Tavern transforms itself into King of Annapolis nightlife Sound of music draws crowds to Maryland Inn


What do you get when the original American music combines with the architecture of the country's earliest days? A jazz room that has thrived over two decades and has helped revive a city.

Back in 1968, the Maryland Inn was a dumpy dowager at the top of Annapolis' Main Street with a beauty shop, Chamber of Commerce office and employee locker room in the basement.

Today, the inn is the stylish doyenne of a chain of five hotels in restored buildings, and its old locker room has become the King of France Tavern, a venue for jazz, folk and fusion artists.

The tavern, which dates to 1784, was one of the first nightspots in what in the early 1970s was a slowly reviving historic district.

"It showed people what can be done with these old buildings," recalled St. Clair Wright, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

Historic preservation was "just beginning to catch on then, and anything good that happened to places like the Maryland Inn was bound to have an impact on the whole economic structure of the city," explained Wright, who has led her share of preservation battles over the last 40 years.

"It brought business in," she said.

It also provided a haven for long-time jazz fans and gave vitality to the business district, added Irving "Buddy" Levy, a regular from the early days.

"I loved it," raved Levy, who ran a pharmacy on West Street until his retirement several years ago.

"It was wonderful to see all those people," he said, remembering when pianists Earl "Fatha" Hines and Teddy Wilson, clarinetist Kenny Davern and Wild Bill Davis, a Chicago jazz cornetist, played the tavern.

"To find high-class jazz like that anywhere, in a large city or here, was something," concluded Oliver Taylor, another regular from the early days.

Most of all, the tavern survived in Annapolis, while jazz rooms in large cities failed.

"Any jazz club that can stay open for 20 years is quite an accomplishment," said Charlie Byrd, the guitarist who played the first show at the tavern in May 1972 and whose own jazz club in Washington went under. "Somebody opens a jazz club and thinks he's going to get rich is crazy. You got to care about the music."

Indeed, Paul Pearson, who transformed the Maryland Inn and the tavern into the popular night spot that it is, is an ardent jazz fan with fond recollections of the Big Band era.

But he allowed that the tavern has survived because "it had a fool at the head of it who just refused to give up."

"Fortunately," he added, "we weren't a free-standing business. We had dinner patrons, hotel patrons who provided collateral business."

Now, the tavern, which once was a financial drain on the rest of the hotel, is a profit center for Historic Inns of Annapolis, he said. And it didn't even start out to be a jazz room.

The locker room and beauty shop weren't "serving the interests of the property very well, and we were trying to turn it into something more appealing for an audience that would consume food and beverage," Pearson recalled.

While workers stripped away layers of tiles, asphalt and cement to expose the original brick floors, stone walls and timbers of the Colonial-era building, Pearson heard Byrd at the Annapolis Fine Arts Festival.

"I didn't know who he was," confessed Pearson, who said he had bought tickets to mollify his secretary, Lucy Graham, a big Charlie Byrd fan. But he was so taken with the performance, the atmosphere and the crowd that the next day he told Graham "it would be great if we could have Charlie Byrd play here."

"Well, she said I was crazy as hell," he recounted. "Charlie was too big a star. He wouldn't play here."

But Pearson persisted, and Byrd opened the King of France Tavern about the same time Jim Palmer was launching his third straight 20-win season with the Orioles.

For three weeks, the popular guitarist sold out the room. Pearson began booking other acts, few of whom enjoyed the same success until vocalist Ethel Ennis agreed to play the room.

"We built the room around Charlie and Ethel," he said.

The crowds grew for some acts, especially Hines and Wilson, but were apathetic to others.

Pearson added folk acts to the mix to attract a wider audience and shortened the length of the engagements to cut costs. But the result was "such a mixed bag" that he couldn't establish a stable audience, he said.

His new formula includes a Monday night jazz jam run by pianist Stef Scaggiari, a folk act on Thursday nights and a name jazz act on the weekends, backed by Scaggiari. Occasionally, the Hard Travelers, a folk group that was big in the '60s and has found new life 30 years later, appears on weekends.

The focus also has changed from New York-based acts to local ones. Scaggiari, now the music director, lives in Annapolis. Pianist Dick Morgan, who often plays at the tavern, runs a management firm in Washington.

Sue Matthews, wife of the U.S. Naval Academy lacrosse coach, began singing at the Monday night jam sessions six years ago and recently released her first compact disc, which is listed 38th among the country's top 50 jazz recordings.

"I had sung rock and folk for years, but I sat in the back here for months before I began to sing," she recalled between sets last weekend. "I had to learn so much."

Since then, she has worked in clubs from New York to Florida, but says the King of France is her favorite because "I have so many wonderful memories here."

In fact, many of the performers who have worked at the tavern have high praise for its cozy ambience and attentive crowds, if not its erratic acoustics.

Byrd, who has played the room more than anyone else, complained of "high-frequency sounds like cymbals bouncing off the bricks."

"I've been playing there 20 years, and every time I come back after I've been away for a while, I have to get used to it again," he said. "But that's not the beauty of the room. There's an intimate feeling there. The clientele is wonderful."

Ennis, who fretted about "all the nooks and crannies" where sound changes, also talked about the "respect performers get from the audience."

"It's a nice, warm sophisticated atmosphere," she concluded.

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