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Unearthing legendary Baltimore jazz performances


Two blocks north of Baltimore's Penn Station, there's a movie house now known as the Charles Theater.


SUMMERS: In a previous era, this building housed a venue called the Famous Ballroom.


FOWLER: There were plastic stars and plastic moons and plastic clouds in the ceiling. There was canopy that looked like a circus tent. It was a dance hall.

SUMMERS: From the mid-1960s into the early '80s, nearly every Sunday from 5 p.m. onward, the Famous Ballroom was reserved for concerts put on by Baltimore's Left Bank Jazz Society. These were major shows. They brought in Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

FOWLER: We would do Art Blakey one week, Count Basie the following week, Horace Silver the next week, Lee Morgan...

SUMMERS: And in the lobby, I met John Fowler, a charter member of the Left Bank Jazz Society.

FOWLER: I'm not a mathematician, but that's somewhere around 700 concerts.

SUMMERS: They got so many big-time artists to come to Baltimore because, well, for one, it was very convenient by train. The Left Bank also insisted the artists got paid for their work on time.

FOWLER: One of the things that we prided ourselves on - nobody ever left Baltimore without their money.

SUMMERS: And to hear John Fowler tell it, the vibe was unmatched. There were about a hundred tables set out. Sometimes families brought entire Sunday dinners.

FOWLER: Fried chicken, crab cakes, homemade potato salad, fifths of liquor open. You could bring everything with you. We had a lady who sold baked goods, cake, pies, cookies, all of that. We sold beer, potato chips and pretzels.

SUMMERS: That helped bring in an audience that was both young and old, Black and white, unusually diverse for its time.

FOWLER: They're jazz fans. We don't give a damn. You know, they could be green. As long as you got the price of admission, we don't care.

SUMMERS: A diverse and discerning audience.

FOWLER: Gimmicks didn't work in Baltimore. You had to play. When you got a standing ovation in the ballroom, you have really played your heart out.

SUMMERS: For the volunteers of the Left Bank Jazz Society, that was enough motivation to keep promoting shows in Baltimore for about 40 years in total. Some happened at other venues, but nothing was quite like a Sunday at the Famous Ballroom.

FOWLER: And just to know that there are 800 people in here who are having the time of their life, there's five guys on the stage who are playing some of the best music in the history of the world and the fact that you had a small part in helping that to happen.


SUMMERS: The thing is a lot of those concerts were recorded, mostly for the private archives of the Left Bank and for the artists themselves. Until a few years ago, only a handful of them were released as commercial albums by record labels. But hardcore jazz fans knew the tapes were there, and one of those fans is a record producer who grew up less than an hour away from Baltimore in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

ZEV FELDMAN: It's truly historic, an amazing story.

SUMMERS: Zev Feldman has made a career out of finding archival records of jazz greats. For him, the raw material can't just be good. It has to be great.

FELDMAN: Just like fire on gasoline, I leap out of bed in the morning. I'm constantly researching with archives all around the world, trying to find this special recording - not just any recording but something that's really meaningful.

SUMMERS: Feldman makes the greatest of his finds into deluxe limited-edition albums. He's done this for over a decade with a number of record labels and has already put out three recordings from the Left Bank archives. This year he's helped produce three more albums, out today on CD and tomorrow on vinyl for Record Store Day. And each was recorded, at least in part, at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore.

FELDMAN: We're unearthing history here...

FOWLER: And he loves it.


SUMMERS: Feldman, Fowler and I sat down feet away from where these iconic shows used to happen to talk about these new releases - first up, a recording of the legendary saxophonist Sonny Stitt from the fall of 1973.


FELDMAN: This is a really remarkable tape. Sonny Stitt was a pioneer, one of the most amazing gunslingers, if you will, in jazz with dexterity and the way he played. And he was a master.


FELDMAN: Sonny Stitt being a local artist, for his children, the Left Bank performances were really important. And this was the chance that they would have an opportunity to go see their father play, so it'd become a family outing. So these shows are really special, and it's a really testament of the genius of Sonny Stitt.

FOWLER: We booked him on nine different occasions.

SUMMERS: Nine different occasions.




SUMMERS: So what do you remember about Sonny Stitt as a performer as someone who was in those spaces?

FOWLER: Unmatchable. When he came to town, every local horn player in the city showed up. They all stood at the back of the ballroom listening to the master. In Baltimore, if you say Sonny Stitt, you got a packed audience.


SUMMERS: Feldmann takes another newly pressed LP out of his bag, a recording of the organist Shirley Scott and her band from 1972.


FELDMAN: This is a tour de force performance from one of the pioneers of soul jazz, if you want to call it that. She was a legendary organ player. This performance from 1972 captures her live. I think Shirley Scott is one of the greats. I don't think we get a chance to talk about her as much. So I feel like...

SUMMERS: Why do you think that is, though? Why do you think that someone like a Shirley Scott is not as well-known?

FOWLER: Women caught hell back in the day, especially in jazz. And if you stood up for yourself, you know, you got that bad reputation as being hard to deal with. You could be as good on your instrument as the next guy, but because he was a man, he got better treatment than you got.


SUMMERS: The third recording that's coming out was made in the mid-'60s, when pianist Walter Bishop Jr. came to Baltimore. We all talked about how he, too, was an undersung master from the bebop era.


SUMMERS: Really, we talked about a lot of the giants who came through this lobby. There were many, many stories. It was only after that that John Fowler got up and pointed out where exactly the Famous Ballroom used to be.

FOWLER: The ceiling of this building would have been the flooring of the ballroom.

SUMMERS: So the ballroom would have been all the way up there...


SUMMERS: ...Above the ceiling that we are seeing today.



FOWLER: And slightly to the left.

SUMMERS: Fowler told me he'd only been here one other times since the early '80s, when the Famous Ballroom fell into disrepair. The high ceilings, movie posters and popcorn machines that we saw gave no hint of the legendary Left Bank concerts that once happened here. And this part of Baltimore city has changed, too.

FOWLER: It's great to be here, but there's nothing here that would kick in that memory other than the address 1717 North Charles Street. I mean, it's completely - there was no crepe restaurant next door to the ballroom when we had the concerts. So there's very little other than the fact that I know what happened upstairs.


SUMMERS: John Fowler knows what happened upstairs. He was there. He hopes that as these recordings are released, more people will be able to experience what happened here, too.



The new albums are from Sonny Stitt, Shirley Scott and Walter Bishop Jr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.