Once, Ellis Lane Larkins was known as the "Negro Prodigy." He spent his youth playing Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Mozart in Baltimore's black churches and schools. There's a picture of him wearing a Buster Brown outfit and standing beside a grand piano.
He grew up to become a master of jazz piano accompaniment. His easy, swinging touch at the keyboard caressed vocals by Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams and others.
Now he is an old man -- 76 this May -- with memories of a musical career that began in the segregated Baltimore of the 1930s.
"You had singers for days. Piano players. Those that couldn't read the notes could still play," he says one afternoon in the ninth-floor Bolton Hill apartment he and his wife moved into not long ago. "There was always music around."
His father, John W. Larkins, was a violinist in the City Colored Orchestra and often rehearsed string quartets in the family living room. Every home, it seemed, had a piano. Every block had a music teacher.
This is the world captured in "The Storm Is Passing Over," an exhibit celebrating the musical history of Maryland's black community. More than 70 photographs, vintage recordings and historic documents have been culled from the collections of musicians and historians and put together by the Peabody Institute.
A wealth of musical talent filled Baltimore. Many black musicians were comfortable playing a swing dance in the Greenspring Valley one day, a classical concert in West Baltimore the next day and a gospel service on Sunday.
Touring bands made a point of getting out into the community. Duke Ellington thrilled student assemblies at Douglass High School with renditions of "Mood Indigo" and "Sophisticated Lady." Ike Dixon's Comedy Club and the Royal Theater helped make Pennsylvania Avenue the street for night life.
R. Nathaniel Dett, a black composer of classical music, gave lectures and offered his opinion of jazz. Dett didn't like the music. He wasn't alone. Jazz was considered low-class music in many homes. City schools stressed the classical tradition.
"That was the whole idea when we were squirts, to have an appreciation of the jazz and the classical. The jazz, they knew you could hear outside," says Larkins.
The exhibit features such jazz greats as Billie Holiday, Eubie Blake and Chick Webb along with trumpeter Roy McCoy and bandleader Tracy McCleary, local stars of Baltimore's music scene. The lesser-known worlds of gospel and classical performance are also here. The exhibit's title is taken from a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley, considered one of the early giants of gospel.
"One of the things I hope people understand is how rich it was," says Elizabeth Schaaf, the exhibit's curator. "They could play a Rossini overture and then blow the roof off the place at night on Pennsylvania Avenue."
Larkins' life illustrates how one man moved through the worlds of classical and popular music. He spent his childhood as a classical musician. He knew not to be caught playing the syncopated rhythms of jazz and Harlem stride piano. The elders frowned on that kind of playing. It wasn't refined, and it certainly wasn't art.
"They all thought jazz was banging, all those Harlem hamfats players," he says with a sly smile. "I wasn't allowed to play jazz in the house until I got to a certain age, say 17. I'd sneak in the house with the boys."
Early on, he didn't mind a steady diet of Rachmaninoff, Schumann and Chopin.
"That's what I loved. I didn't give a damn," he says, puffing a Dutch Treat filtered cigar. "I liked the other, too, but that's what I preferred at that time."
The family's Knabe grand faced out the back window of their home in the 1500 block of West Lanvale Street. He remembers working through hours of scales, technical exercises and repertoire, looking up to see his friends on the fence, laughing and pointing at him. They were playing basketball, while he was stuck playing a Carl Czerny etude.
"They'd heckle me a bit, but you expect that," he says. "But they were my greatest fans when I performed."
He made his debut in June 1934 at age 11, joining the City Colored Chorus and the City Colored Orchestra for a combined concert at Douglass High School. Larkins picked up $10 for that performance. A year later he was the pride of black Baltimore. "Pianist, 11, Is Feature of Mrs. Roosevelt Meet," read a Dec. 7, 1935, headline in the Afro-American.
The celebration of the National Urban League's 25th anniversary on Dec. 12, 1935, was a huge event in black Baltimore. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave the featured address. Gov. Harry W. Nice, Mayor Howard W. Jackson and Judge Joseph N. Ulman, president of the Baltimore Urban League, all spoke during the evening.
More than 2,000 people filled the Douglass High School auditorium, the prime meeting place for blacks. Segregation policies kept other venues off-limits. Another 2,000 stood outside and listened to loud speakers. The City Colored Orchestra, with Larkins' father in the violin section, provided the music. The 100-member City Colored Chorus sang a spiritual, "Deep River," and Wagner's "Hail, Bright Abode."
'Do your best'
Then Ellis Larkins took the stage. He doesn't remember feeling any pressure, or any sense that he had become the exemplar of Baltimore's black youth. The adults just told him to do his best.
"You might say I was nervous until I sat down at the keyboard," he says. He played Moszkowski's Waltz in E-major, an encore and sat down. Roosevelt called him back for another ovation.
"She told me I'd be a great musician and then she shook my hand," he says. "It meant a lot to me. After all, she was the first lady of the land."
The Evening Sun ran a story under the headline: "Negro Piano Prodigy, Aged 12, Wins Plaudits of First Lady." The Sun mentioned Larkins in passing, getting his name wrong. The paper called him "Ellis Lane Parker."
Of all the events Schaff came across during her research, that evening stands out as the great gathering of Baltimore's black musical talent. It was, in her mind, a magical evening.
"Here was this marvelously gifted young person coming up. Everyone knew he was going to have a career," says Schaff, the Peabody's chief archivist. "Here's this exciting orchestra being formed. It all just seems so promising and so wonderful."
Within two years Larkins was a featured soloist with the City Colored Orchestra, playing the allegro from Mozart's piano concerto in D Major. He says his teacher, Josef Privette, picked the piece "because I had a 'Mozartian touch.' Whatever that is."
Frederick R. Huber, the city music director, helped him get into the Lyric Opera House and the Peabody Conservatory, places off-limits to other blacks. He stood in the wings at the Lyric and watched Rachmaninoff and Josef Hofmann. He studied at the Peabody, becoming the first black student on the rolls although instructors often taught other blacks on the sly, after hours, or at Peabody Preparatory's "Colored Students' Branch" in the Druid Hill YMCA.
Little by little, jazz, blues and swing started showing up in Larkins' playing. Once one of his teachers at Booker T. Washington Junior High School caught him playing blues with friends. She told him she didn't mind his straying off the classical path, "as long as you don't lose your touch," he says, relighting his Dutch Treat.
He left Baltimore after receiving a scholarship to Juilliard in New York City. By his third year, jazz and classical were in a fight for his fingers. Art Tatum's pianistic virtuosity intrigued him. Teddy Wilson's smooth style gave him an approach to emulate. He gave up the music of his youth, but not because of the racism in the classical music world. "No, that wasn't it. It was the money," he says, rubbing a thumb and forefinger together. "I started working at a recording studio, accompanying singers, making $5, $10."
He joined the Billy Moore trio and played at Cafe Society Uptown in Manhattan. By 1943 he was leader of the house trio at the Blue Angel. In 1950, he teamed with Ella Fitzgerald for a series of historic recordings. Since then he has played all over the world, never regretting his decision to abandon a career as a classical pianist.
"No, it's just enough to know that I could have if I wanted to," says Larkins, who is recovering from a broken hip.
He still plays. There's an old Baldwin Acrosonic console in his new apartment. On request, he pulled himself up on his cane and played a few snippets. He has a performance later this month when Douglass High honors some famous graduates. He doesn't have any songs in mind, yet.
"He never has a program," says his wife, Crystal, 76. "He just plays off the top of his head."
Exhibit on the road
"The Storm is Passing Over: Celebrating the Musical Life of Maryland's African-American Community from Emancipation to Civil Rights," begins its 18-month tour today on the second floor of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and continues through March 26.
St. Mary's College of Maryland library, April 1 to May 21; Howard University, June 1 to July 30; University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, Easton, Sept. 1 to Oct. 29 (selected objects only); Academy of the Arts in Easton, Oct. 1 to 29; Coppin State College, Nov. 1 to Dec. 17; Frostburg State University, June 1 to July 31, 2000; Maryland State House, Sept. 5 to Oct. 28 (selected objects only).
The exhibit is sponsored by the Afro-American newspapers and is presented by the Archives of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
Pub Date: 2/03/99