Alternate Jazz Venues: By Any Means
Jazz brought to the masses through a network of passionate independent promoters and DIY venues
The four-count from the clack of Ethel Ennis’ beige open-toe flats resonated off the stone tiles inside Marianne Matheny-Katz’s house, where Ennis enraptured the room with a rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues.” Her performance was an impromptu offering after being called from the audience at the close of the evening’s program. Ennis, a sage performer who has traded riffs with Ellington, Basie and Goodman, presented each line like a bawdy storyteller brimming with a good yarn: “Oh, he boiled my cabbage, and he made it awful hot/He boiled it, I got to tell you that he made it, made it awful hot/But when he slipped the bacon in, he overflowed the pot.”
For sure, Ennis’ performance would have drawn praise and applause in any club, anywhere, but what made it significant on this June night is that her signature voice marked the 34th concert given in three years at a performance space created in Matheny-Katz’s suburban Baltimore home. Together with her husband, Howard, the couple has been hosting, on average, a show a month since 2007 at their residence, dubbed Jazzway 6004. The Katz’s work is representative of a growing culture populated by promoters who’ve abandoned the traditional club setting in favor of presenting artists in living rooms, restaurants, coffee shops, uniquely designed spaces or any place that fits a well-tuned piano.
From cities along the East Coast to California’s wine country, promoters are putting on shows that reflect their musical palates, often specializing in straightahead or experimental jazz. Also reflective of these recessionary times, promoters say they make little or no money on the outings; some operate at a loss. They attract audiences through aggressive use of Facebook and other social media. Many present at venues that seat less than 100 people, and are driven by a need to provide an environment where the music can be heard so that jazz, as a cultural force, will continue and thrive.
Jazzway 6004 rests in a tiny enclave dotted with mansion-esque dwellings just past the Baltimore city limits. A renovation in 2005 trimmed the original six bedrooms to four and created a performance space that seats 65 and houses a 6-foot Baldwin grand piano and a sound system. Matheny-Katz recalls how the couple didn’t initially intend to hold concerts, but their desire to showcase local talent moved them to open their home to the public. The first concert in June 2007 sold out. “People started calling us and asking, ‘When is your next concert?’” says Matheny-Katz, a vocalist who was prepping for a Billie Holiday tribute show in mid-July. But she’s not eager to invite just any artist: “We tell them we have a narrow focus. We don’t just present anybody; we have to believe in them and have a personal interest in them, and we don’t present anything but straightahead jazz. We don’t do smooth jazz or folk music; don’t really do blues too much. We will make exceptions if we like the group, but basically we are trying to foster the jazz tradition.”
The concert in June had a $35 ticket price, which provided compensation for artists and covered cheese spreads and desserts for the after-show mingle where folks can chat with people like Ennis, or, on this night, saxophonist Tia Fuller, who was sitting in with vibraphonist/pianist Warren Wolf’s trio. Over the past three years, Jazzway 6004 has cultivated a community consisting of hardcore jazz enthusiasts and newbies who want a safe place to navigate the genre. “There are people who started to come because they like the scene, they like the house and hanging out and being up close to a performer,” Matheny-Katz says. “It is a nice social atmosphere and it is definitely a community based on an appreciation of music, whether they have advanced jazz listening skills or not.”
Wolf, a triple threat on vibes, piano and drums, is the kind of player the Katz’s believe in; they’ve followed his career since 2006. In performance, Wolf doesn’t just play the vibes, he attacks the bars with fury to elicit melodic drive. Fresh off a tour with bassist Christian McBride’s band, Inside Straight, Wolf performed as his parents, Celeste and Warren Sr., watched and cheered their son from the front row at Jazzway. Matheny-Katz says Wolf is among a class of players most likely to advance the tradition. She recalls catching Inside Straight at the Village Vanguard earlier this year with Wolf drawing raucous applause: “Christian McBride introduced members of his band, and when he got to Warren he said, ‘Take a good look at him. He’s the next big jazz star.’”
Sheryl Bailey walked from the back of the upstairs recital hall at An die Musik LIVE! in Baltimore with a custom-made Mercury guitar at her hip, and joined an organist and drummer onstage. During her set in the muted-yellow hall with walnut hardwoods, she spoke a little about a young girl who recently passed at a Ronald McDonald House in New York City. The preceding ballad, “For All Those Lovely,” was dedicated to the youngster. The 27 people in attendance, seated in high-back cushioned chairs, followed every note. It’s the kind of listening experience favored by Henry Wong, An die Musik’s creator. “We wanted a sincere way of making people want to go to a place to hear music quietly,” he says, “instead of a place where the TV is playing in the background or people are checking scores on ESPN.”
An die Musik—“to music” in German—is a performance space and classical/jazz record shop about a mile north of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It seats 75, and is the former home of the Eubie Blake Museum. Over the past six years, Wong has put on more than 1,000 concerts with a mix of jazz, classical and world artists. He averages 20 shows a month and keeps the entry fee at $25 or less. With such a low return, Wong is never in pursuit for the music’s A-listers, but over the years he’s attracted some top tier names, like pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri. Christian McBride is scheduled to play in the fall. Wong has secured nonprofit status so he can obtain grants to jumpstart an audience development program that would bring jazz artists to public schools. An die Musik’s concerts never make a profit or break even. “Some artists say, ‘Henry, I’d love to play your place, but I got a better offer.’ I say go for it, I don’t have a problem with it. I tell everybody, you have to make money first.” To supplement lapses in income, Wong has sold cases of wine from his personal collection; however, he believes there’s less opportunity to do so now and would probably have to seek help from an auction house, and the return would be diminished by fees.
And while just about any arts organization is always concerned with how to get more money in its coffers, Wong speaks of his work at An die Musik much like a candidate for the clergy who has forsaken the world for a life of service. “People always say, ‘Why don’t you do less shows, so you won’t lose money?’ That would not be serving our purpose, because we have so many artists out there looking for an opportunity to play. We owe it to them,” he says. “They spend their whole life, or a portion of their lives, if they are young musicians, studying. How can we consider ourselves real presenters if we just do what we feel like doing or just do shows so we can make money?”
Bernard Lyons, founder of Creative Differences, has been giving concerts in Baltimore for 11 years. Until June 2009, he was presenting artists at An die Musik: His shows there included a solo piano series with Dave Burrell and Randy Weston, a rare Stateside performance by David Murray and intimate shows with bluesman John Hammond and guitarist Bill Frisell. But he stopped using the venue when he and Wong clashed over programming and finances. Lyons says he wanted to break away from the venue because it isn’t acoustically suited for some of the electronic performances he likes to deliver; Wong says there wasn’t enough of a demand in the city to support Lyons’ steady diet of avant-garde performances.
In recent months, Lyons has been putting on shows at the Windup Space, an art gallery and bar located in the city’s Station North Arts area. But not all spaces work out all the time. In mid-June, he presented 83-year-old pianist Stan Tracey at Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church in Baltimore’s Hampden section. The sanctuary had a good piano and the space offered the right acoustic balance for the Monkish/Ellingtonian band. “The music was excellent, but the church was boiling hot and people were using old church fans,” explains Lyons.
Lyons says Baltimore is open to more than straight-ahead performers, but he and other promoters are leery about putting on too much music for fear that the market would be saturated. Lyons, for instance, has pulled back to presenting shows once a month from his former weekly pace. And Matheny-Katz recalls that Wong wasn’t initially pleased to hear she was opening her living room to artists. He eventually came around. “Henry thought there wasn’t enough of a fan base to have all of these events,” Matheny-Katz says. “But you can’t approach jazz like that; then you’re admitting it is going extinct.” She advertises shows put on by Wong and other promoters in her regular e-mail blasts. “We are not in competition,” she says.
Originally published in October 2010