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Music

The Lake House

Jazzway 6004 offers one of the finer listening experiences in the city

Christopher Myers
Marianne Matheny-Katz sings at Jazzway 6004 (aka her basement).

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/11/2009

The Tim Green Quartet plays Jazzway 6004 Nov. 14. The Todd Marcus Duo plays Baltimore Clayworks Nov. 13.

For more information, see Jazzway 6004 or Baltimore Clayworks.

"This house is just a big party house," Howard Katz says. "It was built by the mob as a party house."

Katz is referring to his home, which sits high on a hill on Hollins Avenue across from the bluff on Lake Roland in North Baltimore. The butterstone façade was assembled by Italian masons; a wall-like chimney slices through the long balcony. Inside, a cathedral ceiling ties together a kitchen and expansive living room.

These days the parties there are part of a monthly series called Jazzway 6004. On concert nights, Katz and his wife, the singer Marianne Matheny-Katz, serve a sumptuous buffet dinner at 7 p.m. and then usher 60-70 people down the shag-carpeted stairs into the basement for a 90-minute set by some of the region's finest jazz musicians.

In September, the band was the Todd Marcus Quartet, led by the Baltimore bass clarinetist, composer, and arranger. An oriental rug was spread over the beige stone flooring, and Betty Carter's former pianist, Xavier Davis, had a Baldwin baby grand to play. The fountain beneath the stairs was turned off, but the bar was open. The whole thing had the feel of a Rat Pack movie.

There's no solid evidence that this was a mob house, Katz acknowledges, but it was built by the owner of Sweeney's, a Baltimore nightclub with a reputation. When the Katzes moved in they found connections for 30 incoming phone lines, suggestive of a bookmaking operation. And the neighbors insist that Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin came there to party.

On this night, however, the audience sat in red-padded chairs and listened attentively. Marcus, a short, stocky man in a reddish brown goatee and dark suit, began the set with his own composition, "Grind," a moody midtempo number that reflected the Egyptian roots of his father's family. Next up was the standard, "Bye Bye Blackbird," in a Marcus arrangement which boasted a new riff--a spry ascending phrase on the bass clarinet--and an unexpected shift to 7/4 time during the solos.

The ambience was an odd mix of somber and casual. On the one hand, the basement was far quieter than any nightclub, and you could hear every note without drunks chattering or waiters rattling glasses. On the other hand, you really felt as if you were in someone's home, especially when the dog or the granddaughter came trotting by. The Marcus Quartet, featuring drummer Eric Kennedy and bassist Eric Wheeler, rewarded the quiet room with some terrific playing, especially when another Middle Eastern-flavored tune, "Al Alamein," segued into Sonny Rollins' "Airegin."

"You're in somebody's house instead of a bar or a club, and that has an impact on the audience," Marcus says afterward. "They're here to hear the music, but, at the same time, they're relaxed because it's such an intimate atmosphere. For an artist, to have an engaged audience like that, makes a big difference. You're no longer making the music just for yourself, but also for them. When you're playing well, and the audience is right there with you, you can really go somewhere together."

Near the end of the set, Marcus invited the evening's hostess, Marianne Matheny-Katz, to sing "The Way You Look Tonight" with the band. He had written a new arrangement for this standard for her debut solo album, which is due at the end of this year or early in the next. "That song was inspired by one of my biggest influences, Betty Carter," Matheny-Katz explains later. "I always admired that she was such an independent person and yet worked as part of the band--I've tried to emulate that. You're always looking for someone who has her own musical point of view on a song, and Betty always did. So to pay tribute to her, I couldn't copy her version. I had to come up with my own approach--and with Todd's help, I think I have."

Matheny-Katz, 57, grew up on Staten Island, where she befriended David Johansen, later of the New York Dolls; she even became the singer for his folk-blues-rock band, the Vagabond Missionaries, after he'd left. But she put her musical ambitions aside for a long time while she got married, had two daughters, returned to school in economics, and went to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She still commutes to Washington to work in the Secretary of the Army's office.

But in 1996, just as her first marriage was falling apart, she was invited to become the singer for a new blues-rock band in Severna Park, the Park House Jam. Backed by harmonica, piano, guitar, bass, and drums, she wailed in the style of Bonnie Raitt and Bonnie Bramlett. The group became quite popular in the region and even released a 2003 album, Fully Exposed.

"I could belt out 'Chain of Fools' near the end of our set and everyone would get on the dance floor," she remembers. "I was known for that, but after a while it was no longer enough. I was wearing out my voice trying to be heard over a crappy sound system in a bar, and I wasn't challenging myself musically. I still love the blues, but now I've opted for a different kind of blues. I'm exploring the emotion in the songs that bring forth that feeling. I was lucky to have done blues first, because all the phrasing for jazz comes from the blues."

She had been doing some private parties where the clients wanted quieter music, and she had been trying out jazz standards for them. That gave her the courage to enter the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition in 2000. To her surprise, she finished second, and finished second again in 2002.

"After that, I started thinking about things very differently," she admits. "I decided I needed to approach jazz in a really rigorous way. The blues are a lot of fun--they're a great release, but they're not as challenging as jazz. In jazz, every song is so different and can be interpreted so many ways."

She bought a house near Patterson Park from a real estate agent named Howard Katz in 1997; they started dating in 1998 and were married in 2001. They moved into the Lake Roland house in 2006 and launched the Jazzway 6004 series the next year. One of their earliest concerts was the farewell show for the Park House Jam. She was cutting her ties to the blues world and jumping into jazz with both feet.

Matheny-Katz began to study with Washington pianist Vince Evans and with Peabody's jazz-vocal teacher Jay Clayton. She became active in the Baltimore Jazz Alliance, which this summer released its second sampler album of local jazz artists, Baltimore Jazzscapes II. Included is Matheny-Katz's version of "Come Love," recorded live with Evans, Wheeler, drummer Warren Wolf, and saxophonists Tim Green and Craig Alston.

In their concert series, Matheny-Katz and her husband have brought some notable musicians into their basement: trumpeter Nicholas Payton, singer Sheila Jordan, Cassandra Wilson's former pianist George Colligan, and Wynton Marsalis's former saxophonist Tim Warfield. It's doubtful that the Baltimore mob ever had such good taste in music.

"We're making converts," Matheny-Katz declares. "People have the mistaken impression that they have to come in knowing a lot about jazz, but they discover that it's just like any other art form--you can sit back and just enjoy it. The difference really lies in the format, the fact that people come here and eat, that they mingle with each other and with the musicians. It's more like a house party. Everyone's in it together."

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