Back Story: Concerts of note held by Left Bank Jazz Society

For jazz aficionados, news that the Baltimore Jazz Alliance is reviving the Sunday evening cabaret concerts, which for years were sponsored by the nonprofit Left Bank Jazz Society at the old Famous Ballroom on North Charles Street, will indeed be most welcome.

Founded in 1964 by Vernon L. Welsh and Benny Kearse, the venerable Left Bank Jazz Society brought a Who's Who of jazz artists to Baltimore. At its peak from 1966 to 1984, some 47 concerts were performed a year at the Famous Ballroom.


Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Freddie Hubbard, Maynard Ferguson, Carmen McRae, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Mingus, Stan Getz, Roland Kirk, Randy Weston, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan, George Benson, Ahmad Jamal and Woody Herman, to name a few, trooped up to the second floor of the Famous, where they interacted intimately with their grateful audience.

"The names are enough to set the mind in motion," James D. Dilts, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and author, wrote in a 2000 City Paper profile of the Famous Ballroom.


On May 17, 1967, concert-goers were unaware that they were listening to world-renowned saxophonist John Coltrane's last live performance, writes Cathleen Carris, in a profile of the Left Bank Jazz Society included in "Music At The Crossroads: Lives & Legacies of Baltimore Jazz."

Coltrane died two months later of liver cancer at 40.

"The audience is an eclectic array of races, ages, and styles: There are professors from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, college students of all colors, members of the militant Black Panther organization, and middle-aged women dressed in their Sunday best," wrote Carris.

"Yet the only tension in the air is in the sound of the music, and the only words exchanged during the performance are, 'shhhh,' the audience hushed under the weight of the extreme intensity emanating from the stage," she wrote in the book, which was published in 2010 and edited by Mark Osteen and Frank J. Graziano.

Dilts recalled the evening in a 1974 article.

"It was an astonishing performance. Played a year before the Baltimore riots by a man who had a profound feeling for music and whose technical command of the instrument was flawless, it consisted of anguished wails and angry shrieks and hardly a melodic line," observed Dilts.

In a telephone interview the other day, Dilts, a Roland Park resident and lifelong jazz fan, recalled spending Sunday evenings at the Famous Ballroom, now part of the Charles Theater complex.

"The society got all of the big names in jazz and they drew a crowd of several hundred people that gathered every Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. You got your ticket and went up to the second floor where you sat at tables and you knew you were going to hear a first-rate band," he recalled.

"Some parents even brought their kids who were raised in the Famous and got a feel for the music," he said.

"The Famous Ballroom was one of the few truly integrated places in the Baltimore of the 1960s and 1970s," said Dilts. "I recall having an intense discussion with Walter Carter, the civil rights activist, on the finer points of Coltrane's performance."

The society moved in 1984 from the Famous Ballroom to Pascal's, a Druid Park Drive nightclub.

But after leaving its longtime venue, Carris writes, "it became difficult for the Left Bank to maintain its audience."


The society continued to hold weekly concerts through the remainder of the 1980s. But by the 1990s, the society was wandering from place to place and the shows became sporadic.

"The Left Bank eventually disbanded in the 1990s," said Osteen, a jazz saxophonist and chairman of the English department at Loyola University Maryland.

"They folded in the end because of a certain set of circumstances, but they left behind a treasure trove of tapes of performances they had recorded," said Dilts.

Dilts hopes that the Baltimore Jazz Alliance can "recapture some of the notable bands and feeling that played the old Famous Ballroom."

The Baltimore Jazz Alliance's second Baltimore Jazz Composers' Showcase is to be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 29 at the McManus Theater at Loyola University Maryland.

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