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Leslie Imes: Baltimore Aficionada of Jazz Around the World

[Photo by Liz Fixsen]

When you walk into Leslie Imes’s home in West Baltimore, you feel like you’ve stepped into an art gallery. Her space is filled with fascinating objects from all over the world—objects that she collected over her 27 years career, partly as a diplomat in the U.S. State Department. For example, we ate lunch at a table imported from Agra, India, inlaid with semi-precious gems. Her walls are hung with masks from Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana. She also displays many photos of jazz performers from by-gone days in Baltimore. Both at home and across the world, Leslie Imes has pursued her love of jazz.

Growing up in Baltimore, Imes was surrounded by music, including jazz. She and her mother and two siblings (her father died when she was a baby) lived with her grandmother, who played piano in church. Her mom listened to all the great female jazz singers. Her uncle, James McKnight, played the Hammond B-3 with a group called the Mello-Jacks in Baltimore in the 1950s, and she got to hear him play in his clubs. Back then, every street corner had its little club, and people would come to hear the music and bring their kids, who were welcomed. Entire families would come to have picnics and outdoor concerts at Bill Dotson’s club in Glen Burnie, an entertainment haven for the Black community of that time. Imes attended Eastern High School, across from the old Memorial Stadium—an all-girls school that was being integrated at the time.

After a stint working in Woodlawn for the Social Security Administration, Imes launched into her career as a diplomat, learning to speak several languages (French was her forté). And she heard jazz “everywhere.” She recalled a little club in Seoul that she frequented after her day’s work In the embassy. It was called “All That Jazz” and featured straight-ahead American jazz. The Arabs in Nigeria—the merchant class—featured American-style jazz to draw in the American diplomats. The junior officers would go home after work, go to sleep, get up at midnight and spend the rest of the night dancing in the clubs—and then get up and go to work again in the morning. The Nigerian clubs played more African-influenced music, always heavy on the drums. The jazz in India was different; many of the Indian jazz musicians had traveled to America to learn jazz—but then they would mingle it with their own traditional styles and instruments, such as the tabla.

Imes retired from the State Department in 2006 and reacquainted herself with the local jazz scene. She started to regularly frequent Caton Castle, which was not far from her home. She had gotten to know Ron Scott, the owner, in the 1970s at a little club in Pigtown called Levi’s. Both her family and his grew up in South Baltimore. Scott started Caton Castle in the 1980s, featuring mostly rock-n-roll and big bands; during that time, Imes was traveling the world as a diplomat. When she returned, Caton Castle was featuring more jazz—and Imes confided that she found this to be a healing experience after the trauma of evacuating American citizens from Haiti during the overthrow of President Aristide. Imes is also a regular habitue of Caton Castle, and it was a delight to find her seated at the bar, smiling her 1000-watt smile. As a dedicated jazz fan, she attended the entire weekend of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz festival with her friend Amy Adams, wife of the late saxophonist Harold Adams, staying in a room at the hotel. She is also a regular at Baltimore’s Keystone Korner.

What does she love about jazz? “Mostly the creativity. The wonders of the musicians’ individuality and what they hear and interpret. Everyone hearing the same decades-old tune, but sensing and understanding it according to their own inner voice. All of us have an inner voice, so for us fans it’s rewarding to have a chance to ‘live’ share someone else’s vision. I like to go to the shows so I can feel the tune.” 

Currently, Imes is working with a group of Baltimore jazz musicians & aficionados and with Contemporary Arts, Inc. and hopefully with Morgan State University to plan a jazz festival in fall of 2024 to focus on the history of jazz in Baltimore, featuring the style of the legacy jazz players, with big band performances and ballroom dancing. Fond of her “creature comforts,” she wants to hold the event in a manner similar to the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival.

An irrepressible woman full of laughter and warmth, Imes lights up the scene wherever she goes, and the jazz community is grateful for her loving patronage of the music.

–by Liz Fixsen

Liz is a jazz pianist and vocalist performing in the Baltimore area. She is a member of the board of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance, and she edits and writes for the newsletter.

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