New book documents Charm City's extensive jazz history
Published: September 15, 2010
A few Music at the Crossroads authors talk about the book
See baltimorebookfestival.com for details.
Baltimore’s jazz contributions might have been somewhat eclipsed by more recent music phenomena, such as its 1980s punk or today’s burgeoning anything-goes warehouse scene. Once upon a time, though, Charm City was a big jazz hotspot, serving as home base for artists such as Billie Holiday and Chick Webb and organizations such as the Left Bank Jazz Society. In order to pay tribute to the city’s rich jazz history, a group of students at Loyola University recently published Music at the Crossroads: Lives and Legacies of Baltimore Jazz, the first comprehensive collection of essays to date that describe and analyze the city’s jazz contributions.
Published by the Loyola’s nonprofit Apprentice House publishing company (“University Press,” Books, Jan. 9, 2008), the 324-page book covers legends such as Webb, Holiday, and Eubie Blake, as well as lesser-known artists such as Hank Levy and Gary Bartz. It also delves into the city’s contemporary community, anchored by organizations such as the Baltimore Jazz Alliance (BJA).
Frank Graziano, a 2010 Loyola graduate, got the idea for Crossroads during his junior year in 2009, while taking a class on book publishing. “I had to come up with an idea for a publishable project, and plan how it was going to go, and how it was going to be written,” he says in a phone interview. “I was starting to listen to jazz at the time, and I wanted to see if there was a jazz book out there.”
Graziano wanted to focus his research regionally, but while he found a wealth of information on other music movements in Baltimore, there were no comprehensive books focusing explicitly on the city’s jazz history. Graziano turned to Mark Osteen, a Loyola English professor who taught a class on jazz history and literature. Osteen, who is also the BJA president, offered to help Graziano write a book proposal, and after some research and organization, both were ready to take the initial class assignment past the confines of the semester.
“We decided after the class ended that since we had this whole project lined up, we might as well go for it in real life,” Graziano says.
Osteen appealed to the University’s Center of Humanities for a grant, and then constructed a class in the English Department for those who were interested in helping research, edit, and assemble an analytical and historical account of Baltimore’s jazz heritage as part of Loyola’s Aperio Series, a nonprofit program that publishes humanities-related texts edited by its students. He began to seek out students he thought could handle the task.
“I had to find students who could find material on their own, who were competent writers, and were not afraid of critiquing each other,” Osteen says. “We needed people who would be responsible to their teammates.”
Osteen also started looking for local writers and musicians that might help add to Crossroads, such as jazz artists Liz Fixsen, a part-time Loyola instructor, and Bob Jacobson, the BJA vice president. He also reached out to City Paper contributors Geoffrey Himes and Mary K. Zajac, each of whom provided chapters.
“Mary was one of my students at Loyola 20 years ago,” Osteen says. “I knew that she’d been writing for Style magazine and was interested in music. I knew about Geoffrey from City Paper, and found out he lived in Baltimore. They’re good writers, and they all had some connection to me.”
Eventually, Osteen recruited eight students—in addition to the professional writers—to write individual chapters on various aspects of Baltimore jazz, as well as to edit each other’s work. They also helped with layout and found historical photographs to bolster the written information.
Once the student writers were assembled, they set about researching their respective subjects, mostly turning to primary sources for information. They sifted through archives at the Maryland Historical Society and spoke to contacts garnered through Osteen’s connection to the BJA. Graziano, who focused on the tragic history of jazz and swing drummer Webb, took advantage of local resources and newspaper records at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, turning to jazz magazines DownBeat and the now-defunct Metronome to hunt down information.
Locals with information about and connections to the city’s jazz scene, both contemporary and historical, offered whatever help they could when they heard about Graziano and Osteen’s project. “People would approach us with whatever primary sources they had,” Graziano says. “One woman had playbills left over from the Left Bank.”
Since many of the students involved had had little exposure to Baltimore’s jazz community prior to taking part in the project, the research they did allowed them to delve into an unfamiliar part of the city’s cultural history.
“Students compartmentalize Baltimore and only go to certain places they know and are comfortable with, like the Inner Harbor, but you actually find out more about a city by doing a project like this,” says Andrew Zaleski, a Loyola undergraduate who researched and wrote his chapter on the city’s contemporary jazz community, leading him to spend time at staples such as Caton Castle and the Wine Cellar. “It allowed me to explore places in the city that I’d never been to.”
Osteen hopes that books like Crossroads will call more attention to jazz’s struggling contemporary life, which has suffered difficulty in securing venues and in reaching out to younger fans in recent years. “I don’t have any illusions, but [Crossroads] does give us an anchor,” he says. “The jazz community is sort of fragmented, and we’re trying to create better communication among us. I think the chapter on the contemporary scene is kind of a call to unity. We can’t just look at the past all the time—we need to focus on the music outside of museums.”
Zaleski says that while it will probably be difficult to restore Baltimore jazz to the same prominence it enjoyed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he is optimistic that it will continue to play a substantial role in the city’s cultural identity. “Jazz isn’t the predominant music anymore,” Zaleski says. “But there are more younger jazz musicians in Baltimore now, and Baltimore is historically a jazz city, so I don’t think that it’ll go extinct.”