All That Jazz

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two marvelous women, paragons of jazz-singing, talk with warm, generous camaraderie of lives well-lived, songs well-sung, with laughter and good humor for the good times and no trace of bitterness for the bad.

Ethel Ennis and Ruby Glover, women of somewhat more than a certain age now, chat at a table in the Center Stage cafe, radiating youthful enthusiasm as if they had just come on the scene a minute ago. They talk in unison, solo and in counterpoint.

They'll be celebrated as jazz divas at Center Stage Saturday night at a benefit concert for the Women's Housing Coalition. Two arts scholarships for WHC women and children will be inaugurated in their honor. They'll be joined in concert by two younger divas, Joyce J. Scott, artist and singer, and Lea Gilmore, blues and gospel singer and civil libertarian.

Glover and Ennis came up during a golden age of jazz, the bebop revolution of the 1940s and '50s, which still lives today, not least in hip-hop sampling.

"Baltimore was a hopping town," says Glover, who'll be 73 in December. She calls Ennis, approaching 70, "my young sister."

Both she and Ennis have full jazz lives right now. Besides regular performance gigs, Ennis sings with an adventurous contemporary orchestra at the Saluzzo Spring Festival, near Turin in Italy, and at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho.

Glover has been active in the city's Billie Holiday Vocal Competition since it started 13 years ago. She teaches two packed jazz appreciation courses at Sojourner-Douglass College, in a building where she was a student when it was Dunbar High. And she leads a jazz workshop project, which is expansive enough to include all the lively arts -- theater, dance and whatever -- downstairs at Xando cafe, at 31st and Charles streets.

"You can jazz anything," Ennis says. "I jazz food. You can jazz clothes."

She jazzes oatmeal with onions and celery, which Glover thinks is just fine.

And even though she came from a strict, churchy family, Ennis began singing at about 15. A band called Abe Riley's Octet was looking for a piano player and the drummer said: "Why don't we get Ethel?"

Ennis laughs.

"So Ethel became the only female in this group. We used to play the outskirts of Baltimore, you might say, where my age wouldn't be questioned. This was when bebop was coming up, talking about 1947-48."

She confesses she wasn't playing real hip chords. But she got better. She'll be playing piano when she sings for the BLEWS, the Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore, at a testimonial on Wednesday for Dr. Calvin J. Burnett, the retiring president of Coppin State College.

"I remember being in Randallstown at Odd Fellows Hall or somewhere," she says. "And someone says we have this money here, we have this big tip, do you know the song 'In the Dark.' Abe says: Ethel do you know the song? Yeah, I know the song."

She was the only one in the band who did. It's a sultry ballad a blues singer named Lil Green had a big hit with under its full title, "Romance in the Dark."

"So I sang the song 'In the Dark,' Ennis says. "It's kind of funny. At the tender age of 15 I'm singing this song: 'In the dark it's just you and I, not a sound, not one little sound, just the beat of my poor heart in the dark.' "

Glover's humming along and then they laugh and laugh together, especially when Ennis puts a sexy little curl around the word "heart."

"So I sang that song all night," Ennis says. "That's the only one song I knew, you know. I thought I'd get paid doubly. No. Two dollars and fifty cents a show.

"We weren't allowed to have that kind of music in the house," she recalls. "Noooo. I used to hear that music coming from downstairs. In the projects, Gilmor Homes -- brand-new Gilmor Homes, little different now, I used to hear the neighbors. They used to have the cornbread and Saturday-night fish fries and the blue and red lights and the bass booming, and I'd hear all these blues coming up 'cause all we could do was just our lessons and church hymns. My grandmother talked about the people in the Bible like they were living next door."

And Glover, in a sort of counterpoint, says "Isn't amazing how the women, grandparents and even the mothers, quoted the Bible and told you about the good and bad women in the Bible, hopeful it would push off on us."

"It did," Ennis says.

"It did," says Glover.

And they take hands and laugh again together.

But her parents insisted Ennis and her brother, who she calls "Andrew" and Glover calls "Andy," learn an instrument. Andrew, who played for nearly a decade with Ray Charles, is an accomplished tenor saxophonist who collaborates with Glover in her Xando project.

Glover was already singing when she was 6 years old.

"But you sang for people who had died," she says. She sang at the funerals of neighbors or family friends. "One day I got bold enough to ask my mom. I said, 'How come when I'm singing the ladies and the men in the front are just bowing their heads or are tearful. But the person who's sleeping in the back they don't do anything.'

"That was the first time my mother had to explain to me that it wasn't some baby doll or a person sleeping. She never used 'death.' She said this person had gone on with the Lord and would meet the Baby Jesus. I sent a lot of 'em with the Baby Jesus."

Her mother was a singer named Inez Edwards, and Glover waited up all night until she came home from a gig in the bars because she always brought a little something for her Ruby, maybe chocolate milk and a jelly roll.

"And I would be waiting for that, but I'd always be waiting to hear who came home to play the piano, and they'd sing and play until the wee hours of the morning," Glover says. Her mother's house was a place the musicians would come to after a performance. "They would be cooking breakfast. I would be laying on my tummy, watching. ... That's how I learned to sing, particularly the jazz."

Favorites in her mother's house were Johnny Sparrow and his Bows and Arrows and on Sunday everybody listened to Wings Over Jordan on the radio.

Ennis shares the memories, murmuring, "Uh huh, yes. Uh huh," like a musician signifying appreciation of a nice solo.

They recall Carr's Beach, Sparrow's Beach and taking the boat from the foot of Broadway to Brown's Grove, and they went to the stretch of beach at Sandy Point where African-Americans swam when the park was segregated. Ennis and Glover lived in a segregated world until they were nearly 30.

"Anyone you missed in the city [at the Royal Theatre]," says Glover, "you'd wait for the summer because they were going to come to the beaches. Ruth Brown, I remember seeing her, and King Pleasure."

By the early '50s, Ennis' grandmother, Elizabeth Small, figured she had instilled enough good virtues in her little granddaughter to allow her to sing, even in what she called "beer gardens."

" 'My child that's a beer garden,' " Ennis mimics her grandmother's stern tone. "When I put on my first strapless gown, at the age of 19, she said 'Gal, where's your undershirt?' "

She had already won a talent show at Channel 13 and went on to the Paul Whiteman Amateur Show in Philadelphia.

"I wasn't a winner. I sang and played 'My Mother's Eyes,' " she says. That had been an Etta Jones favorite and was even earlier sung by Eddie Cantor.

And Ennis sang at the Casino on Pennsylvania Avenue with a bassist named Montell Poulson. George Foxx spotted her and booked her into the Red Foxx Inn, where fans remember she was a regular for nearly a decade.

"I didn't start on the Avenue until you were on the road," Glover tells Ennis.

Ennis joined the Benny Goodman band in 1958 for a European tour that began a time when she was away from Baltimore for nine months a year, singing at venues such as the Apollo and the Village Gate and the Vanguard and the Plaza Hotel in New York, and the Monterey Jazz Festival on the West Coast. But she always came back "to bloom where I was born," she'd say.

The Avenue was Pennsylvania Avenue, in those days the long living artery of a clubland bursting with jazz from Franklin Street to Reisterstown Road. You could practically go from club to club and find the music along the entire 24-block street, and lots of people did.

"I had been down on the lower part of the Avenue to Gamby's and won a contest and didn't want to go back," Glover says. "I didn't like that area."

The south end of Pennsylvania Avenue was the rough, tough "Bottom" in those days. So then Glover and Ennis share a litany of memories such as jazz musicians trading four-bar solos: The Casino across the street from Gamby's, the Comedy Club down the street, the Avenue Bar across from the Regent Theatre, Buck's Bar on Monday's.

"It was wild," Glover says. "It was wild. Oh, my goodness, you saw everybody. Buck's had food, and people would come from Atlantic City and it was always packed."

"Club Frolic," Ennis says.

"Oh, my goodness. And the Alhambra, the best crabcakes. The Star Lounge."

"The Spot," says Ennis. "Used to call it 'Bucket of Blood.' "

"Then The Sphinx Club would be the finalization." Glover says. "After the clubs closed, those of us who were performers could just ring the bell and promise to sing or play. It was a private club, but they would always welcome someone who came in to entertain."

The Sphinx Club survives, an outpost on an abandoned trail.

"What was the White Elephant before it was the White Elephant?" Glover asks.

"The Tijuana," Ennis says. And Billie Holiday sang there, and Miles Davis brought his quintet in with John Coltrane and Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland, and they're all dead now except Garland.

But the music lives, like Bird in the graffiti.

"It was, still is and always will be," says Glover.

"Jazz is our music," Ennis says. "It's still the stepchild of music in America. But it will live with us. As long as we're here it'll survive."

And they laugh in unison, long and happily, and jazzily.

Benefit concert

What: "Once in a Blue Moon - Diva-licious!"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 7:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturda

Admission: $65 for concert; $125 for concert and reception

Call: 410-332-0033

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