Todd Marcus: Streets of Baltimore

In and out of jazz, the musician and activist works to build a community

Todd Marcus (photo by Gary Young)

Rising jazz star Todd Marcus lives just three blocks from Gilmor Homes, the Baltimore housing project where Freddie Gray lived and was arrested in 2015. Marcus didn’t grow up in the poverty-plagued Sandtown neighborhood, but the New Jersey native started volunteering there as a 19-year-old college student, moved in two years later and is still at it as a 42-year-old activist. Today he is the executive director of Intersection of Change, a non-profit group working to improve the neighborhood’s quality of life.

In the jazz world, Marcus is best known as an advocate of the bass clarinet as a fulltime, mainstream instrument, not just something to double on in novelty or avant-garde situations. Inspired by his Egyptian-born father, the younger Marcus is also known for integrating the music of the Nile into modern jazz. What most members of the jazz world don’t realize, however, is how much Marcus’ day job as a community organizer in one of America’s most troubled urban neighborhoods informs his composing and performing.

“Over the past seven or eight years, there’s been a merging of my two careers,” Marcus says last fall, at his office in the middle of Sandtown. “I’ve committed my adult life to living here and working to make it better—and I realize that I can do that not only as a community activist but also as a musician. Even an instrumental musician like myself can create a mood or evoke an emotional response with a performance, and then use the title of a piece or the discussion before and after a piece to connect that mood to an idea.”

Marcus, a stocky man with short, reddish-brown hair and a goatee, sits behind his desk in khakis and a dark green shirt. From his third-floor office window, he has a view of Pennsylvania Avenue, Sandtown’s main thoroughfare. On April 27, 2015, eight days after Gray’s death from a spinal-cord injury that led to a coma, and 15 days after Baltimore police dragged his reportedly limp-legged body to a van, Gray’s funeral sparked rock-throwing by high school students corralled by cops at the Mondawmin shopping center. The kids broke through the police cordon and headed down Reisterstown Road, which soon became Pennsylvania Avenue.

He turns his laptop around so I can see the photos he took from his office windows that day. First you see a battalion of blue-helmeted, body-armored cops marching north. Then you see out-of-control teenagers heading south. Then the looters come behind the teenagers. Then you see smoke rising a half mile to the north, where a CVS drugstore went up in flames—the fire that was shown over and over on cable news. That one burning drugstore obscured not only the preceding weeks of articulate, well-organized demonstrations but also the more crucial issue of why the neighborhood had suffered so much neglect and repression for so many decades.

“What’s important is not those weeks after Freddie Gray died,” Marcus insists. “It’s about years and years of police brutality, limited job opportunities, substandard schools and substandard housing. When you live with that every day, you feel tense all the time. The frustration builds up and any flashpoint will let it burst out. Sometimes it comes out in good ways, like the demonstrations, and sometimes it comes out in bad ways, like the looting. But it’s not about one incident concerning Freddie Gray in Baltimore; it’s about these challenges faced by him and every other resident of neighborhoods like this across America.”

He clicks on the laptop again and plays “PTSD in the Hood,” a composition from his new album, On These Streets: A Baltimore Story, which was released in April near the three-year anniversary of Gray’s death. A stop-and-go bass clarinet motif introduces the feeling of frustration Marcus was just talking about. The solos by Marcus and guitarist Paul Bollenback, over the rumbling rhythm section of pianist George Colligan, bassist Kris Funn and drummer Eric Kennedy, ratchet up the tension, but for all its turbulence, the piece is surprisingly melodic and propulsive. The whole album is devoted to similar reflections on Sandtown, with vibraphonist Warren Wolf sometimes replacing Bollenback as the guest soloist.

The tension in the piece evokes the way life in a redlined, poverty-encased neighborhood can mimic the circumstances that give soldiers post-traumatic stress disorder. Similarly, compositions such as “An Intersection of Change” and the title track reveal how vibrant and optimistic the sidewalks of Sandtown can be on certain days. Marcus’ richly melodic writing provides the material for Colligan’s piano and Bollenback’s guitar to swagger and strut down the street. By contrast, Marcus’ relaxed bass-clarinet theme and Wolf’s vibraphone embellishments on the late-night ballad “It Still Gets Still” capture how surprisingly peaceful Sandtown can be when you least expect it.

Marcus’ organization does what it can. It hosts a Jubilee Arts program so local youngsters can get involved in dance and hands-on art-making, which has led to vibrant murals on walls all over Sandtown. Intersection of Change also hosts Martha’s Place, a series of five rowhouses that help women recovering from addiction and homelessness. The group runs the Strength to Love II urban farming program, which operates 16 greenhouses to provide employment for ex-offenders and fresh produce for the surrounding food desert. And the organization maintains three welcoming green spaces near the office.

But Marcus isn’t content to organize only the Sandtown community; he also strives to organize Baltimore’s jazz community. Every Wednesday, he hosts the jam session at the HomeSlyce Pizza Bar on Charles Street, just a block south of the city’s best jazz venue, An Die Musik Live!, and just four blocks south of the Peabody Conservatory. On a recent Wednesday, after three tunes by Marcus and that week’s rhythm section, guest soloists were welcomed to the stage. They ranged from professionals like Marylander Alex Norris, who plays with the Mingus Big Band and Eddie Palmieri, to beginners like a young woman who sang an affecting version of “Moody’s Mood for Love” while battling an obvious case of nerves.

“I call it my jazz community service,” Marcus says during the break. “I’m more established now, but I still want to connect with younger, less established players, because that’s who I was not so long ago.”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album On These Streets: A Baltimore Story by Todd Marcus on iTunes.

Read Geoffrey Himes’ story in JazzTimes on the bass clarinet in jazz. 

Listen to the Todd Marcus album Inheritance on Spotify: