Sometimes the best memories, the ones that last longest, are just snapshots, just moments in time, ticks of the clock, flashes of brilliance and even genius that seem ephemeral, and yet you never forget them. I had one such moment with Ethel Ennis, and the sad news of the Baltimore jazz singer’s death this week sent me digging through an old armoire for a VHS tape.
This goes back 20 years, when I moonlighted as host of a live, weekly talk-variety show on WMAR-TV. In December 1998, we had the ambitious idea of putting on a holiday special in front of about 300 people in the Meyerhoff Auditorium at the Baltimore Museum of Art. We were in the fourth season of “Rodricks For Breakfast,” and staging a big, two-hour telecast, on location, with music and celebrity guests, was a challenge. But we pulled it off without sending anyone to the emergency room.
We had a big band and swing dancers, a player from the Orioles (Mike Bordick), two zany morning crews from local radio, the great jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and the RFB regulars, including Turkey Joe Trabert, who gave the show its Baltimore sensibilities and made it so much fun. When the producer of the show, George Stover, announced that we had booked Ethel Ennis, I knew we had a genuine headliner and the potential for something memorable. Our show would finally have some class, too.
Ethel smiled as she stepped onto the stage and sat behind a superb grand piano, her movements confident and classy. She wore a dark green blouse, black pants and stunning heels. Her younger brother, Andy, wore a double-breasted suit, a saxophone strapped around his neck.
Ethel started on the piano, establishing the tempo for what turned out to be one of the most amazing mashups of Christmas songs I had ever heard. Andy, a veteran of the Ray Charles Band and once its leader, sent the familiar melody from “Little Drummer Boy” into the air, but don’t let that throw you off. In artful jazzy style, that annoying song sounded new and perfect in the moment. And then Ethel started singing, “Go Tell It On the Mountain” over Andy’s “Little Drummer Boy,” and between the two of them there was sweet magic.
I don’t know if they had rehearsed the combination much, if at all; it had the feel of improvisation and polish at the same time.
When Ethel and Andy finished, the audience erupted in sustained applause. I don’t know if anyone there had ever heard them before. I don’t know if Baltimore had ever really appreciated the unique talent of Ethel Ennis, the way she could make an old song new and make it her own, but 350 of us did that day. The performance lasted maybe four minutes, but it remains a vivid, happy memory from more than 40 years in my adopted hometown.
Monday night, I found the VHS recording of the Christmas show at the bottom of the old armoire. I coaxed my VCR from its retirement in the basement and connected it to the smart TV. Though the video images were a little blurred, Ethel’s voice was clear, strong and full of joy — “Go tell it on the mountain/ Over the hills and everywhere/ Go tell it on the mountain/ Our Jesus Christ is born” — and I felt again lucky to have had that experience, to have been there for those few minutes, 20 years ago, when Ethel and Andy made such sweet magic with their music.