While driving home from an evening grocery run, Evana Upshaw spotted a microphone jutting out from a line of trees at a corner of Herring Run Park in Northeast Baltimore. She caught a glimpse of a guitarist sitting on a stool, his strumming accompanying the hum of cars turning onto her street.
Upshaw, 21, had stumbled upon the Baltimore Pop-Up Jazz Jam, which performs at different parks around the city every Tuesday. The twist is — you never know where they’ll show up next.
“There’s just something about enjoying music outside ... the way it fills the space, the vibe is just right,” said Upshaw, who decided to stay and watch the performance.
The brain behind the roving jazz jam is Ed Hrybyk, a music teacher at Baltimore School for the Arts and the band’s bassist. Hrybyk, 33, of Ednor Gardens in Northeast Baltimore, started the weekly pop-up show last September after struggling to find ways to teach music online, particularly for drummers. The reason for the secret locations was to keep crowds small, as people were eager to see live music during the lockdown.
“I started the jam session as a way for not only my drummers, but all of my students to be able to have an outlet to come and play and perform safely outside,” Hrybyk said.
Rufus Roundtree, a Baltimore-based funk musician, also developed pandemic-safe concerts last year aboard the “Pirate Radio Cruise.” The artist and his band, Da B’More Brass Factory, sailed around the harbor on the Urban Pirates ship, performing short sets at waterfront neighborhoods, including Fells Point and Canton.
Hrybyk eventually brought in more musicians from the local jazz scene to perform, and the pop-up became a place for amateurs and professionals to play when venues were closed. He also is responsible for the Charm City Porch Concert series, another piece of pandemic ingenuity where people with porches across the city can pay $200 to book a group of musicians for a performance.
After the success of the jazz jam last fall, Hrybyk brought it back in March, this time with the intent to market the performances more. While he doesn’t share the location of each week’s pop-up widely, people can message him on social media for the spot.
Previously operating solely on tips, Hrybyk received grants this year from the Maryland State Arts Council for $3,500 and the Baltimore Jazz Alliance for $1,000 to pay the house band, which besides himself includes Devron Dennis, 20, on drums and Michael Raitzyk, 58, on guitar. Local businesses, including Eddie’s of Roland Park and B.Willow, also began sponsoring the weekly event for $200 in return for advertising during the jam.
Dennis, of West Baltimore, was a student of Hrybyk’s at Baltimore School for the Arts, and appreciated the opportunity for a regular paid gig during the pandemic.
“We got like a teacher-student bond, then when I graduated, it just continued ... he reached out about playing outside and then it just became a regular thing,” Dennis said. “It became the power of the jam every week.”
Even with COVID restrictions lifted on music venues, Hrybyk plans to continue the jazz jam and the porch concerts through the end of this year. At any given session, college students and professional musicians will show up to play a few songs, providing a low-stress opportunity for the Baltimore jazz community to network.
Raitzyk, of Charles Village, said that another important aspect of the jazz jam is its accessibility to communities around the city.
“Music doesn’t have to be in a nightclub with alcohol and people just not paying attention to it, it can be presented in a wide variety of capacities,” Raitzyk said. “Taking it to a public park where not only older folks, but young children can be exposed to this music is vitally important.”