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Big Music Feature

Sax and the City

From Mickey Fields to Antonio Hart, Baltimore’s saxophonists straddle north and south, the profane and the sacred

Chuck Shacochis

Big Music Issue 2004

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By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 7/21/2004

The third track on Antonio Hart’s new album, All We Need, is an original composition called “Auditory Illusion.” Shedrick Mitchell lays down a bluesy B-3 organ part that hearkens back to those early-’60s nightclubs that served fried chicken in the back and Southern Comfort up front. Meanwhile, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Billy Kilson churn up an animated beat like a hand-clapping processional in a neighborhood church.

Over the top, Hart plays a soprano saxophone line that ventures through substitute chords into strange, dizzying harmonies, but he always comes back to the soulful slow burn of Mitchell’s organ or to the gospel spirit of the rhythm section. More than once Hart echoes his earliest mentor, Gary Bartz. It’s the sound of Baltimore.

Baltimore has produced a long line of terrific jazz saxophonists: Hart, Bartz, Gary Thomas, Ellery Eskelin, Ron Diehl, Steve Covington, Harold Adams, and Mark Gross, among others. They share more than just geography; they share subtle musical qualities as well. Maryland is a border state, butting up against the Mason-Dixon line, and is neither fully Northern nor Southern. Musically, Baltimore’s jazz combines the more cerebral, experimental approach of Philadelphia and New York with the more emotional, crowd-pleasing attitude of the South’s blues and soul. It’s a sound equal parts Saturday-night jam session and Sunday-morning service.

“There’s a certain kind of emotion that comes from the players I’ve known in Baltimore,” Hart says. “Older cats like Gary Bartz and Gary Thomas, even a young brother like Tim Green, all have that down-home, gospel feeling. Baltimore, being somewhat Southern compared to New York, seems to maintain that feeling of blues. Unlike some R&B or church musicians, these guys know all the chords and have all the technique, but they combine that with blues and gospel.”

While Bartz, Thomas, and Hart are the best-known Baltimore saxophonists, they didn’t invent the sound. The credit for that goes to an older, largely forgotten generation of musicians who never left town but who created a remarkable example for the next generation: Whit Williams, Hank Baker, Carlos Johnson, Arnold Sterling, Brad Collins, Andy Ennis, and most influential of all, Mickey Fields.

Wilfred “Mickey” Fields, who died at 62 in 1995, was the lead singer for a jump blues band called the Tilters in the early ’50s. By the time he got out of the Army in 1955, however, he had fallen in love with the saxophone and with bebop. The Tilters reunited, but more and more of their sets were devoted to Fields’ blustery sax solos, which boasted the throaty sound of a blues or gospel singer in full roar. Even as he mastered the complex harmonics of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, he never lost that emotional, “singing” sound—the key to the Baltimore sax tradition.

“It’s hard to measure the magnitude of Mickey Fields’ music,” Hart says. “He was one with his instrument—whatever he felt came out. We never had too many verbal conversations, but we had conversations every time we played together. He was generous with young musicians, but he held us accountable. He showed us it was all about surrendering yourself to the music, not intellectualizing it; it was all about making the instrument sound like a voice that’s talking to you.”

Before long, jazz stars who visited Baltimore were hearing about this local guy who could play the hell out of the horn. Every time Sonny Stitt came to Baltimore, he’d face off with Fields. And when bandleaders such as Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey heard him, they reportedly offered him a job. But Fields, who had lost his father when he was 15, was reluctant to leave his family.

“Once I went up to Joe Henderson after one of his gigs and introduced myself,” Mark Gross remembers. “He asked where I was from. He said, ‘Baltimore? Mickey Fields’ town? That’s a bad cat.’ I met Jackie McLean, and he said, ‘Baltimore? That’s Gary Bartz’s town.’ I worked with Nat Adderley the last two years of his life, and he told me that when [his brother] Cannonball traveled around the country, he liked to find the top saxophonist in each town to battle with, and when he came to Baltimore he would search out Mickey Fields.

“Hearing things like this from icons in the music let me know that growing up in Baltimore I was getting a dose of the real thing without even knowing it,” Gross continues. “Mickey and Gary were always free with information; they’d welcome you and share stories. It was like getting a schooling in jazz from the lion’s mouth. Mickey chose to stay in Baltimore, but he could have competed with anyone.”

By the time I first heard Fields, in 1978, he was a fixture at local clubs such as the Sportsmen’s Lounge. He was a small man with a close-cropped Afro, cherubic cheeks, and a moustache. He usually wore a dark suit and white shirt with a tie slightly askew.

He had a big sound, a warm roar that seemed to come straight out of his belly through the horn. He was agile and could negotiate tricky phrases at startling tempos, but most impressive was the economy of his ideas and fluidity of his phrasing. He could distill a harmonic variation to a couple bars of new melody and he could move from one idea to another with no evidence that he was shifting gears.

Perhaps it was a waste of talent that Fields never got out of town and barely recorded (sessions on Groove Merchant and Atlantic are nearly impossible to find), but it was a godsend to Baltimore’s next saxophone generations. And they—Bartz, Thomas, Hart, Eskelin, and Gross—went to New York and brought that sound to a broader audience.

Bartz, for example, was playing with Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Art Blakey in his early 20s, and joined the Miles Davis Band in 1970. But he never lost touch with his hometown. He moved back to Baltimore to lead the house band at the North End Lounge (1960-’62) and at the Closet (1984-’87). Though he now lives in New Jersey, his mother and sister still live in Baltimore, and he visits often.

“In this music you learn by listening and by being on the bandstand.” Bartz says. “You learn by watching other people and how they handle solos, how they react to the audience. I learned by watching Baltimore cats like Mickey Fields. Mickey would encourage me to make sure I was going in the right direction. I stress the same thing to my students today: ‘When you get stuck, trust your ears.’”

Gary Thomas, too, played in the Miles Davis Band, about a decade after Bartz. He was a member of Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, recorded with Cassandra Wilson in the 1980s, emerged as a distinctive bandleader with ’89’s By Any Means Necessary, and now tours with bands led by John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock. He started teaching part time at the Peabody Conservatory in 1997, and he became the first-ever director of the school’s Jazz Studies program in 2001.

“A jazz program should be in Baltimore because so many great musicians have come out of this city,” Thomas says. “The program is hosted by Peabody, but we try to replicate the jazz education of Baltimore’s clubs in the past. We’re all performers, so we try to set up things as jam sessions. That’s the way most of us learned, and that’s what we try to do here. It’s better organized, and there is some theory and history, but the emphasis is on playing.”

Black churches complemented the jam-session education. Most of these musicians grew up in the church, and childhood lessons of trying to match a congregation’s fervor and vibrancy was never forgotten. “Expressing yourself at any given moment is what jazz is all about,” Mark Gross argues. “And that’s how church is. People go to church and they get caught up in the spirit, and it will become a whole different thing from what you rehearsed. You start vamping on certain parts, and it goes to a whole other place. The same thing happens in jazz.

“My father, Elder Norwood Gross, is pastor of the Mount Zion Church of God and Christ in East Baltimore,” he continues. “He would have me and my brother bring our horns up and sit right next to the organ and the drums. Without knowing it, I was getting lessons in how to learn songs by ear, how to improvise.”

Gross attended the Baltimore School for the Arts with Antonio Hart, and they reunited at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Today, the two friends live near to one another in New Jersey, share membership in the Dave Holland Big Band, and plan Gross’ ambitious next project, a synthesis of jazz and gospel music.

“My grandfather was a minister in West Baltimore,” Hart says. “So I grew up in church hearing the hymns. You had someone playing organ or piano and you had people singing. I sang in the congregation like everyone else. The only difference now is we’re using saxophones instead of a person’s voice.

“You listen to Gary Bartz; that church element is still there,” Hart continues. “In all the great players from Baltimore, you always hear that gospel foundation. That, not the scales and harmonies, is the core of the music: How do you take that note and make it sound like a human voice?”

And church playing honed ears as much as lyricism. Church singers sometimes don’t know what key they sing in, and euphoric singing doesn’t follow a set arrangement. When singers feel like extending a line or repeating a chorus, they’ll do it with no warning to the band.

“As a church musician, you have to quickly learn what key a singer is in and follow as best you can,” Gross says. “You have to improvise when the singer improvises. That gave me the dexterity to play a song in any key, so you learn to play in keys with a lot of flats or sharps rather than the key you might prefer.

“Bartz and Mickey Fields would do that to us all that time. They’d play songs in every key. Mickey would say, ‘What song do you want to play?’ And we’d say, ‘I Got Rhythm,’ thinking we’d do it in B Flat, and he’d look over to the organ player and say, ‘OK, let’s do it in B.’ It drove us crazy at the time, but it was an invaluable education.”

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