A new collection of historical documents from the Left Bank Jazz Society of Baltimore currently resides in the library at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). The collection sheds light on how Jazz defied the odds to become a crucial part of American heritage and artistic innovation. Due to the rise of Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll in the 1960s, the governing economic structures of the Jazz industry felt seismic shifts that left Jazz fans with an ever-contracting pool of supportive venues and outlets. Fortunately, the Left Bank Jazz Society found a creative solution. Officially founded in Baltimore in 1964 by former members of the Interracial Jazz Society of the 1950’s, the Left Bank Jazz Society focused their efforts on bringing Jazz artists to the city of Baltimore.
The early members elected Benny Kearse, a former member of the Interracial Jazz Society, as their president along with Vernon Welsh, a prominent jazz guitarist, as his vice president. The Society capitalized on their diverse and eclectic musical interests by inviting both traditional and experimental artists of varying cultural backgrounds to perform for an equally diverse audience. The money made through ticket sales was used to ensure that none of the musicians ever left the premises without being paid—an unusual achievement given the unpredictable nature of the music industry during this era.
The Left Bank Jazz Society was different from other venues because it was considered safe for children to roam, enjoy food, and be entertained by music. John Fowler, a former board member of the Left Bank Society, recounted, “We did our shows at 5 pm, so you could bring your kids.” The Society was essentially a large family gathering where people could feel at home. Food and beverages were provided by community members themselves, and, despite the popularity of the organization’s BYOB (Bring-Your-Own-Beer) policy, according to Fowler, the organization could boast of never having any altercations. “In a thousand shows, to never have one altercation is unbelievable,” he explained.
The Left Bank Society’s creation also coincided with the year the Civil Rights Act was passed. In many ways, the group epitomized the spirit of the law. “We didn’t really care as long as you had money to pay your admission. We didn’t care who you were or what you were,” remembers Fowler. During a time when desegregation faced many challenges, the Left Bank Jazz Society implicitly promoted racial integration through a shared interest in Jazz music. However, its surprising longevity was possible due to the community’s camaraderie and desire for providing live music. Many of the concerts were prominent enough to receive considerable local coverage by the press. The Society was featured in local newspapers, such as the Baltimore Sun, as well as popular Jazz periodicals, such as DownBeat.
During its peak in popularity, the Left Bank Society board members decided to chronicle their achievements in yearbooks, which contain a wide variety of the organization’s ephemera, such as detailed concert lists, newspaper clippings, and photos. These yearbooks also hold information about various members and their accomplishments as well as memorials for deceased musicians. The survival of such detailed documentation is incredibly rare for such an organization and of immense historical value.
Some of the members collected recordings of concerts for their personal archive, and many of those recordings survive today as a priceless time capsule of Jazz history. A portion of the recordings have been released as albums from a variety of artists, such as Sonny Stitt, Walter Bishop, Jr., Shirley Scott, and The Wynton Kelly Trio in addition to Sun Ra and his 1980 documentary A Joyful Noise. The Left Bank Jazz Society also created pamphlets that contained biographical data on musicians with which they were engaged. Fortunately, members and concert attendees collected fliers from the concerts, as well as other memorabilia, during the time the Left Bank Jazz Society was active. Some of those items are also now housed by the Special Collections at UMBC.
UMBC Special Collections, located in UMBC Albino Kuhn Library, is now actively engaged in efforts to preserve the rich history of Left Bank Jazz Society, and seeks the community’s help in the identification and preservation of other Left Bank-related ephemera and materials. For patrons who cannot visit campus physically, the library is in the process of making scans of the material publicly accessible through their online inventory, which will eventually include the full collection. However, UMBC Special Collections only holds a fraction of the Left Bank Society’s history, and its librarians hope that the Baltimore community will aid its preservation efforts and donate materials to the collection so that future generations of jazz fans will be able to access such an incredible story. Those interested in contributing to the collection may contact the library directly via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (410-455-2353).
This article was condensed from a longer article written by students of Dr. Earl Brooks, saxophonist and English professor at UMBC. The students Bethan Cruise, Adi Mwangi, Zachary Bradley participated in a summer program called CoLab.