With the opening of the jazz club Keystone Korner Baltimore earlier this year, Todd Barkan, its co-owner and artistic director, realized that the venue needed stronger roots in the community. Barkan turned to another transplanted local—trumpeter Sean Jones—who last year became the chair of the Jazz Studies department at the Peabody Institute, one of the nation’s most prestigious music conservatories. Jones said that when Barkan called him about the possibility of involving the local community in the club, he was moved. “He called me and said, ‘Look, I’m going to need the community,’’’ says Jones. “So that immediately tugged at my heart, because I’m a community guy at heart. I’m not one of those cats that ever wanted to be perpetually on the road. I’m from Warren, Ohio. I like knowing my neighbors. I like saying, ‘Hey, man, you need some sugar?’ Or ‘You ran out of toilet paper?’ [laughs] Then a few weeks later he said, ‘Think about something you might want to do at the club.’ And I said, ‘Like a nightly thing? Or like weekly?’”
Barkan was thinking weekly, specifically a Wednesday-night set that could also include a late-night jam session. They discussed having a house big band, like many New York City jazz clubs do on Monday nights. Jones, a former member of the SFJAZZ Collective, suggested something along those lines—more of a five- or seven-piece group, but with local artists. “I was a part of [SFJAZZ Collective] and I loved it,” explains Jones. “I think the concept was amazing, and I always struggled with the fact that we weren’t from San Francisco. I thought to myself, it would be cool if we actually got a collective of musicians that live here in the Baltimore area, local cats, and we do kind of what SFJAZZ does—everybody’s responsible for bringing in charts. But we have revolving chairs. Because the reality is that we all can’t make every week. It’s basically three or four musicians to a chair. And there’s the cats that I call if they’re in town and we all just share it, basically. It’s been great so far.”
The core personnel of the Collective, along with Jones, are saxophonist/bass clarinetist Todd Marcus, as well as saxophonists Bob Bennett and Brent Birckhead; pianists Mark Meadows, Allyn Johnson, and Tim Murphy; bassists Kris Funn, Blake Meister, and Jeff Reed; drummers Quincy Phillips and John Lamkin III; and vocalist/tap dancer Brinae Ali. Jones says that one of the key elements to the Collective is that everyone on the bandstand is contributing material each week. “Everybody writes for the band,” he says. “All original compositions. It’s really exciting. It’s been growing every week.” Barkan describes the Collective as a repertory ensemble because of the rotating cast. In addition, a jam session is held after each performance by the Collective.
Jones sees another potential purpose for the Collective: to give back to the community through the school system. “I don’t believe in just playing. We’ve got to teach these kids. And so once we get a large enough book, we want to write a curriculum around the tunes that we play so that we can go in, give them the tunes, show them how to play the tunes, and then when they come sit in, they’re playing all of that. That does a few things. It teaches our students how to play, it creates a scene, and everybody knows the tunes. The audience knows the tunes, the kids know the tunes, the band members know the tunes—it’s for the city. It’s intergenerational, it’s about the community. And it’s exciting. Because that’s what jazz is! It’s community.”
Barkan notes that the response to the band has been overwhelmingly positive, and that the group will be recorded live at the club in September for a New Year’s Eve broadcast on NPR’s Toast of the Nation. “To get a national broadcast out of Baltimore after all the struggles that the city has had sociologically and economically is a pretty exhilarating process for us,” he adds. There are also plans afoot to record the group for an album release.
Barkan describes Jones as an inspirational figure in the club and the greater community: “He’s the curator for this project and he’s a great one for it. As a performer he’s one of the most exciting players of our time, hands-down.”