Monuments and buildings remind residents of hometown heroes and genre pioneers Billie Holiday, Cab and Blanche Calloway, Eubie Blake and Chick Webb. The state-designated Black Arts and Entertainment District brings new energy to West Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, a bustling African-American commercial corridor where Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong headlined the Royal Theatre during the mid-20th century. The underrated late singer Ethel Ennis, Baltimore’s own “First Lady of Jazz,” opened Ethel’s Place and brought jazz to downtown Baltimore during the 1980s.
Today, as artists like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington reinvent jazz for the post-hip hop era, jazz in Baltimore is enjoying a renaissance. The preeminent Peabody Institute is settling into its recently jump-started jazz studies program after a controversial reshuffling. Rappers like Eze Jackson and Butch Dawson are channeling jazz legacies into their own work. Perhaps most importantly, the city has a new home for the artform: Keystone Korner, a swanky jazz club and restaurant in the Harbor East neighborhood.
“One of the things that has struck me since the first weeks and months that I have been working with this club and getting it off the ground...is the tremendous volume of great players in the mid-Atlantic area,” said Todd Barkan, who runs Keystone Korner and named it after a club he founded nearly 50 years ago in San Francisco.
The veteran promoter and programmer, who’s rarely seen without a baseball cap announcing his 2018 honor as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, partnered with trumpeter and Peabody professor to develop a running collaboration that highlights the area’s jazz talent. They’re called the Baltimore Jazz Collective and they even have a song (although pianist Alex Brown, a rotating member, technically created it before the collective came to life) bearing their name.
“It’s a broad coalition and members fluctuate because any of us may be out of town at any given time when we have one of these engagements going on,” explained bass clarinetist Todd Marcus, one of the collective’s anchor members, about the recurring gigs at Keystone Korner.
In this set of profiles, get acquainted with Jones, Marcus and other core members of the collective, as well as other artists that, among many more and less famous, make up the current face and sound of Baltimore jazz.
Before he moved to Baltimore to become Peabody’s Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair of Jazz in 2018, this prolific trumpeter worked as brass department chair at Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music. He and Barkan modeled the Baltimore Jazz Collective after a similar group Jones created in San Francisco.
Outside of these positions, Jones has collaborated with some of the genre’s biggest musicians. Pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter personally selected Jones to perform on a tour paying tribute to Miles Davis — arguably the greatest jazz trumpeter of all time — in 2011.
Jones also leads the National Youth Orchestra’s jazz section at Carnegie Hall, the Sean Jones Electric Quartet and the nonprofit Jazz Education Network’s board. He performs with his partner, singer and dancer Brinae Ali, and turntablist Wendel Patrick (see more on both below) in Dizzy Spellz, a “loose tribute to [influential trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie.”
Jones praises the openness of Baltimore’s jazz scene, as compared to better-known jazz hotspots like New York, San Fran or New Orleans.
“It seems like everyone knows everybody, and everyone is generally supportive of everybody else,” he said. “I just don’t get the cliquish vibe in Baltimore.”
Jazz is the sophisticated sonic representation and exploration of global popular music and culture, founded via the cultural experiences of African Americans."
Todd Marcus, longtime resident of Sandtown-Winchester, specializes in the bass clarinet, an instrument rarely associated with jazz. In addition to being a core member of the collective, this New Jersey native channels his admiration for his adopted hometown through Intersection of Change, an anti-poverty nonprofit in West Baltimore that he co-founded.
“Our city has been so maligned these past several years, and certainly my neighborhood...Sandtown, these past 20-plus years, same kind of deal,” he said before a late-January gig. “I think a lot of us feel very protective of our city, and the image and the misinformation and negative stereotypes, and take pride in sharing about all the wonderful things that are coming out of the city.”
That included last year’s album, “Trio+,” for which Marcus plans to tour through the Northeast this spring.
Originally from Flint, Michigan, Ali’s years in Baltimore gave her a sense that while the scene is strong, more work needs to be done.
“There’s a rich culture here, but there is a generational gap where the younger generation are not as active and being present in on the scene...and that’s the beauty of [the collective] coming together because we are like in that middle range to be able to kind of galvanize the young people to come and be a part of it," she said.
She plans some solo work and Dizzy Spellz collaborations going forth, but with the caveat of “after the baby.”
Unlike some of the other collective members, drummer Quincy Phillips actually hails from Baltimore — “Caroline and Eager St.” to be exact, he said. After earning his bachelors in jazz performance at Howard University, Phillips returned to his homebase to launch his globe-trotting jazz career. He sees his participation in the collective as a form of outreach in his and other Baltimore communities.
“We’re in this beautiful space, but you go down to Lexington Market, Eutaw Place, Druid Hill Park, or Mondawmin Mall, we may be able to extend that hand and give that exposure, which may trigger something for the listener,” he said.
In addition to his work with Grammy winner Christian McBride’s big band, Phillips plans to put his first solo album together this year.
The Grammy-nominated man behind the “Baltimore Jazz Collective” song has tickled the ivories with world-class jazz ensembles and orchestras throughout the world. In addition to his frequent collaborations with vibraphonist and Peabody faculty member Warren Wolf, Brown, who spends time in New York as well, has had compositions performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
He characterizes his adopted hometown with “a willingness and desire to experiment, and not feel threatened by whatever experimentation leads to."
Patrick currently teaches hip hop music production and history at Peabody, as well as electronic production at Johns Hopkins. He plans to release some new and reworked older material in 2020.
While primarily known as a rapper on his own solo projects and with the funk rock ensemble Soul Cannon, Eze Jackson has contributed to projects with Patrick and other jazz musicians. He recently performed in the first of a planned recurring series at Keystone Korner, in which he and other musicians like drummer Josh Stokes perform hip hop songs like A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” and the jazz tunes they sample. The residency will likely take place every third Wednesday of the month, excluding February.
Smooth and agile, Sheila Ford’s vocal styles bring to mind the legacies of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. It’s no wonder that she performed an interpolation of jazz standards with Jones for the Johns Hopkins-based Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts’ first annual concert at Lafayette Square in September. In addition to channeling Lady Day, Ford has toured the world with the Washington Jazz Ensemble, performed in stage musicals like “The Wiz” and sings for the Scott Ragsdale Orchestra big band. She lends her singing and dancing talents across genres, including house, R&B and Latinx styles.
Like Jackson, Dawson’s primary concern is hip hop. His high-energy live shows often feature him with a DJ, tearing up the stage in ways that’d be impossible with, say, a trombone. Still, the rapper’s love of jazz shines through in his instrumental capabilities and songs on both of his recent releases, “Swamp Boy” and “Ollieworld.” The two records form part of a trilogy that he plans to complete this year with “Jazz Star."
“Where I come from, Pennsylvania Avenue, that strip used to be a historic strip for jazz clubs,” he told The Sun back in December. “Now, you find all types of drugs on that strip, everybody hustles...I represent both of those periods of that location, and the fact that I represent street and art culture, and I can mesh it together? I feel like it’s just something that’s going to break through.”