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Where Jazz Still Echoes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A soft breeze ruffles the grass and weeds on the vacant lot on Pennsylvania Avenue where the Club Tijuana once filled the night with jazz. The Tijuana is long gone. But in this empty space there is room enough for the music to echo in the memory.

"Everybody you could name, if they played in Baltimore, they played at the Tijuana," says Ruby Glover, who started singing on The Avenue something like 50 years ago. "It was just swinging all the time, all the time. The glamour. The gorgeous feeling. The energy!

"I look at the grass, but I don't see the grass," she says, standing at the chain-link fence on the edge of the lot at Clifton Avenue. "I see the building. I see the people. I see and feel the energy. It's just fascinating. And then I look at all of this. How could we just let it go away?"

Pennsylvania Avenue was the main stem of black Baltimore in the 1950s and jazz was its pulsating theme song. But jazz is all but gone from The Avenue now and Glover searches through the shards like an archaeologist at a holy site.

"It is like walking on hallowed ground," she says.

The Tijuana was the top jazz house on the upper part of The Avenue. The Comedy Club was the premier spot below North Avenue.

"The Tijuana was a real, real hip avenue bar and a beautiful place to go [and hear] jazz," Glover says. "The Tijuana offered you an opportunity to see the giants, and touch them and be in the midst of them."

Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two of the great innovators in modern jazz, played the Tijuana. Billie Holiday sang there. During one stretch in the mid-1950s, the Tijuana had the Billy Taylor Trio, followed by Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Stitt, Chris Connor, Ben Webster, Lou Donaldson, Art Farmer with Gigi Gryce and Chet Baker with Russ Freeman.

The Comedy Club was just as hip. One summer lineup in the 1950s included Lester "Prez" Young, the "president" of the tenor saxophone; J.J. Johnson, who practically invented the bebop trombone; Terry Gibbs, the relentless vibes player who still leads a band; and Lee Konitz, the searching alto sax player. Both Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday performed there.

Ruby Glover, who turned 73 on Dec. 6, still sings a lot, all around town. But she also teaches jazz appreciation courses at Sojourner Douglas College. And she regularly brings her students over to The Avenue to see where it all happened. She's doing The Avenue on this day from end to end, about 23 blocks, stretching southeast from Fulton Avenue.

"I'm taking a historical walk," she tells mourners at the funeral of pianist Ellis Larkin. "So I can identify what used to be. We're starting at the top, Fulton and Pennsylvania."

The first stop is the Red Fox, which was actually just off The Avenue on Fulton. Ethel Ennis sang here for nearly a decade before going to Europe with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Glover took her place.

A liquor store called The Red Fox carries on busily at the corner but the lounge seems shabby and derelict now. The jazz club got its name from the red hair of the wife of George Fox, the owner.

"He liked to face the door," Glover says. "He was heavy, real heavy, but gentle and a very beautiful person. He'd always keep four silver dollars in his hand, which he would just tap on the top of the bar, and if the music was playing he was right in time with the music."

Henry Baker, a musician and beauty salon owner, had the Peyton Place in the block between The Red Fox on Fulton and the Tijuana at Clifton. He had a haberdashery farther down on The Avenue with a back room where musicians could shower and change clothes.

"If you didn't have clothing," Glover says, "he would take them off the rack and he had a tailor to make them look good."

Musicians were sharp dressers in those days. Even Miles Davis wore a suit and tie.

"Because Duke [Ellington] always said that the music was a lady and you had to dress for her and he always dressed for her."

She remembers Count Lantz, who played vibes with Ethel Ennis at the Red Fox, as a fashion plate who wore "a wonderful Homburg hat and carried a cane all the time."

A block south at the grassy lot at Clifton Avenue, she says, "That little club called Le Coq d'Or sat right there where that little tree is. Fuzzy Kane and them would be playing there. Le Coq d'Or was small, intimate, a nice place."

Baltimore has turned out generations of fine musicians, going back to Eubie Blake at the start of the 20th century. Some stayed, like Mickey Fields, the bebop master of the tenor; Jimmy Wells, the veteran vibraphonist who still plays; Claude Hubbard, who would play piano at The Prime Rib for years; Donald Bailey, who played rock steady bass; Freddie Thaxton, who played piano like Thelonius Monk; and Tracy McCleary, who led the band at the Royal Theatre, "The Royal Men of Rhythm."

"Freddie Thaxton dedicated his life to bebop," Glover says. "I performed with him at the Red Fox and I have his daughter in my class."

Donald Bailey introduced Glover to Miles Davis at the Comedy Club. He said, " 'Miles, I don't know why our buddy wants to meet you. You're not all that [interesting].'

"Miles used to have that raspy voice," Glover says, and she rasps out Miles' reply, " 'She just want to meet a good-looking black [man].' "

Albert Dailey, also in the band, was a pianist always probing the frontiers of jazz. He made a national reputation playing with everybody from Davis to Dexter Gordon to Sarah Vaughan, but especially Stan Getz, with whom he made the wonderful album Poetry.

Organist Lou Bennett, who learned his instrument in Baptist churches, played the Red Fox for months at a time when the Hammond B-3 organ was the instrument Baltimoreans loved to listen to. He introduced the B-3 to France in 1959 and only came back once to play at the Newport Jazz Festival and then here for the Left Bank Jazz Society. He's buried in a Paris suburb.

The Arch Social Club, at North Avenue, is the last place on The Avenue to present jazz regularly. The oldest African-American social club in town, the Arch was founded in 1912. Its clubhouse was built as a movie theater the same year.

"We're on the historical list," says Jerry Owens, house chairman. "We're trying to get some money to repair the whole building."

A couple of demi-nudes lounge on the arch of the baroque facade that rises from behind the club's marquee. Frederick W. Schanze, a pharmacist with a shop on the corner, opened the movie house and hall for meetings and dances and such at 2426 on The Avenue in 1912. Much later he started the Metropolitan Theater Company, which ran the Met movie theater, another vanished landmark, across North Avenue.

The Arch Social Club's lounge and restaurant has the lovely retro look of a a nightclub popular in the 1950s. The somewhat battered hall upstairs seems a little like something out of a vintage Western with its huge mirrors and sconces holding what might be old oil lamps.

Glover looks at the photographs in the lounge: "This is Joey DeFrancesco, the organ player. He's the youngest of them. They have 'name' groups here. Jimmy McGriff and Hank Crawford, I worked with them, both of them."

The jazz group from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore played here this fall, too.

Glover continues down The Avenue. In the 2200 block she says: "The Ubangi Club was right there. See where that greenish wood is? They kept a jazz band. But they had a nice crowd of folks that were there daily because they had like a liquor store. They would have good jazz groups that would come in there. But they were local."

The Ubangi Club was at 2213, next to a place now called the Paradise Lounge, which claims "the coldest beer in town." Somebody once counted at least 47 liquor licenses on The Avenue, many of them for small clubs that had live bands occasionally, but hip jazz jukeboxes all the time. Like the Crossroads Bar, up near Fulton, where Glover liked to hang out, if she got a long break at the Red Fox.

"Twenty-one-o-seven is the old Sphinx Club!" Glover says, as she moves her tour along. "There's nothing there that even gives you the image. It was always so pretty, so lit up. It really was a private club. And my impression was that it was for elite blacks. That was where they hung out.

"And you could always sing when you went in because they kept a house band, Chico Johnson and his organ trio and Earlene Reed, singing in there. And whomever was down The Avenue performing, after the clubs closed that's where you went. Put on a good show in there. If you were a musician all you had to do is ring the bell. They'd tell you, 'Hey, come on in here, give us a little song.' And they had good food."

The Sphinx looks dreary now with the old sign stripped away, all boarded up and painted barn red.

"It was always kept so well. Tilghman must be turning over in his grave. That's the man who founded it."

Charles Tilghman started the club in 1946. He had already run a couple places on The Avenue. Now he created a swank, elegant private club that attracted leaders of the African-American community. Furman L. Templeton, the head of the Baltimore Urban League, was chairman of his first advisory board. The Urban League offices were a couple blocks farther north on The Avenue, near the Arch Social Club. Furman L. Templeton Elementary School at Pennsylvania and Dolphin Street honors his memory. Tilghman ran the Sphinx Club until his death in 1988. The club pretty much died with him. Four years after he was gone, so was the club.

Just below Presstman Street, a dingy, white-painted building has a sign that says "Slappy White."

"Well, you know, when Slappy White and them would come to town, he had a place with just enough of a space for him to lease a room and maybe a bath," Glover says. "But it was prettier than that."

Slappy White, the comedian and sometime partner of Redd Foxx, was born in Baltimore and tap-danced in the streets as a kid. At the Royal Theatre, he opened for people like Dinah Washington, Willie Mae "the gal who gave you Hound Dog" Thornton and Johnny Ace, a doomed singer who may have cut the first rock 'n' roll record.

"Down the street, Division Street comes across," Glover says, "and there's a church, St. Katherine's, and that was the last place I went to a concert where Eillis played."

Ellis Larkin was an old friend and Glover's just come from his funeral the day before. A fine jazz pianist and accompanist for singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Chris Connor, he'd studied piano at the Peabody Conservatory when it was still segregated. He was a quiet, reserved man and he played that way.

"You almost didn't think his hands hit the keys. Easygoing, quiet, reserved. Even when he played Bach or Beethoven, you know how dramatic many of your players are. No. None of that. No exertion at all. Yet it could strike you!"

Around the Lafayette Market, she remembers many small shops owned by African-Americans.

"At 1834 was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters," she says. "A. Philip Randolph organized them. They would meet there and go to the Sphinx Club for entertainment."

Northwestern Loan, a pawnshop, was a block away 50 years ago and it's still there today.

"The Charm Centre was over here," Glover says, at 1811 Pennsylvania Ave. "The Charm Centre was the first black-owned, female [clothing shop]. Mrs. Adams had everything from hats to gloves. You could have dresses made. She had hats [custom] made. She is Willie Adams' wife. She was a schoolteacher. Her daughter went to school with me. Her clientele was the upper echelon of people who purchased or would be able to purchase."

Her name is Victorine. Willie Adams was the debonair West Baltimore entrepreneur and sometime politician, a powerful figure then and powerful today in his 80s. He owned the Club Casino and a whole lot more.

In 1946, Victorine Adams helped form the Colored Women's Democratic Campaign Committee, which, in fact, helped elect Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a white Republican with a solid civil rights record. In 1967, she became the first woman elected to City Council and served 16 years. She created the City Fuel Fund, which helps poor people pay heating bills and which now bears her name.

The Avenue Bar was on the southwest corner with McMechen Street, across from the Regent Theatre, which is where the Shake 'n' Bake recreation center is now. The Avenue Bar was a Monday night hangout for musicians. On Mondays most places on The Avenue were closed.

"But the Avenue Bar would be swinging," Glover says. "They had a show that began about 7 in the evening. Visiting musicians would start up here and work their way down to Buck's, which is down at the bottom. Both of them were very popular. Mickey Fields and them would tear this place up."

These days a gray electrical box at the Woodland Street Apartments serves as the only memorial for the Avenue Bar. Pitcher Street begins at Pennsylvania and McMechen and the black musicians union was a block west at Fremont. The Alhambra Grill would have been in the middle of the apartment development. Willie Adams' Club Casino was just across the street and it survives as the Royal Casino, a liquor store on the east side in the 1500 block. Henry Baker's haberdashery was just down the street.

In the 1950s, the Casino booked hard-rocking bands like Chris Powell and his Blue Flames, which once had Clifford Brown playing trumpet as one of the Flames -- but probably not in Baltimore. Benny Green, a top bebop trombonist, played the Casino, not long after Powell and the Flames. And so did Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, a tough, driving tenor who often played with Count Basie.

"And Gamby's sat right across the street," Glover says. Gamby's was the first place on The Avenue at which she sang. She won an "open stage" competition and got a two-week engagement. Many years later, her daughter, Ira, won a similar contest and stayed for a long run.

"But I didn't like Gamby's," Ruby says. "Gamby's was close and full all the time. That's when fellows nicknamed me 'Snootie.' They said all of these clubs around here, they're not going to be ritzy and have a nice beautiful setting like Phil's does. 'Yeah,' I said, 'But it could be a little better.' "

But Stan Getz and even the young Dave Brubeck played Gamby's.

Baltimore was a strictly segregated city in the 1950s, but Pennsylvania Avenue clubs freely booked white performers like Getz and Brubeck, Chet Baker and Chris Connor. The Royal Theatre band hired white players after World War II. And white fans felt welcome even at funky jazz clubs.

After Gamby's, Glover went back to Phil's, at Mount and Mosher streets, the place where she started singing professionally. Phil's was owned by Joe Reuben and his brothers, who also owned the Lorman House and the Garrison Lounge.

"Phil's was a lounge for lovers, very soft and intimate," she says. "Claude Hubbard was on piano, Phil Harris on bass and Prince on the drums. I'm trying to think what his real name was. See, you get used to those nicknames. I started to sing with them."

Next door at 1504, the owner of Gamby's, Kenny Bass, also had Modern Billiards and Snack Bar.

"My favorite place," Glover says. "Because you saw every kind of style Billy Eckstine brought to the Royal Theatre [picked up] in that pool room. ... They'd be dressing just like him. Bill Eckstine was a haberdasher's dream. He dressed so beautiful."

Glover's first job on The Avenue was actually with Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co., then next to the Pythian Castle Hall, at 1430. The Billie Holiday statue stands at the other end of the block at Lafayette Avenue across from where the Frolic Cafe used to be.

"She sang at the Comedy Club, which is right down the street, and she sang at the Royal Theatre across the street, and she hung out in the Sphinx Club and she hung out in a lot of the gay clubs down on Baltimore Street."

A work crew cuts the grass on a ball field where Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington and Charlie Barnet and Dinah Washington and Cab Calloway all played the Royal. Originally the Douglass Theatre, the Royal reopened refurbished in 1936 with Fats Waller as the headliner and lasted three more decades.

"The first time I saw Sarah Vaughan she was playing piano for Earl 'Fatha' Hines [at the Royal]," Glover says.

Now and again somebody notes that the Royal was a central cultural institution of Baltimore's African-American community, but nobody does much about it. A weathered billboard announces the city's plans to put up a sort of a memorial marquee. But even a plaque that Glover helped get put up is gone. Glover doesn't much like the city's plan. She'd like to see the place marked with an amphitheater where music could keep the Royal tradition alive.

As her tour gets to the bottom of The Avenue below the 1100 block, Glover recalls a lady who ruled as the queen of the night.

"Selena. She spoke to everything that happened down in this lower area," she says, delicately. "She was a strong participant in keeping people of the evening ... intact. Ladies of the evening, and the gentlemen. Selena, nobody ever called her last name. She ruled everything. She was like a protector -- to all of them."

The Bottom began about when you crossed Hoffman Street.

"Greenwillow Street is where most of the ladies of the evening were," she says. A housing development is there now.

Buck's Bar was on The Avenue between Hoffman and Preston streets throughout the 1950s until the riots in 1968. And Glover says Buck's Bar was the best place in the world on Mondays when so many places on The Avenue were closed.

"And because it was open and it kept a good band and good food, people came from up at the racetrack. They'd come down from New Jersey. It wasn't uncommon to see long, beautiful cars, beautiful women getting out of cars in furs and diamonds.

"And that was where I was the night of the riots. We were swinging, having a ball inside and outside was like a ball of fire. The sergeant came in and I was standing up singing and I mean the music was jumping and the place was packed.

"And the guy said 'it's like hell on the outside and you all in here jamming away and it's like walking into heaven. Well, I got to get all of you out of here safe.' "

Outside the night was aflame with years of pent-up anger and frustration.

"I cried all the way home," Glover says, "all the way home."

Pennsylvania Avenue was changed irretrievably. The music stopped like a snapped tape. And that was pretty much the end of Pennsylvania Avenue as the main street of jazz in Baltimore. It all passed into memory.

The photos

These vintage photographs of musicians were taken by Irving Phillips Sr. (1920-1993), who chronicled the life of black Baltimore as a photographer for the Afro-American from 1948 to 1973. The pictures are from the collection of his son, Irving Phillips Jr.

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