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Jazzing up Baltimore, literally

Ultrafaux will play this weekend's first Charm City Django Jazz Fest at Creative Alliance. Guitarists Michael Joseph Harris and Sam Arefin perform and talk about the influence of Django Reinhardt and how he created jazz guitar. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)

If someone were to ask you what you know about jazz music in Baltimore, I'm guessing that you might name some famous performers whose heyday was 50 to 90 years ago: Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Ethel Ennis. If asked about great places to hear jazz, you might — if you had an answer at all — name extinct venues from the second half of the 20th century: Left Bank Jazz Society at Charles Street's Famous Ballroom, some of the many clubs along Pennsylvania Avenue, the Sportsmen's Lounge in Gwynn Oak or The Bandstand in Fell's Point.

But Baltimore jazz is not just a thing of the past; in fact, it may be undergoing a resurgence. Baltimore today boasts a huge pool of jazz talent, several colleges and universities where jazz is taught, and more jam sessions than this area has seen in years. Baltimore City alone has more than 30 venues where jazz may be heard, and there are more in the surrounding suburbs.

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Every month I receive DownBeat magazine. Started in 1933, it remains the nation's largest-circulation periodical focusing on jazz. Rarely a month goes by that some Baltimore jazz musician doesn't appear in the publication's articles or album reviews. The magazine's 64th annual Critics Poll appears in this month's issue, and, as usual, Baltimore-related artists make a significant showing.

Peabody Conservatory faculty member Michael Formanek's album "The Distance" was chosen as the number nine jazz album of the year; Mr. Formanek was also voted one of the best bass players of the year. Two musicians who live in Baltimore — vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and clarinetist Todd Marcus — were both chosen as among the best on their respective instruments; Mr. Wolf also placed on the list of arrangers, and Mr. Marcus was voted a "rising star" on both clarinet and bass clarinet. And, as always, musicians who came up in Baltimore, honed their skills here, then left for New York or elsewhere, were also critics' choices, among them pianist Cyrus Chestnut, saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and his fellow Towson State University alumnus, bassist Drew Gress. Earlier this year An die Musik, the concert hall in Baltimore City's Mt. Vernon neighborhood, was also listed by DownBeat as one of the 193 best jazz venues in the world.

Now don't get me wrong; Baltimore was never a major city for jazz, even during the '60s and early '70s when one could make a living here strictly as a performer. At most of the dozens of venues that remain, live music is incidental — often background for dining or drinking. Very few are jazz clubs. However, there are a rising number of venues devoted to jazz listening. Among the stand-outs are the Caton Castle, An die Musik and Jazzway 6004 and three series from the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society, Jazz at the Johns Hopkins Club, and the Baltimore Museum of Arts' summer Jazz in the Sculpture Garden.

Baltimore Jazz Alliance arose 13 years ago to address the disparity between Baltimore's large number of talented jazz musicians and both the public's lack of knowledge about where to hear jazz and the relative lack of opportunities for jazz players. Among BJA's accomplishments since 2003 have been two compilation albums of Baltimore-area bands, a book of compositions by Baltimore jazz composers, and the release, with Left Bank Jazz Society, of the live album Left Bank '66, featuring local saxophonist Mickey Fields and guitarist Walt Namuth. BJA has also sponsored two composition contests and its own big band, focused on pieces by Maryland composers and arrangers. BJA also works on developing new audiences with its Jazz for Kids program.

BJA's next step in promoting Baltimore jazz, in partnership with Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, is Baltimore Jazz Fest, the first free, all-day, all-jazz festival the city has seen in decades. On Saturday, Oct. 1, in Druid Hill Park, seven local acts will provide great jazz in a wide variety of styles. The day will start at noon with its youngest players, Dunbar Jazz Ensemble, and end in the evening with its most seasoned, "The Baltimore Legends."

I hope to see you there.

Bob Jacobson plays saxophone and clarinet, writes and teaches about jazz, and is a board member of Baltimore Jazz Alliance. His email is bobboj@aol.com.

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