'Pennsylvania Avenue Hustle,' off Todd Marcus' upcoming album, "On These Streets," an album powered by living and working in Sandtown-Winchester, is a manic tune that opens with foreboding cymbals and a running saxophone, and then dives into a frenzied, buoyant piano solo, soon sprinting, even faster, struggling against time.
Then, an abrupt hit and it's over—whatever the jazz version of dropping the mic is.
Another, 'On the Corner,' begins as an airy number, then effortlessly slips into a pounding drum solo, full of doom, heavy and raw in a way that approaches punk music—before Marcus' bass clarinet jumps, chops back in with a commanding tone, smooth and melodic, paving the way for a fluttering sax stanza that lets the air out.
The rest of "On These Streets" includes songs titled 'PTSD in the Hood' and 'Ground Zero at Penn and North' because for Marcus, a musician and community organizer who has been in West Baltimore for more than two decades, community is where it all begins.
Marcus plays the bass clarinet, which is tonally pretty similar to an alto saxophone, but with a deeper, more resonant sound that can really slice through other instruments. He holds it diagonally as he plays, the way saxophonists do, gently swerving his shoulders, rather than the penguin waddle that clarinetists often do, all in the hips.
"I felt like in my early phase, everything I was doing sounded kinda like bad Dixieland," he says in his office at the Harris-Marcus Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. But the music of Eric Dolphy, who often played the bass clarinet, got him off the bad Dixieland.
"There's not a lot of folks that are using the bass clarinet in modern style music," he says, and it sent him on a more exploratory, energetic, and political direction. "Blues for Tahrir Square," Marcus' last full-length release, dealt with his feelings as an Egyptian-American watching from afar the Arab Spring movement unfold in Cairo back in 2011.
Marcus is aware that it has become more popular for jazz and classical composers to theme their work around topical issues, seeking to present it as relevant for competitive grants and funding opportunities (he mentions a recent performance where the composer presented his piece as one about melting glaciers).
"It puts you at a disadvantage if you just want to write a good tune," he says, although he doesn't feel pressure to brand his jazz compositions a certain way—whether as social justice messaging, or as avant-garde and obscure—to court the tastes of grant-givers. The idea to write an album about his personal experiences in Sandtown was a long time coming.
Marcus came to Baltimore in 1994 to study political science at Loyola, but never saw himself going down the Washington D.C. insider path. His father, who emigrated from Egypt to New Jersey in 1962, was a history teacher, and Marcus was passionate about urban issues. He started volunteering on Saturdays with Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, renovating homes.
One day they didn't have any work for him, but a guy rolled up in a pickup truck and showed him a vacant, boarded-up building that he was repairing. Marcus shows me a picture of a dilapitated rowhome—"this is what it used to look like"—and then points across the street to a restored double rowhome building with a blue door called Martha's Place, which has operated since 2000 as a recovery program for women dealing with substance abuse and homelessness.
The man was Elder C.W. Harris, a pastor at the nearby Newborn Community of Faith Church, activist, and life-long resident of Sandtown-Winchester who famously sat on the roof of a building in Sandtown in 2016 for an entire weekend to try and encourage people to vote.
Marcus started working closely with Harris on weekends, and eventually decided to drop his political science studies.
"I felt strongly about ongoing racism in our country and that I wanted to be committed to healing on that front," he says. "And so I left school and moved into the neighborhood in January 1997."
Through AmeriCorps, Marcus was able to work full time in Sandtown, fixing up vacants and helping Harris open the recovery center. Harris taught him about the rich history of jazz music and African-American culture along Pennsylvania Avenue, where both Billie Holliday and Cab Calloway grew up and performed in venues like Sphinx Club, Club Tijuana, and most importantly, the Royal Theatre.
In 2013, Marcus also worked with Elder Harris and Newborn Church to open Strength to Love 2, an urban farm in Sandtown that employs ex-offenders.
"Coming out of incarceration, you've got all the cards stacked against you" Marcus says. "If you have a criminal record . . . folks won't hire [you]."
So Strength to Love 2 hires them, employing anywhere from four to eight part-time farmhands, many of whom are returning citizens.
Over the years Marcus has performed at local events, such as the Boundary Block Party and at St. Peter Claver Church across the street. The only venue on the Avenue that has survived is The Arch Social Club, which still hosts jazz jams on Thursday nights and sporadic other events. Historically, Marcus says, late night jam sessions were how jazz musicians worked out new ideas and created community.
Back in the late '90s, Marcus says his friend, drummer Eric Kennedy, brought him to the New Haven Lounge, a noted jazz joint in a strip mall by Morgan State.
"It's package goods in the front," he says, "and then you walk through into the back and there was a bar, and they would have national names that came on through."
There was also a dedicated weekly jam, and Marcus earned his chops here, rather than pursuing any formal music education in school. At home, he would listen to records and teach himself the tunes, learning music theory and harmony on his own—"the way music was traditionally learned and taught."
New Haven Lounge closed a few years back, but there's still Caton Castle in Southwest Baltimore, which Marcus says is "the last old-school style place in Baltimore dedicated to jazz."
And these days there is HomeSlyce, a pizza place and bar on Charles Street, in that strip with Cazbar and Mick O'Shea's where Mount Vernon reluctantly morphs into Downtown and where Marcus leads an open jazz jam every Wednesday. Anyone can sign up and sit in, and in between sets, Marcus stands up and reads off the personnel changes, baseball coach style.
"We're gonna have Ben on the drums, Juan on the bass," he reads—he's on a first name basis with most everyone there. The session fills up—at one point I count 10 people playing at once—but Marcus puts emphasis on extended soloing, what he calls the ability to "tell a musical story."
It's fairly crowded, especially for a weeknight in July. Each week, musicians pop in, some just back from the road, others en route from earlier gigs; college student-types and locals of all ages munch pizza and chat in the back; others listen and nod thoughtfully up front; passerby on the street stop and peek in, curious.
While a few musicians from "the neighborhood" and more from Baltimore School for the Arts (BSA) come through to the HomeSlyce jam, there aren't too many. It's "a byproduct," Marcus says, of the "decimation of city school music programs."
Earlier this month, however, two middle school kids go up, Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey. They're both saxophonists, and totally hold their own with the 30-something professional musicians on stage. Ebban takes a solo on to big applause. Her mother, Bernadine, proudly films it on her phone. They both go to Dundalk Middle School, they tell me, which doesn't have an orchestra or a music program really, but Bernadine takes them to classes at Peabody on Saturdays and lessons on Mondays—she's a "jazz mom" in Todd's words. Ephraim will attend BSA next year.
Marcus sits up front, zoned-in, bass clarinet upright in his lap.
"I call it my jazz community service," he says.
Then again, nearly everything Marcus does could be considered community service.
Todd Marcus Quintet plays a free public concert in Pennsylvania Triangle Park in Sandtown-Winchester on Aug. 18 at 6 p.m.