Like a lot of grass-roots organizations, the Chamber Jazz Society was born of a mixture of affection and frustration -- affection for the music some have called America's greatest native art form, and frustration over the fact that it's so rarely performed in Baltimore.
Parvin Sharpless, Gloria Katzenberg and Stanley Panitz are friends and jazz fans who, over the years, had heard quite a lot of music together. "All three of us had gone to jazz concerts here and there, and enjoyed them," says Sharpless. "We talked about what we learned, what we had liked or not liked, and we decided that maybe there was the need for something different."
So they decided to do something to meet that need -- they formed a society, got some money together, and decided to put on a show. Thus, the Chamber Jazz Society makes its debut tonight with a concert at the Park School featuring Richard Sudhalter and the Vintage Jazz Ensemble, a New York group specializing in small-band jazz of the '30s. (Show time is 8:15 p.m.)
"The particular moment that brought this together," says Sharpless, "was an evening we went to Blues Alley in Georgetown . . . "
"And spent a lot of money," interjects Panitz, laughing.
"A lot of money for a very high quality jazz program," agrees Sharpless. "But it seemed so difficult to go all that way, sit in a crowd, and to get 50 minutes of music with all the smoke and gin."
None of them wanted to get into the nightclub business, however. It wasn't in their background -- Sharpless is the director of the Park School, Panitz is a retired businessman, while Katzenberg is a former textile designer -- and, given the number of jazz nightclubs that have closed over the last decade, seemed a difficult endeavor even for pros.
A listening environment
But they felt that jazz deserved a more congenial environment than dark, smoke-filled rooms: a genuine listening environment, not someplace where the musicians must compete for attention against waiters and bar service.
What they wanted to create was more along the lines of a chamber music society -- only instead of presenting string quartets, they'd be booking jazz combos.
"I think our model would be -- and I hope it's not pretentious of us to say so -- the Shriver Hall concerts," says Sharpless. "They offer great music to a serious audience. They have big names, but a narrow focus. It's inexpensively produced. And they do modern music, they do romantic and classical, they do period music."
Moreover, just as classical concert series are devoted to preserving and presenting a specific repertoire, Sharpless and his Chamber Jazz colleagues have a strong interest in jazz revivalists -- that is, groups specializing in the jazz styles of the '20s and '30s.
"There are dozens of very fine players who are taking older forms of jazz seriously," he says. "There were young people coming out music conservatories, for heaven's sake, who play jazz of a vintage period as well as if not better than it was played originally. And those people deserved a hearing.
"I remember a young man -- he was about 25 or 30 years old -- playing piano exactly like Teddy Wilson, to the last nuance, and I thought, 'How does he do that?' Obviously, he's taken that dialect or form with great seriousness, he worked very hard on it, and it's a wonderful tribute to a period of time and an attitude toward music.
"Well, these musicians should be heard. They should be heard by people who like Teddy Wilson, who like that period, that style."
A scholarly approach
That's one of the reasons why the group booked Sudhalter and his Vintage Jazz Ensemble for its opening concert. "Part of the idea we had was to have some conversation or exposition of vital musicians on a serious level," says Sharpless -- and Sudhalter seems born to the task. As much a scholar as a performer, he wrote a biography of Bix Beiderbecke that was nominated for a National Book Award. His program, needless to say, will include the music of Beiderbecke, as well as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Red Nichols.
"He's extremely well-known," says Katzenberg. "He did a Hoagy Carmichael concert at Carnegie Hall, has done concerts at the 92nd Street Y, and does a radio program on jazz called 'Vintage Jazz at the Vineyard Theater.' It may not be Wynton Marsalis, but he's very highly respected."
So far, the response has met the group's expectations. "We sent out about 3,200 invitations," says Panitz, "and the response has been about 10 percent. And that's pretty good. I think by the time of the concert, there will probably be a lot of people who are disappointed that they are not going to be able to get in."
Where the society goes from there, however, depends upon the response it generates from the crowd. Part of that, says Panitz, simply reflects the financial realities involved.
"We knew that we would have to get some funds donated in advance in order to make it possible," he explains. "We couldn't possibly do this by ticket sales alone. We were afraid that if we tried to do that, the ticket prices would be so high, we just wouldn't be able to pull it off.
"So we got this group together who had put in about six or seven thousand dollars. That gives us a sufficient cushion to be able to offer good musicians at a modest price."
nTC To that end, the group will include a brief questionnaire in its program tonight, asking among other things if the listeners would attend other, similar events, and if they would consider making a donation to keep such a society going.
"If we sense that there is enough support for an ongoing affair, we would probably want to set up a permanent organization, and probably hire a part-time person as a staff person to do all the work that we've done," says Panitz. "But we'll just have to wait and see."
What: The Chamber Jazz Society presents Richard Sudhalter and the Vintage Jazz Ensemble.
When: May 6, 8:15 p.m.
Where: The Park School, Old Court Road.
Tickets: Sold out.
Call: (410) 484-6188 for information about the society.