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The Closet Tapes

A Treasure Trove of Classic Live Recordings Revives Baltimore∆s PremierJazz

Jefferson Jackson Steele
James Moody plays the Left Bank's Sept. 17 reunion show.
Sam Holden
The tapes made by Vernon Welsh (above) "Open a window to that magical place and time" when the Left Bank Society hosted jazz's giants, according to producer Joel Dorn (below).
Sam Holden
John Dorn
Judy Webber
The Buddy Rich band
Judy Webber
Elvin Jones
Judy Webber
Sonny Stitt with Gene Ammons (left)
Judy Webber
Stan Getz
Jefferson Jackson Steele
The Left Bank's Sept. 17 reunion show.
Judy Webber
Charles Mingus
Judy Webber
Lee Morgan
Judy Webber
Mongo Santamaria
Judy Webber
Betty Carter
Judy Webber
Stan Kenton
Judy Webber
Duke Ellington
Judy Webber
Chick Corea

By James D. Dilts | Posted 10/4/2000

"IN THE MOMENT" is a phrase popular among jazz musicians. It translates, roughly, to "now." More precisely and ideally, it is a state wherein the players, individually or collectively, having transcended their long hours of practice and rehearsal, their preconceived notions, and the mechanical barrier of their instruments, attain a higher, almost spiritual plane of pure musical improvisation. "Not the last moment," singer Bobby McFerrin once explained to an audience at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, "but the moment." Since jazz at its best is constantly being created anew, it is also constantly being lost.

Many such moments occurred at Baltimore's weekly Left Bank Jazz Society concerts over the years--and they, at least, have not been lost. The society recorded some 350 shows between l965 and l980, when many of the artists involved were at their peak. These tapes have achieved near legendary status among jazz fans.

The names are enough to set the mind in motion. Ellington, Basie, Herman, Gillespie, Mingus, Coltrane--they all played upon the stage of the Famous Ballroom at the invitation of the Left Bank Jazz Society. So did the big bands of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Don Ellis, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, and Sun Ra. The Left Bank's first concert at the Famous on North Charles Street--and a memorable Sunday afternoon it must have been--presented Herbie Hancock with Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette, all leaders or featured players today. John Coltrane made one of his final appearances there, in May 1967, two months before he died. (Unfortunately, it was one of the few concerts that was not recorded.)

The small groups that played for the Left Bank make up their own encyclopedia of jazz: Baltimore's Gary Bartz, Jimmy Heath (who provided the model for the Left Bank's logo: a profile view of a tenor saxophonist, feet planted, back arched, horn uplifted), Blue Mitchell, Benny Golson, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, Clifford Jordan, Julian "Cannonball" Adderly, Charles Lloyd, Roy Haynes, Jackie McLean, Wynton Kelly, Donald Byrd, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley, Lucky Thompson, Tony Scott, Phil Woods, Art Farmer, Elvin Jones, Kenny Burrell, Coleman Hawkins, Sam Rivers.

And that was only in the first few years. Still to come were Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims (who brought along vocalist Anita O'Day on one of their many visits), George Benson, Milt Jackson, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Bob Brookmeyer, Clark Terry, Lee Morgan, Chico Hamilton, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Lee Konitz, Roy Haynes, Joe Henderson, Pat Martino, McCoy Tyner, Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, James Moody, Cedar Walton, Stanley Turrentine, Louis Hayes, Mongo Santamaria, Louie Bellson, Chet Baker, Randy Weston, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ahmad Jamal, Howard McGhee, Grover Washington Jr. The singers were not slighted either: Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Etta Jones, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Joe Williams (with pianist Ellis Larkins), Arthur Prysock, Jon Hendricks, Eddie Jefferson. Most of these artists were recorded.

The tapes, made by the Left Bank's Vernon Welsh, had been stored in the Morgan State University library since 1975. But this year they found a new home with veteran producer Joel Dorn of the Label M record company in New York. He plans to reissue many of them as CDs. The first two albums, featuring Stan Getz and Sonny Stitt, are just out. "People will be stunned by what we've found," Dorn told Down Beat magazine.

This is the story of the Left Bank Jazz Society's unique collection of tapes--the legacy of a relatively brief but significant moment in Baltimore's cultural history--and of the resurrection through the recordings of the city's venerable jazz organization. The tapes, made with the artists' permission and the understanding that they would not be used for commercial purposes, had lain dormant for years--so this is also the story of how the Left Bank's will and testament, so to speak, was changed.

In an interview for Ken Burns' upcoming PBS documentary Jazz, Dave Brubeck says the history of jazz in America is the history of the African-American struggle for freedom. At times, the music has served as an early indicator of the changing state of race relations--the nation's bandstands were integrated long before its schools and public accommodations. Race also provided the backdrop for the formation of the Interracial Jazz Society, predecessor to the Left Bank. Both groups served as early meeting places for blacks and whites in Baltimore and as barometers, however imperfect, of the city's racial climate.

In 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools in America, the Interracial Jazz Society was founded in Baltimore. Its ultimate purpose was to bring more jazz to the city, but its immediate task was to protest the city liquor board's decision to prevent two Pennsylvania Avenue nightclubs from serving white patrons. Pennsylvania Avenue was then Baltimore's equivalent of Harlem's 125th Street, home to the Royal Theater and several other clubs offering jazz to which adventurous whites were drawn.

By the following year (during which a Baltimore judge overturned the liquor-board ruling), the Interracial Jazz Society had attracted the attention of segregationist city officials. The group's Madison Avenue headquarters was put under police surveillance, and after an article describing the society's goals appeared in The Baltimore Afro-American, the harassment campaign culminated in a tragicomic police raid on the group's basement clubhouse/concert hall.

The late Mickey Fields, a Baltimore tenor saxophonist of note, was on the bandstand as six officers descended the stairs and stopped the music. (Significantly, in view of later events, the session was being taped for the society's library, and the exchange between the police and the club members was recorded.) The raid revealed no illegal activity, but not long afterward, the Interracial Jazz Society died a quiet death. The members must have felt some vindication when the police officer who led the raid was later jailed on a bribery charge in connection with a numbers racket.

In 1964, the year President Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act became law, prohibiting discrimination in voting, education, and the use of public facilities, the Left Bank Jazz Society was founded in a bohemian South Baltimore nightclub. Several members of the Interracial Jazz Society were involved in forming the new group. Benny Kearse, an African-American freight dispatcher, was elected president; Vernon Welsh, a white professional guitarist, was one of the charter members. For many years, these two were the public face of the Left Bank Jazz Society--and, as such, the public face of the city's jazz scene.

The Left Bank's first concert with local talent was held in August 1964 at the Al-Ho Club in the 2500 block of Frederick Avenue. "The back room at the Al-Ho had a circus motif with iridescent lights," recalls John Fowler, another charter member who is currently the society's president. "It was a very weird place but it had a great stage and the [proprietor] liked the music." The club's headquarters were upstairs at the Al-Ho and remained there long after the concerts moved elsewhere. Until 1975, when they were transferred to the library at Morgan State, the society's tapes were stored in a closet at the Al-Ho Club. (The club has since been torn down; a school now occupies the site.)

Baltimore vocalist Delores Lynn and Washington, D.C., tenor saxophonist Buck Hill were among those who played for the Left Bank at the Al-Ho before the group shifted its concerts in early 1965 to the Madison Club, at Madison and Chester streets in East Baltimore. The Madison Club consisted of a bar and kitchen on the first floor and a long, narrow upstairs room with a stage at one end. The place would get so packed sometimes that part of the audience would be seated on the side of the stage. An early photograph shows Vernon Welsh in a characteristic pose at his tape deck, headphones on, back to the audience.

The saga of the Left Bank as a jazz powerhouse begins at the Madison, where it started attracting nationally known musicians, who sometimes brought their own groups but often were backed by locals. "We made some calls and basically we found some [jazz musicians] willing to come down to Baltimore for our price," Fowler says. The range of talent was considerable, from promising new stars such as a very young Chick Corea to elder statesmen like Coleman Hawkins. The Left Bank began to draw media attention in addition to crowds.

The crowds and the notice followed when a fire at the Madison Club forced the society to move its shows to the Crystal Ballroom on North Avenue for a few months in February 1966. It returned to the Madison, but a second blaze in late '66 sent the Left Bank packing to the Famous Ballroom at 1717 N. Charles St., the current home of the Charles Theatre. There it stayed, for an astonishingly rewarding18 years.

In the mid 1960s, many of the bars and clubs in Baltimore were still segregated. Bands had to be of one color, and so did the clientele. African-Americans were regularly refused service in bars patronized by whites. Jackie McLean, a black New York alto player, once returned to the stage of the Crystal Ballroom after an intermission incensed that he had been refused service at a nearby bar on North Avenue; he emphatically urged the audience to boycott the place.

Things were different at the Left Bank's shows at the Famous Ballroom. Like the Madison Club, it was an upstairs space, but much larger. Once past the ticket window, patrons entered an enormous if somewhat down-at-the-mouth room with well-worn banquettes along the wall, a bar and kitchen in the rear, and a sea of round or rectangular tables set with chairs. The stage was nearly opposite the entrance. Overhead was a blue ceiling painted with white clouds and stars and, in the center, a mirrored globe that revolved. Sometimes, if the mood was particularly festive, the globe was turned on at the end of the concert, spraying the tawdry surroundings with spangles--a real live make-believe ballroom.

The Left Bank's Sunday-evening concerts provided a welcome respite, as one week shifted into the next, from the difficulties and contentions of the real world. The well-dressed crowds brought food and drink in picnic baskets or paper bags and for the most part left their attitudes outside. Conversations bloomed as students met jazz musicians from England, writers encountered civil-rights activists and members of the demimonde, whites and blacks found common ground.

"See ya at the Famous" was not just a slogan on the Left Bank's fliers. So sure were people of spending a congenial few hours with good food, music, and friends that they would show up without even knowing who was playing. The ones who arrived without their picnic baskets could rely on Chef Jim Willis for superb soul-food dinners of chicken, greens, and barbecue, for a nominal price. Interracial friendships developed at the Famous, and a new generation of fans cut their jazz teeth under the aegis of the Left Bank. The Famous even hosted a jazz wedding, between tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and Sandra Lee Williams in July 1975.

Throughout the years, there were many indelible characters and scenes that made the Left Bank shows more than just a concert series. George, a hairdresser by day, was a weekly fixture near the bandstand, dancing with such gusto that occasionally even the musicians couldn't take their eyes off him. A professional tap dancer named Baby Laurence, a card-carrying member of the jazz underground, materialized to dance with Count Basie's band. John Coltrane, on an atypically angry afternoon, lowered his horn and beat his chest with his fists.

Coltrane's outburst predated by about a year the much larger outburst on the streets of Baltimore. Riots broke out in the city on April 7, 1968, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. In the Left Bank Jazz Society's 1968 yearbook, the entry for that date reads simply, "No concert. (Disorder in the city.)"

The riots were a watershed in race relations here and elsewhere, and afterward things were not the same in Baltimore. Whites were no longer welcome in the clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue. But the Left Bank Jazz Society picked up where it left off and continued to host concerts at the Famous Ballroom. Benny Kearse was usually near the door to greet the guests, and Vernon Welsh made the announcements and the recordings. During these years, Welsh also hosted a Saturday-night radio show on WBJC, playing jazz and interviewing musicians. Kearse, who had an urbane radio voice, was a frequent guest. The Left Bank sponsored satellite organizations in Washington and in Maryland prisons, and obtained grants to hold touring musicians over an extra day or two to do workshops and concerts in schools.

The Left Bank ended its run at the Famous Ballroom in 1984, four years after it stopped taping its concerts amid increasing concern among musicians about the rights to their work. The society had been renting the North Charles Street space on a weekly basis from Bernie Allen, a local bandleader, who leased it from building owner Alan Shecter. When Allen retired, a group that included some Left Bank members assumed the lease. The concerts continued for a time, but the ballroom badly needed renovation. "The roof leaked, the toilets overflowed, and the air conditioning went out, so we couldn't use it during the summer," Fowler says. "It became unrentable, and [the society] refused to make repairs."

The building had begun life in 1892 as a cable-car barn and subsequently housed an automobile showroom, a 100-lane bowling alley, and a newsreel theater called the Times that later became the Charles Theatre. After World War II, Shecter's father, Louis, converted the second floor into a ballroom that featured big bands. Later, when the Left Bank left, Godfrey's Famous Ballroom took over and did make some renovations. That operation, which hosted rock 'n' roll shows and drew increasingly unruly crowds, ended in 1990 when, after several disturbances and shootings, the liquor board revoked its license. In 1999, following a $1.6 million renovation, the current Charles Theatre multiplex opened in the building. Nothing remains of the former Famous Ballroom save memories--and tapes.

The Left Bank Jazz Society moved several times after leaving the North Charles Street building, first and briefly to a former movie theater on Reisterstown Road that had been converted into a health spa. (There was a swimming pool at the edge of the stage, "which made the musicians quite nervous," Fowler remembers.) After that it traveled successively to Coppin State College on North Avenue; Baltimore City Community College on Liberty Heights Avenue; the Baltimore Grand, a short-lived catering establishment on Eutaw Street downtown; and most recently to the Teamsters Union hall on Erdman Avenue in Southeast Baltimore. As the golden age of modern jazz receded further into history and the Left Bank shifted operations from place to place, the crowds dwindled and the society became ingrown. It had lost its audience, Fowler says, and was broke. After an early-1998 concert, the shows stopped. The Left Bank's moment had passed.

In the mid-1980s, I heard about the Left Bank Jazz Society collection," Joel Dorn says. He's in Sear Sound Studio on 48th Street in New York, waiting for drummer Leon Parker to show up for a recording session.

"I had a live label called Night Records, and we went down for a meeting. It wasn't the right time; they weren't ready," Dorn says. "They had concerns about the collection. There was no unanimity of spirit about letting the tapes go into somebody's hands for release. They were nervous about whether it was feasible. They felt they had been ripped off. Some of the musicians had taken their copies of the tapes and sold them for commercial production, and there was nothing coming back to the Left Bank. They were worried that they were opening a can of worms."

Dorn has been producing records for most of his 58 years. He started out as a teenage disc jockey at Philadelphia's pioneering jazz station WHAT. His real interest, however, was in production. Still a teenager, he started sending letters of advice to Nesuhi Ertegun, co-owner of Atlantic Records. Eventually, Ertegun began to take the letters seriously and, in 1967, he hired Dorn to be his assistant at Atlantic. Some of Dorn's early discoveries were Leon Redbone and Bette Midler; he also recorded Rahsaan Roland Kirk during the tenor-sax legend's late-'60s/early-'70s peak years at the label.

Dorn left Atlantic in 1974, and since then he's consistently mixed production work with searching for and releasing out-of-print jazz treasures and unreleased live recordings. In the 1980s, he traveled the country looking for concert tapes and put several of them out on his own Night Records. In the 1990s, Dorn formed 32 Records and reissued 250 titles, mainly from the Muse and Landmark jazz vaults. This year, he started another outfit, Label M, as a division of the multimedia company Paradise Music and Entertainment.

The Left Bank collection was one of Dorn's early discoveries. "You know, you hear rumors in the jazz life, and I had heard about the tapes the Left Bank Jazz Society had made of their concerts in Baltimore," he says. "The Left Bank Jazz Society tapes comprise one of the most extensive 'live' collections I've ever run across. Its value is that it covers a great many of the major names in jazz when they were at the height of their powers. The recordings open a window to that magical time and place."

For years, the window remained closed. Left Bank officials had never intended the tapes for public release and they wanted to keep it that way.

"We told the musicians we were doing it for our private archives," society president Fowler says. "We never had any inclination we would do anything with them other than listen to them ourselves. . . . When we first talked to Dorn, there was a lot of mistrust within the organization, concerns that he was going to rip us off."

But that attitude changed with the club's fortunes, as it became increasingly difficult for the Left Bank to survive on the revenues from its concerts. As the legends who brought folks flocking to the Famous aged and died, Fowler says, the society found it harder to attract an audience. "Baltimore is a strange town: If it's not a name they recognize, they won't come out. We said, 'You should trust us--we don't book any bad acts.' We brought in Don Braden and Terri Lynn Carrington [a young saxophonist and drummer, respectively], and nobody came. . . .

"We need 300 people to break even [on a show]. For many years, all we had to do was open the door to the Famous Ballroom and 800 people would show up. Those days are gone," Fowler says. "When we looked, the only things we had of value were our reputation and the tapes."

Dorn, in the meantime, had stayed in contact with the society since making his initial mid-'80s inquiry about the tapes. "Sometimes you have to develop a relationship," he says. "They started to see that the tape collection was aging. Maybe somebody told them that tapes don't last forever and that, if they could agree, this was the time to do something. There was a change in the feelings of the organization."

Fowler says Left Bank members knew they needed to turn the tapes into revenue, but they also knew they would need help. "We had talked to quite a few people who told us that dealing with the musicians, the estates, and so on could be quite expensive and time-consuming," he says. "We knew we couldn't handle the copyright, the estates, the rights. Most of this music has never been heard since it was recorded. We want to see the music out there, professionally produced."

Fowler, with the help of attorneys from the University of Maryland School of Law, concluded the deal with Dorn in May after nine months of negotiations. "Dorn has a five-year exclusive right to produce these tapes," Fowler says. "We received an advance on royalties that allowed us to get back on our feet. It will be that endowment we've always looked for to keep us going, a $10,000- to $15,000-a-year stipend that we've needed."

Dorn makes the arrangements with the artists or their estates. "The advantage will be to them," he says. "The living artists will get paid. The sidemen will get paid. Everybody will get paid. Nobody will not get paid." He eventually hopes to glean 40 to 50 CDs out of the 350-tape Left Bank collection, making digital transfers from the aging analog tapes. Not everything is releasable.

"These are amateur recordings," Dorn notes. "The tapes are old. These are 7 1/2-inch reels with quarter-inch tape. Sometimes you get great sound and a so-so performance, sometimes the reverse. The sound and performance both have to be right. It's like tumblers in a lock--everything has to line up for the thing to work. . . .

"Say you get two songs off one of the Roland Kirk Left Bank tapes. You have two songs. It's a start. Maybe we'll do a 'great tenors' album."

On Sunday, Sept. 17, the Left Bank Jazz Society presented its first concert after the two-year hiatus, at the Teamsters hall. David "Fathead" Newman and James Moody performed with their groups. John Fowler greeted the guests. About 500 people filled the room, sitting at round tables with wine coolers and bottles of brandy. Jim Willis was at his usual post in the kitchen, and there was a long line for $6 chicken dinners. The buoyant crowd included dozens of Left Bank old-timers. Some of the dashiki-clad members now carry canes and cell phones have proliferated, but those were about the only things different from the classic days.

Moody has appeared at Left Bank concerts several times, going back to the group's earliest years (although there are no tapes of his performances in the collection). He is 75 but appears much younger. Dressed in a blue jumpsuit, he opened by playing, singing, and adding a little rap interlude to "I'm in the Mood for Love," a takeoff on the song made famous by King Pleasure. It has become a jazz anthem. "Am I insane," Moody sang, "or do I really see heaven in your eyes?"

Benny Kearse was not at the reunion show. He died last year, at the age of 67. Nor was Vernon Welsh. A few days before, at his Catonsville home, Welsh, now 81, recalls the society's golden age. It was his idea to record the Left Bank shows, Welsh says; he used his own equipment--Shure microphones, a reel-to-reel Akai recorder, Ampex BASF tape. "I made them so that we would have something to show for our efforts," he says.

"I haven't played any music since Benny died," he says, recalling his longtime friend and Left Bank partner. A visitor hands Welsh the first two CDs to come out of the society's archives. The warm sounds of Stan Getz fill the room. "It sounds pretty good," he says.

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