Bass player Montell Poulson arrived a bit late -- he had just come in from another gig. Poulson used to play the Royal Theatre in Baltimore and the Howard Theatre in Washington. He roamed the East Coast with the Rivers Chambers Orchestra, playing for "heavy pockets" society events. He played with Eubie. He toured with Billie, Fats and Ethel. However, he began his set last Sunday by acknowledging another bass player seated near the front of the audience.
"My mentor's Charlie Harris, who played with Nat King Cole," Poulson said, pointing him out. Then he waved to saxophone player Whit Williams: "I see you back there, too, 'Police Dog!' Go ahead, stand up!"
Drummer James "Peanut" Saunderlin was finally ready for him. "Now we're just going to play a little bit," Poulson said. "Is there a pianist here?"
Justin Thomas raised his hand.
"We're doing 'Now is the Time,' " Poulson announced. "And we'll play it in the Key of Whiskey."
It was a key everybody seemed to know well. Fingers snapped and feet began tapping as the trio entertained their friends and colleagues.
The group of musicians -- many in their 70s and 80s -- had gathered at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center to celebrate the history of African-American music in Baltimore, history they had helped create. They had come to hear some good music and stories that stretched from corner churches to Carnegie Hall.
Officially, they were attending the opening of "Sounds and Stories," an exhibit of photographs and interviews with people who were part of Baltimore's legendary musical community in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
But it quickly became a warm reunion of folks who remembered each other from the Royal Theatre, the Great Hymns Choir, the Colored Symphony Orchestra -- or all of the above. That so many of the roughly 75 elderly guests could move seamlessly between classical music, church music and jazz went without saying.
"We have never had so many famous people together in one room," Camay Calloway Murphy, director of the Eubie Blake Center, told the gathering.
Among them were Charlie Harris, bass player for Nat King Cole; Douglas MacArthur, whose band, the Blue Notes, launched singer Ruby Glover; Murray Schmoke, who sang with the Great Hymns Choir and spent some time directing it; pianist and accompanist Audrey McCallum, now of Morgan State University; Morris Queen, choir director at Sharp Street Methodist; Fannie Newton Moragne, soloist with Baltimore's Herman Schwartz Singers; Lucille Brooks, who replaced Eubie Blake's teacher as organist at Waters AME Church; sax player Arthur "Pigmeat" Garner; and vocalist Louisa Lara Gross, who toured with Lionel Hampton when she was only 16 years old.
Testing the piano
The event also marked another historic moment: The launching of the "Sounds and Stories" Web site, the result of years of work on the part of Elizabeth Schaaf, head of archives at the Peabody Institute, composer Charles Kim, Peabody musicologist John Spitzer and Johns Hopkins history professor Ron Walters. Funded by the Maryland Humanities Council and Maryland Historic Trust, the current project grew out of an earlier show on Maryland's African-American music that Schaaf also organized. The Web site is still a work in progress, but many of the oral histories are up and running, and make for great reading.
After the unveiling of the Web site, it was time for entertainment. Standing at the ready was the Baldwin upright that belonged to another Baltimore legend, Ellis Larkins. His wife Crystal donated the piano to the center last year after Larkins died.
"We were keeping it on display, but Ellis was telling us this afternoon that that piano's gonna be played -- tuned or not," Murphy said.
First to test it was McCallum, who played a moving arrangement of Great Is Thy Faithfulness. Next was Reppard Stone, professor, pianist, writer and a fixture of the Baltimore music scene.
"Today is my anniversary," he told his audience. "I've been married for 46 years. So I'm going to play 'You Don't Know What Love Is.' "
Stone was followed by Justin Thomas, one of several musicians at the party who had performed with Lionel Hampton. What made Justin a standout in this crowd, however, was his youth. Known principally for his talent on the vibraphones and steel pans, the 15-year-old Baltimore School for the Arts student pulled off a classy performance of "Memories of You," one of Eubie Blake's signature pieces.
"See how politically correct some of these youngsters are?" Murphy teased.
While the gallery filled with music born in the old days, guests posed for pictures with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It took a while to realize that something was missing.
"Isn't anyone going to sing?" asked Louisa Lara Gross, pulling out her music. This vocalist's star began orbiting in the 1940s, courtesy of Hampton. Born and raised in South Baltimore, 16-year-old Louisa Lara had marched right over to the Royal when she heard the musician was holding a singing contest for his band. Although she beat out everyone else, she spent only a month on the road with Hampton before child services people in Boston protested her traveling without a chaperone. So she went home, but didn't stop performing. She eventually toured with the Cats and the Fiddles, and Three Bees and A Honey, doing the club circuit in Pennsylvania, appearing in the Caribbean, playing the big clubs in Miami.
'Other nights like this'
Almost 50 years later, she still knew how to seize an audience.
"There will be many other nights like this," she began singing as folks sighed appreciatively. "And I'll be standing here with someone new. There will be other songs to sing, another fall, another spring -- but there will never be another you."
During the applause that followed, a woman with a camera approached the makeshift stage.
"I just want to take a picture of Ellis's piano," Jacqueline Owings told her husband, James. James Owings played bass drum for one season under the legendary W. Llewellyn Wilson in the city's Colored Symphony Orchestra. In the 1930s and '40s, the orchestra often performed on Sunday evenings at Douglass High School, then at Carey and Baker streets.
The Owingses sang with the Choral Club, the Morris Queen Chorale and the Baltimore Chapel Choir.
"Our grandson Tamir is also a musician," Jacqueline Owings said. "Have you heard of the group Dru Hill? They're from Baltimore, too. Our grandson sings and arranges for them. In the group, his name is Nokio."
Another subject for "Sounds and Stories" perhaps? There were "miles and miles of stories and sounds" left to capture, Schaaf said.
Musician Russ Moss, a vocalist with Annapolis Junction and a cameraman for WJZ-TV, was reluctant to leave. As the photographer who created all of the show's contemporary portraits, he longed to learn more about what knitted the community together.
"To see this many musicians from so many different periods, to hear all the different stories -- it was very potent. It was hard to stay on schedule when I would meet these folks to photograph them. They've still got it going on -- it was wild. And wonderful," he added.
The fiftysomething musician made his way over to Doug MacArthur and Pigmeat Garner, who were catching up with other members of "The 80s Club."
"When I grow up," he told them, "I want to be like you."
What: "Sounds and Stories"
Where: Eubie Blake Cultural Center, 847 N. Howard St. Center
When: Through April
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Web site: www.peabody.jhu.edu / sas