Two new albums document Baltimore's storied jazz history

If, when you walk into the lobby of the Charles Theatre, you look up at the overhead balcony and the wall shielding the projection booth, you're looking at what was once the Famous Ballroom, one of the greatest venues in jazz history.

When the hard-bop pianist Horace Silver played there in the early '70s, he told the crowd, "Everybody talks about what a great place Europe is for jazz; well, this is the Europe of America."

It was hard to argue with him if you looked up front at the red-and-white awning over the big-band-sized stage, overhead at the dark-blue ceiling painted with billowing clouds and twinkling stars, behind you at the large portraits of jazz greats lining the walls, left at the soul-food kitchen cooking up plates of yams, greens, and fried chicken, or around your circular banquet table at the faces-all ages, races, and genders-staring intently at Silver's great band, as if daring him to surprise them.

Musicians responded to that kind of attention and expectation with performances that exceeded what they might play at Blues Alley or the Blue Note, clubs known for short sets and jaded audiences. The Baltimore listeners demanded a lot. Once when Freddie Hubbard explained that he was starting an hour late because he had to wait for his suit to be cleaned so he would "look good," a voice from the seats shouted, "We don't care 'bout that; we wanna hear you play." Hubbard, somewhat abashed, responded with some of his fieriest music.

The Left Bank Jazz Society, the nonprofit group that ran the Famous Ballroom's 5 p.m. Sunday shows from 1967 through 1985, had excellent taste, bringing in the likes of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Charles Lloyd, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Chet Baker, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Left Bank co-founder Benny Kearse once pulled me aside before an Art Blakey show in 1982 and said, "Check out this 21-year-old trumpeter. His name is Wynton Marsalis and he sounds just like Lee Morgan."

Many of those shows were recorded by Left Bank's other co-founder, Vernon Welsh, and two more of those gems were released recently. In September, Uptown Records put out Baltimore 1969, a show by the Duke Pearson Big Band when it included horn players like Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, Julian Priester, Frank Foster, and Lew Tabackin. And in November, the Baltimore Jazz Alliance released Left Bank '66, a show by the Walter Namuth Quintet featuring Mickey Fields.

The latter disc, even though it was recorded at the Madison Club-the Left Bank's former home at the corner of Madison and Chester streets in East Baltimore-is especially welcome. It nearly doubles the number of official recordings we have from Fields, the shadowy legend of Baltimore music, a small man with a giant tenor-sax sound whose live shows in the '60s and '70s are still talked about with head-shaking awe by those who heard them.

I was too young to have heard him in 1966, but many was the time I heard the smiling musician with the pencil-thin mustache climb up on a hometown stage and outplay out-of-towners such as Sonny Stitt. Fields never went out of town much himself and rarely recorded, so it's difficult for his advocates to plead his case to those too young or too far from Baltimore to have heard him. Left Bank '66 provides much-needed evidence for his importance.

On the opening track, for example, Fields firmly establishes the melody of Sam Jones' "Unit 7," and then immediately jumps off on a tangent, a solo that displays his warm tone, immense range and vocal-like phrasing even through a blazing run of eighth notes. Far more impressive than his technical command, though, is the strong personality that comes through the horn, using echoes of the original tune to project the giddiness of a short, shy man finally getting to have his say.

On and on the solo goes, never repeating itself, never lagging in inspiration, pulling one white rabbit after another out of the magic hat for eight full minutes. Finally Fields turns things over to Namuth, the guitar-playing bandleader, for his own respectable solo. Bassist Phil Harris, drummer Purnell Rice, and pianist Claude Hubbard sustain the pell-mell momentum throughout. But it's Fields' solo that sounds astonishingly original 48 years later.

The version of Thelonious Monk's "Well, You Needn't" is undermined by Welsh's shaky audio and Fields' intonation problems, but the 15-minute version of Miles Davis' "Pfrancing" is a marvel. Fields' seven-minute solo begins soulfully bluesy but soon introduces advanced harmonies in flurries of 16th notes and sudden interval leaps; before long, he's seasoning his robust tunefulness with dashes of dissonance. His seven-minute solo on Benny Golson's "Stablemates" seems to sing and shimmy even as it races along. If you care at all about the history of Baltimore music or the history of the jazz saxophone, this is a recording you need to hear.

Atlanta's Duke Pearson first made his name as a pianist, composer, and arranger for the trumpeter Donald Byrd in the early '60s. Blue Note Records released Introducing Duke Pearson's Big Band in 1968 and the same band's Now Hear This in 1969. To support the latter release, Pearson brought the 16-piece ensemble, including special guest Byrd, to the Famous Ballroom on April 27, 1969. Though the band did play Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night," the book was forward-leaning, with compositions by such modernists as Chick Corea, Randy Weston, and Pearson himself.

Byrd is showcased on the modal "Eldorado," as is Pepper Adams on the Porter standard. Half of the eight tunes on Baltimore 1969 weren't included on either Blue Note album and thus document some of Pearson's imaginative arrangements for the first time. This might well be the big band's best recording, if only because the Famous Ballroom's enthusiastic crowd is egging the ensemble on.

In 2000 it seemed as if the Left Bank tapes would be coming out in a steady stream. Producer Joel Dorn, who had worked with everyone from Keith Jarrett and Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Roberta Flack and Asleep at the Wheel, launched his own record company, Label M, to release live recordings from the Left Bank Jazz Society. The company released impressive tapes from Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, and Cedar Walton, and promised dozens more. But the releases never recouped their costs; Dorn died in 2007, and the flow of releases dried up.

The truth of the matter is that releasing vintage live-jazz recordings, no matter how excellent the music, is a dismal economic venture unless Miles Davis or John Coltrane is involved. That's why we have to rely on a nonprofit organization, such as the Baltimore Jazz Alliance, or a labor of love, such as Uptown Records (and I highly recommend Uptown's spectacular album, Illinois Jacquet , Leo Parker, Toronto 1947), to release such material. We're all the richer because they have.

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