BALTIMORE HAS long had a reputation as a good jazz town. Such legends as Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway and Chick Webb hailed from here. The contemporary Baltimore talent ranges from songstress Ethel Ennis and keyboardist Cyrus Chestnut to veteran pianist Ellis Larkins. And yet, a debate rages about whether Baltimore still is a good jazz town and whether America still appreciates this unique music form.
That's why it is good to hear Ken Burns is turning his attention to jazz. The film maker, who dramatically chronicled the Civil War and baseball, will have his new public television series, "The West," aired next month. He will then begin working on an ambitious jazz documentary. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis will be a senior consultant. Most of today's jazz luminaries will be interviewed.
While early jazz legends by now are playing at that great bandstand in the sky, many of them have been immortalized not only on records but also in films. The Orpheum Theater in Fells Point recently showed a triple feature that consisted of "Stormy Weather," "St. Louis Blues" and a selection of archival shorts. Those films had a distinctly ancient feel about them. But they showed a young Duke Ellington and his band, Billie Holiday (who may or may not have been born in Baltimore), Lena Horne, Fats Waller and the fantastic, tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers. They also reminded the contemporary viewers that Cab Calloway was not limited to his corny "Hi-de-ho" acts but led an outstanding swing band.
The Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center's plans to relocate to Franklin and Howard streets offer Baltimore an opportunity to develop a national jazz shrine that could be a major tourist draw. But to achieve this, the Eubie Blake center must employ first-rate museum and jazz professionals and develop attractions that project the full creativity and energy of jazz music and dancing.
Pub Date: 8/24/96