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Baltimore ain't (yet) got that swing [Commentary]

"Hey, it felt like a real city there for a minute," commented a waiter from Tapas Teatro, one block up North Charles Street from Penn Station. "All right, we have a touch of New Orleans," said an enthusiastic MTA employee coming out of the William Donald Schaefer office tower, downtown at St. Paul and Baltimore Streets.

They were reacting to the jazz music by Swing N' Samba — Michael Spittel on guitar and me on saxophone. Live music played outdoors gives city streets a certain kind of energy, a vitality that people respond to.

Creating that vitality was the goal in 2005, when then-Baltimore City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh proposed a licensing system for street entertainers in the hopes it would encourage the kind of performances she saw in her native Philadelphia. Ms. Pugh's proposal was enacted, and by summer of 2006, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts and the Downtown Partnership joined together to screen potential street entertainers. Dozens of performers passed the auditions and hit the streets with music, magic and more. Everyone paid a $25 annual licensing fee. Other entertainers skipped the whole official process, opting to take their chances with the authorities.

But you could not say that busking has yet become a characteristic feature of Baltimore's culture. In fact one would be hard-pressed to find buskers outside of Fells Point, Waverly, the Sunday farmers market under I-83 or a very small area of downtown. In 2012 the city increased the licensing fee for newcomers to $50 per year, and the number of licensed buskers dropped by nearly half, to 67.

In my survey of American cities' policies and practices on busking, Baltimore is less restrictive than many, but more restrictive than the best busking towns. Fortunately, few areas of Baltimore are off-limits to buskers, mainly the Inner Harbor (where Harborplace does its own vetting and hiring) and the city parks. Unlike some cities, Baltimore does not ban the loudest musical instruments, and it does not limit volume except under its regular noise ordinances.

In other cities — notably New York City, Washington, D.C., and Boston — you will encounter entertainers in the subways; not so in Baltimore. While entertaining in our subway stations is not prohibited, MTA requires "the vendor" to purchase liability insurance coverage. The compensation most buskers receive in tips would likely make this a losing proposition.

We have learned the hard way that busking is not permitted outside the city's municipal markets. According to the Cross Street Market security guard who shooed us away from Light Street, where Swing N' Samba was briefly quite popular, the markets are private property (which certainly came as a surprise).

Leaving aside the possibly intractable issues of city parks, Inner Harbor, subways and the city markets, what could Baltimore City do to enliven its street entertainment scene? It could sponsor busking festivals, as Raleigh, N.C., does with Busk 'till Dusk or Portland, Ore., has done with The Big Busk. My wife and I just happened to run into that festival three years ago, and it was thrilling, with bands from two to eight pieces performing on up to 20 downtown street corners over the course of one very well-coordinated summer weekend.

How about holding a busking festival in the winter, when we are not able to perform outside? How about integrating us into the existing city-sponsored festivals (we've already passed an audition)? Downtown is teeming with new apartment developments. How about the Downtown Partnership, which helped give birth to Baltimore's busking, acting as a liaison to have us perform for some of those new downtowners where they live? How about acculturating Baltimoreans to busking by publicizing our existence, encouraging people to remove their earbuds and stop texting to take in some live entertainment? My musical partner and I sometimes display a sign above our tip bucket that says "We Work for Tips." Further broadcasting of that less-than-subtle message could also nurture the environment for Baltimore's street entertainers.

We view busking as an important, lively piece of Baltimore's cultural offerings. We see ourselves as the people's entertainers and as cultural ambassadors to visitors. Baltimore's busking scene could remain as it is now — limited and scattered, an exception rather than the rule — or as the waiter from Tapas Teatro said, it could help Baltimore become "a real city."

Bob Jacobson, street entertainer # 000030, plays saxophone and clarinet in the duo Swing N' Samba, as well as several other bands. His writing on music includes two chapters in the 2010 book Music at the Crossroads: Lives & Legacies of Baltimore Jazz. His email is bobboj@aol.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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