer; it’s a great song! Composed by Randy Newman in 1977 “Baltimore” speaks to the city’s problems, both then and now. Simone recorded the tune with a funky Reggae/strings accompaniment in 1978, and ever since, it has served as a testament to the city’s struggles. Simone never lived in Baltimore, but the song captured a mood felt across the country. As Simone declares: “Oh Baltimore, ain’t it hard just to live.”
Hannah Mayer, a junior in the jazz program at Peabody Conservatory, responded without hesitation: “To Wisdom the Prize” by Larry Willis. The Nat Adderley Quintet (with Willis on piano) was the first to record the tune, in 1982, at Keystone Korner, when it was based in San Francisco. But the preferable recording, and the one included on our playlist, was recorded by Willis’s own quintet in 1990. Willis eventually became connected to Baltimore. Late in life, he moved to the city, where he continued to inspire musicians young and old. Warren Wolf, a member of the jazz faculty at Peabody, once reflected, in DownBeat magazine, on Willis’s impact: “Mentorship is the best thing that describes him,” said Wolf. “He was all about playing with the younger generation and giving them a chance to succeed in this music. In Baltimore, there’s a lot of young musicians who need guidance. To have a legend like Larry living in the heart of the city was such a huge, positive thing. You could learn a lot just being around someone like him.”
Cyrus Mackey, another Peabody student and leader of the group Kenyatta, responded to my query via text message: “I think of ‘Moanin’, particularly Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers playing it. The city has something of a rustic undertone. I’m always reminded of the soulful subtleties. The city just reminds me of the blues. That story that it tells.” Back in the 1970s and 80s, “Moanin’” could be heard on an annual basis, when the Left Bank Jazz Society hosted Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at the Famous Ballroom, a music hall in downtown Baltimore.
Tyrone Crawley, president of BJA, named Eddie Harris and Les McCann’s performance of the protest song, “Compared to What,” as the central tune in his Baltimore soundtrack. Like Art Blakey, McCann and Harris performed regularly in Baltimore at the Famous Ballroom. When the song was composed by Gene McDaniels, it was intended as a rant against the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson. That said, listening to the performance by Harris and McCann reveals that the music is as relevant today as it was in 1969.
Sue Carlin, another member of the BJA board, tapped into Baltimore’s current jazz scene. She responded to my query with a shout-out for Kris Funn, an extraordinary, hometown talent who has made his mark on contemporary jazz as a bass player, band leader, composer, and Peabody faculty member. “Gemini” from Funn’s concept album Cornerstore, rounds out our Baltimore playlist. As Funn explains, Cornerstone tells “the story of a kid growing up in the 80’s in West Baltimore set to the backdrop of sibling rivalry, a father’s passion for music, a mother’s guidance and a quest for finding oneself.” It’s a story of the city told by someone who really knows it.’
To hear these tunes, go to our playlist on Spotify
If you have a tune you would like us to add to our Baltimore Playlist, reach out to Anna Celenza firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s keep the music playing!
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.