One might not expect a jazz club to be across the road from a Hilton Supermarket, surrounded by working-class houses on the edge of U.S. Route 40, to the west of downtown. But tucked away on South Caton Avenue in Southwest Baltimore is the Caton Castle, where owner Ronald Scott has been booking jazz acts for 23 years.
The first show he staged was a Sunday night performance in December 1990, when vocalist Earlene Reed and the Nevitta Ruddy Trio took to a slight wooden stage in the back of the club, just in front of a wall paneled with square mirrors. The ticket price then was a suggested donation of three bucks and food was free-quite a contrast with today's $10 cover and priced menu items, like chicken wings and fish sandwiches. Shows now are generally on Saturday nights, unless "special" acts, as Scott calls them, are available only on Sunday.
A tall, burly, and bespectacled black man, Scott has seen many acts come to perform at the Castle, the shorthand he often uses to describe his own venue. He's cataloged just a portion of that history to the right of the open-table seating in front of the stage, on a wall where portraits of musicians are displayed: singer Nikki Cooper; legendary area saxophonist Mickey Fields, who passed away in the mid-1990s; drummer Robert Shahid, who continues to perform regularly throughout Baltimore.
Scott, 68, was born and raised in Southwest Baltimore, "around Fremont Street." He's never played an instrument, but a paralyzed friend got him into jazz around age 15. Since his friend was confined to a wheelchair, Scott and buddies would go to his house, where they'd spend their time spinning records of "Miles, Cannonball, McCoy." Scott unconsciously omits the surnames, like he knows Davis, Adderley, and Tyner well, a trait perhaps unsurprising for a person with some 400 jazz albums at home.
He's always lived in Baltimore, which means he knew the city when certain jazz clubs were either still open or more popular. There was Ethel's Place, across from the Meyerhoff, where vocalist Ethel Ennis booked shows before it closed. The Short Stop was another club Scott visited from time to time. Though the idea had already been planted in his mind, what convinced him to open his own jazz club-he was working as a mechanic for Baltimore City Public Schools in 1990, a job from which he retired in 2003-were the nights he spent at the New Haven Lounge in North Baltimore.
"I really liked the atmosphere," says Scott. "Music in a club atmosphere, that's what really inspired me."
That inspiration prompted Scott and a partner to purchase Sonny's Showcase Lounge in 1990. Several months of rehabbing went into the creation of what is today the Caton Castle: an L-shaped bar runs along the back wall; round tables with three to five chairs each take up space right up to the rectangular wooden dancefloor just in front of the stage; a marquee sign is latched to the ceiling just above, imploring patrons to keep talking to a minimum during sets.
Though the Castle has all the proper accoutrements to entertain patrons, the marketability of jazz is no longer what it once was, when Pennsylvania Avenue was the home of joints like Club Casino and the Cotton Club, and national acts the caliber of Dizzy Gillespie made Baltimore a regular stop en route to performances in Washington, D.C. Such venues as An die Musik, Phaze 10, and Cat's Eye Pub still stage and promote jazz, but the music's declining popularity is undeniable.
"When some people hear the word jazz, it might turn them off," laments Scott. "Getting the people to come out to support it? That's the most difficult part."
Of course, the Castle's location, and the relative danger, can be a bit off-putting-three doors outfitted with buzzer-lock systems stand between the parking lot and the venue's concert hall. At the New Haven Lounge, the club that served as Scott's model when designing his own place, a city councilman was killed during a robbery just five years ago.
For Scott, however, it's more a question of economics. He readily admits that without his packaged goods business immediately adjacent to the club, the Caton Castle would be no more.
"When I didn't have a cover, it would be packed," Scott says. "But it's hard to pay for the music by selling food and alcohol. I started back again with a cover charge."
Still, Scott's 23 years have been musically fruitful, if not always financially profitable. The dozen or so photographs hanging up inside barely scrape the surface of the talent he has played host to. Tenor saxophonist Andy Ennis-Ethel's brother and a man whom fellow saxophonist Brad Collins calls the "Dean of Baltimore Jazz"-has played at the Castle, as well as saxophonist Gary Bartz. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut has come through, sitting in during other bands' sets. Young vibes phenom Warren Wolf has graced the stage. So, too, have pianist Lafayette Gilchrist and bassist Amy Shook, most recently in January, when they performed as part of Gregory Thompkins' Jazz Explosion band.
And people from all over the city, he says, including Camay Murphy, daughter of the late jazz vocalist Cab Calloway, continue to show up for the music.
"It's jazz. It's jazz," muses a somewhat incredulous Scott on a Monday afternoon in February.
He can't believe his luck, it seems, having kept open a jazz club for more than 20 years in an age of rock, rap, and downloadable tunes. Sold-out shows don't happen often. But Ron Scott still manages to get butts in the seats.