Ecstasy at Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society

by Bill Benzon

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William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress, c. 1946.

Duke Ellington was one of the great composers and bandleaders of the last century, and his band was one of the great bands. Touring, however, is unforgiving. Long hours sitting in a bus, meals if and when you can grab them, and gigs every night. And when you’ve played the same tunes with the same cats for decades, well, it can be rough to get up for a gig. Fact is there were times when Ellington’s musicians looked like they were asleep on the stage.

That’s how they appeared the one time I saw Ellington live. It was at one of those sessions held by the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom on Sunday afternoons. This was probably in 1970, 71, or 72, long after Ellington’s prime years in the second quarter of the century. The Famous Ballroom was on North Charles Street, not too far from the train station, and up three flights of fairly wide stairs. It too was past its prime years, but the patrons of the Left Bank, they were always primed for good music. Some were dressed to the nines in their church Sunday best, the men in sharp suits, the women in elaborate hats; and some were dressed casually in jeans and sneakers.

That’s generally how it was, but I only specifically remember three things from that concert. Ellington dressed well and had a line of patter smooth as silk and brittle as glass. He’d been doing this a long time. That’s one. The guys slumped in their chairs like they’d just gotten off an all-night flight from Timbuktu. Perhaps they had. That’s two.

And three: Paul Gonsalves burned the place down with his tenor sax. I forget what the number was. All I remember is that Gonsalves strode out on stage to play a solo, but he didn’t position himself in front of the microphone. He stood to one side. A helpful member of the audience moved the mike directly in front of him as he started to blow. He stopped playing for a second, grabbed the mike angrily and shoved it aside. Not for him the brittle reverberations of amplified sound. Then he started blowing again. The pure juice of the natural human essence flowed from his sax to embrace us in its majesty and urgency.

He filled the ballroom with sound. The whole ballroom, you know, the kind with the mirror ball in the ceiling – and electric blue paint on the walls. There would have been plenty of room for people to dance but for the fact that this was a concert. The dance floor was filled with tables and chairs and men, women, and children. A photographer went from table to table snapping photos, like in a nightclub, but this was Sunday afternoon. The whole band played behind Gonsalves like they WERE playing for dancers – they, were, after all, a dance band. Physically, we were in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early 1970s. Metaphysically, we were in Harlem, USA, the Earth, in the 1930s.

THAT’s what it was like at the Famous Ballroom back in the day. Best jazz venue I’ve ever been in. Of course I’ve got my quirks. I’m not a night person, so I don’t go to jazz clubs that often. By the time the music starts cookin’ at a regular club I’m ready for bed. But those sets at the Famous started at 5 PM on Sunday afternoon. Well, they were scheduled for 5 which, allowing for local quirks and prerogatives, generally translated into 5:30 PM or thereabouts.

And that was fine. Gave us time to chat, check out the used records for sale, maybe go to the Kentucky Fried Chicken around the corner and get a bucket of the Colonel’s Original. You could order something from the kitchen on the days it was open – fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato, biscuits and gravy, grits, aka soul food. Or maybe get some set-ups, bring out your own liquor, and get loosened up. By the time the music started up we were mellowed out and ready to luxuriate in delicious sounds.

I heard a lot of great music in those days, but I don’t remember most of it. When the music goes through you, that’s it. It’s gone. Nothing to remember, though the aura lingers and one aura blends with another until all that’s left is a numinous presence in your mind: the Famous!

Saw Mingus. Like Ellington’s men, he seemed to have booked a seat on the Sleepy Time Express. But his tenor man, George Adams, blew fire; then held the sax above his head and spun around helicopter style. Don’t know what that was about, but it was fun to see. In a different gig Jimmy Heath quoted Lee Morgan quoting Ziggy Elman’s fralich riffs from “And the Angels Sing” – my grandfather, who otherwise disliked jazz, loved Al Hirt’s version of this tune; Al kept the fralich riffs too. They’re from way back and across the Atlantic in the old country – the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Saw Olu Dara when he was only 18. He’s Nas’s daddy. Nas, the rapper, you know? Donald Byrd came in from D.C. with the Black Byrds. And Hank Levy brought his big band down from Towson State. Played fine music, even if some of it was in 5/4 time or 7/8; almost forgot they were a bunch of college kids.

And then there was Maynard Ferguson, highest of the trumpet gods – and he had hung out with Timothy Leary at one time. One of my first musical loves. The man could blow the horn! To the moon, then threading his way through the asteroids, putting a crisp and crackle on those green Martians, then out beyond Jupiter, rounding Saturn and then an astonishing cut-through to Venus. Don’t know how he did it. He was a crowd pleaser. Perhaps not the deepest music, nor the subtlest, but thrills and chills.

He had a big band with him, not the full band like he had back in the Birdland days of the 50s and 60s, but 12 or 13 guys: four rhythm, three saxes, two bones, three trumpets, and himself. They played the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” to close the show. By the time the band had gotten to the end of the main tune and slipped into the repeated tag, Maynard and the other trumpeters had dispersed to the four corners of the room. They started playing, back and forth, dueling and supporting, and walking through the crowd to converge on the stage as they played.

Wow!

Bright moments! Bright moments!

Bright moments is like eat'n your last pork chop in London England, because you ain't gonna git no mo … cooked from home.

Bright moments is like bein' with your favorite love'n you all share'n' the same ice cream dish. And you git mad when she gets the last drop. And you have to take her in your arms and git it the other way.

So sayeth Rahssan.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire – tenor sax, manzello, stritch, flute, nose flute, slide whistle, gong, and a half dozen others depending on the occasion. I’d been introduced to his music by Larry Marshall Sams back in 1966. He tipped me to Rahsaan’s Rip, Rig, and Panic. A couple of years later I saw Rahsaan at an outdoor festival at Morgan State. He electrified the crowd, brought us to our feet with his first number: “Volunteered Slavery” – You can keep the music offa’ the radio, but you can’t keep it outa’ the air! he intoned.

His gig at the Famous was a bit different. It had rained earlier that day, but the sky had brightened up a bit by the time people began gathering at the Famous. Five-thirty rolled around and no musicians had taken the stage. OK, so they’re a bit late. But the Famous had always been flexible about start times. Five-forty-five, no musicians. That’s stretching it a bit. Six o’clock, the rhythm section takes the stage and starts playing. That’s more like it. Rahsaan’ll be out once they get it moving. But no, six-thirty, no Rahsaan. Six-forty-five. Still no Rahsaan. Seven o’clock. By now the mood is moving into the lower reaches of ugly, just tickling it a bit.

There’s a commotion at the back of the hall. Rahsaan walks in, instrument cases in both hands and hanging from his neck. He was led by Joe Texidor – Rahsaan’s blind. Ten minutes later Rahsaan walks out on stage. “I hear you all are pissed at me for being late. Think about me. I got up this morning, got in the car, raring to play. The rain had flooded out the expressway. There we were stuck, I wanted to play. Instead I had to wait for the water to go away. You think you’re angry! I’m angry too!”

With that he put is sax to his mouth and, you guessed it, blew the roof off – the insurance policy at the Famous must have cost a pretty penny, what with having to replace all those scorched ceilings and toasted walls! The ugly in the room was gone. Poof! No more. Just pure joy. Rahsaan had us and took us for a joy ride.

But, all things considered, Dizzy Gillespie’s set moved the most. I play trumpet, Diz plays trumpet, though he takes playing to a rather grand metaphysical level. He was one of my heroes. I had a bunch of his records, and a book of transcribed solos I practiced from. For years. I don’t know whether this was the first or second time I saw him live, but probably the first. The second time was also in Baltimore, but outdoors, in a park, with ten thousand people of the sepia persuasion (that’s Old School verbal stylin’) hanging on his every note.

[Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, New York, N.Y., ca. May 1947] (LOC)

William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress, c. May 1947.

But this was indoors, the Famous yes indeed it was! Ballroom. Families were there. Dad all duded up, crisp white shirt, sharp tie, cuff links. Mom in a nice dress, one with a bit more flash than appropriate for church. And the kids, all of them well turned out. This was, after all, the Left Bank Jazz Society, with the great John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie performing.

I don’t remember who was in the group. Probably Mike Longo on piano, and I think James Moody was on sax and flute. The rhythm section? I haven’t a clue – shame on me! I’m sure they played some of Diz’s old stuff, “Manteca”, “A Night in Tunisia”, “Con Alma”, and likely some of the newer stuff, “Portrait of Jenny” and “Olinga”. At one point Diz strapped a conga to his waist and walked out into the audience playing it.

I’d never seen that before, nor even read about Diz doing it. I knew he was something of a cut-up – how do you think he got the moniker “Dizzy”? I’d read a lot about him, but not this. So I was a bit surprised. Desi “Babalu” Arnez did this, but I didn’t realize this bit of shtick was in Diz’s repertoire too.

I was enormously pleased, as was everyone. What fun.

And it got even better. When Dizzy made his way back to the stage he brought half a dozen kids with him, boys in white shirts and ties and girls in pastel crinoline. Or maybe he saw some kids dancing in the aisle. I don’t remember. But there they were up on the stage, dancing. They were a bit hesitant at first – the situation was not, after all, defined as a dancing situation – but then they got into it. How could they not? The best musicians in the world were playing for and with them.

So the children danced Dizzy, he smiled and played his trumpet, peace love and soul filled the hall, God was in heaven and joy rained down on earth.

The Famous was once again a Ballroom.

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