10 Fun Facts About Baltimore Jazz History

After over a year of tireless work by grassroots think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Arch Social Club, the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, and the Upton Planning Committee, Baltimore has a new arts section called Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts and Entertainment District . The area is located in West Baltimore and runs from Penn North to Upton.

In the area’s heyday, performance venues such as the Royal and Metropolitan theaters and social venues such as the Arch Social Club, Bamboo Lounge, Club Casino, and Club Tijuana hosted a who’s who of black entertainers, and black-owned businesses provided a stable community anchor and locus of commerce on Baltimore’s west side. Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts & Entertainment District organizers plan to coordinate efforts to support arts, culture, entertainment, and creative enterprise that is of the community, and work towards eliminating blight and crime, creating a renewed Pennsylvania Avenue that is alive with the arts.

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Sandtown is located in a historically African American area of West Baltimore neighboring the once affluent Upton community. In the second half of the 20th century, Sandtown experienced economic depression, housing abandonment, crime, and racial rioting. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s famous African American performers such as Billie Holiday and Diana Ross performed there, largely due to the then known law of segregation, there were no other places for these acts to perform, Sandtown was often associated or referred to as Baltimore’s, Harlem.

Prior to the Riot of the 60’s is was a welcomed place to live, many professionals lived in the community. It was nothing to knock on Dr. Saunders door at 12:00 midnight because there was a family emergency.

There were many distinguished people who lived with the confines of the Sandtown Boarders such as Mr. George Kelson, a funeral director that earned the name “Mr. Integrity” because his word was his bond. Mr. Kelson’s heart was for the people of this community and his funeral home was quite a distinguished and honorable place. He set an example of what an African American businessman was.
Beside “Mr. Integrity” George Kelson, Sandtown had several renowned American citizens such as:
Cab Calloway, late jazz great
Billie Holiday, late jazz great
Thurgood Marshall, first African-American justice on the U.S.  Supreme Court

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The “Royal Theatre” located on Pennsylvania Ave was Baltimore’s “Apollo Theatre”. The whose, who of African American talent performed at the Royal Theatre and could even be seen walking those very streets and participating in the Baltimore Pennsylvania Ave night life. There was a time that Sandtown was a energetic, pulsating and bustling community filled with lively and bubbly people with high hopes and great expectation for their lives as well as their families.

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James Hubert Blake (1887–1983), known as Eubie Blake, was an American composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtime, jazz, and popular music. In 1921, he and his long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans.[1] Blake’s compositions included such hits as “Bandana Days”, “Charleston Rag”, “Love Will Find a Way”, “Memories of You” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry”. The musical Eubie!, which opened on Broadway in 1978, featured his works.

In 1912, Blake began playing in vaudeville with James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, which accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle’s ballroom dance act. The band played ragtime music, which was still quite popular. Shortly after World War I, Blake joined forces with the performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville musical act, the Dixie Duo. After vaudeville, the pair began work on a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which incorporated songs they had written, and had a book written by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. When it premiered in June 1921, Shuffle Along became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans. The musical also introduced hit songs such as “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Love Will Find a Way.”

Blake made his first recordings in 1917, for the Pathe record label and for Ampico piano rolls. In the 1920s he recorded for the Victor and Emerson labels among others.

Blake was a frequent guest of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. He was featured by leading conductors, such as Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. In 1977 he played Will Williams in the Jeremy Kagan biographical film Scott Joplin. By 1975, he had been awarded honorary doctorates from Rutgers, the New England Conservatory, the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and Dartmouth. On October 9, 1981, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Ronald Reagan.

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Baltimore had developed a local jazz scene by 1917, when the local black periodical, the Baltimore Afro-American noted its popularity in some areas. Two years later, black bandleader T. Henderson Kerr boasted that his act included “no jazz, no shaky music, no vulgar or suggestive dancing”. Local jazz performers played on Baltimore Street, in an area known as The Block, located between Calvert and Gay Streets.Jazz audiences flocked to music venues in the area and elsewhere, such as the amusement parks around Baltimore; some of the more prominent venues included the Richmond Market Armory, the Old Fifth Regiment Armory, the Pythian Castle Hall and the Galilean Fisherman Hall. By the 1930s, however, The Ritz was the largest club on Pennsylvania Avenue, and was home to Sammy Louis’ band, who toured to great acclaim throughout the region.

The first group in Baltimore to self-apply the jazz label was led by John Ridgely, and known as either the John Ridgely Jazzers or the Ridgely 400 Society Jazz Band, which included pianist Rivers Chambers. Ridgely organized the band in 1917, and they played daily at the Maryland Theater in the 1920s. The two most popular of the early jazz performers in Baltimore, however, were Ernest Purviance and Joseph T. H. Rochester, who worked together, as the Drexel Ragtime Syncopators, starting a dance fad known as the “Shimme She Wabble She”. As the Drexel Jazz Syncopators, they remained popular into the 1920s.

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Blanche Calloway (February 9, 1904 – December 16, 1978) was a Jazz singer, bandleader, and composer from Baltimore, Maryland. She is not as well known as her younger brother Cab Calloway, but she may have been the first woman to lead an all male orchestra. Cab Calloway often credited her with being the reason he got into show business. She made her first recordings in 1925, with Louis Armstrong as a sideman on the session.

She recorded with a number of groups from the late 1920s through 1935, recording with Ruben Reeves and his River Boys in 1929 and fronting the Andy Kirk band briefly before forming Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys (with several members of that organization). In 1938 she disbanded the orchestra and worked as a solo act. In 1939 she converted to the Church of Christ, Scientist

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Local jazz performers played on Baltimore Street, in an area known as The Block, located between Calvert and Gay Streets. Jazz audiences flocked to music venues in the area and elsewhere, such as the amusement parks around Baltimore; some of the more prominent venues included the Richmond Market Armory, the Old Fifth Regiment Armory, the Pythian Castle Hall and the Galilean Fisherman Hall. By the 1930s, however, The Ritz was the largest club on Pennsylvania Avenue, and was home to Sammy Louis’ band, who toured to great acclaim throughout the region.

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The Tijuana was the top jazz house on the upper part of The Avenue. The Comedy Club was the premier spot below North Avenue.

“The Tijuana was a real, real hip avenue bar and a beautiful place to go [and hear] jazz,” Glover says. “The Tijuana offered you an opportunity to see the giants, and touch them and be in the midst of them.”

Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two of the great innovators in modern jazz, played the Tijuana. Billie Holiday sang there. During one stretch in the mid-1950s, the Tijuana had the Billy Taylor Trio, followed by Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Stitt, Chris Connor, Ben Webster, Lou Donaldson, Art Farmer with Gigi Gryce and Chet Baker with Russ Freeman.

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The Royal Theatre was the most important jazz venue in Baltimore for much of the 20th century, and produced one of the city’s musical leaders in Rivers Chambers, who led the Royal’s band from 1930 to 1937. Chambers was a multi-instrumentalist who founded the Rivers Chambers Orchestra after leaving The Royal, and became a “favorite of Maryland’s high society”.As bandleader of The Royal, Chambers was succeeded by the classically trained Tracy McCleary, whose band, the Royal Men of Rhythm, included Charlie Parker at one point. Many of The Royal’s band members would join with touring acts when they came through Baltimore; many had day jobs in the defense industry during World War 2, including McCleary himself. The shortage of musicians during the war led to a relaxation in some aspects of segregation, including in The Royal’s band, which began hiring white musicians soon after the war. McCleary would be The Royal’s last conductor, however, while Chambers’ orchestra became a fixture in Baltimore, and came to include as many as thirty musicians, who would sometimes divide into smaller groups for performances. Chambers had collected many musicians from around the country, like Tee Loggins from Louisiana. Other performers with his Orchestra included trumpeter Roy McCoy, saxophonist Elmer Addison and guitarist Buster Brown, who was responsible for the Orchestra’s most characteristic song, “They Cut Down That Old Pine Tree”, which the Rivers Chambers Orchestra would continue to play for more than fifty years

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Baltimore is known for jazz saxophonists, having produced recent performers like Antonio Hart, Ellery Eskelin, Gary Bartz, Mark Gross, Harold Adams, Gary Thomas and Ron Diehl. The city’s style combines the experimental and intellectual jazz of Philadelphia and elsewhere in the north with a more emotive and freeform Southern tradition. The earliest well-known Baltimore saxophonists include Arnold Sterling, Whit Williams, Andy Ennis, Brad Collins, Carlos Johnson, Vernon H. Wolst, Jr.; the most famous, however, was Mickey Fields. Fields got his start with a jump blues band, The Tilters, in the early 1950s, and his saxophone-playing became the most prominent part of the band’s style.

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