Arts & Entertainment
Todd Marcus intertwines jazz and community organizing in Sandtown
Published: July 20, 2011
The Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra performs in concert at the Harris-Marcus Center
July 23 at 8 p.m. The group also conducts a free music clinic at 4 p.m.
For more information visit jubileeartsbaltimore.org
Todd Marcus leads two different lives. By day he’s a community developer in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood. By night he’s a jazz clarinetist who works as both a sideman and the leader of his own quartet and nonet. Most of the time he keeps those two lives separate, but on rare occasions they intersect in ways that suggest that jazz can be an invaluable tool in community building and that bringing people together is a crucial part of the jazz mission.
One of those occasions is this Saturday, when the nine-piece Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra performs at the Harris-Marcus Center on the corner of Presstman Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of Sandtown. The show showcases some of the new Middle Eastern-tinged compositions that the Egyptian-American Marcus has written for the band, but it’s notable for bringing jazz back to a neighborhood that was once famous for it.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Marcus gave a walking tour of the area. As the 35-year-old organizer in the crew cut, trim goatee, and orange T-shirt walked up Pennsylvania Avenue, neighbors kept shouting, “Hey, Mr. Todd,” and coming up to him with news about the area. At Bloom Street, the entire side of a three-story building was covered by a black-and-gold mural that depicted the strip’s glory days. There were the marquees of the Royal Theatre and the Sphinx Club, local venues where everyone from Solomon Burke to Miles Davis played. There were portraits of singer Billie Holiday, disc jockey Fat Daddy, and comedian Redd Foxx, all regular fixtures on the strip.
“The legacy of Pennsylvania Avenue is places like the Royal and the Sphinx Club, where a lot of my heroes like Coltrane, Miles, and Dizzy played,” Marcus says. “In our community, especially among the older generation, there’s a great nostalgia for that era. The mission of our nonprofit is to help the community meet its unmet needs—not just its economic and health needs but also its emotional and spiritual needs. That’s why we’re involved in the arts as well as recovery from addiction. As a resident of this neighborhood, I want it to be livable. It’s a drag when you have to get in your car or on the bus to go see music or a movie or anything. We’re like anyone else—we’d like to have those things here.”
Half a block away was the burnt-out shell of the Sphinx Club, a wrought-iron s in the grill the only sign of its former glory. Nearby abandoned rowhouses had plywood in the windows. Several blocks to the south, the Royal Theatre had been razed to the ground. There were no music venues and few businesses of any kind on a strip that had once been the center of Baltimore’s African-American cultural life.
But at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Presstman, there were signs of revival. On the southeast corner stands the Harris-Marcus Center, a former furniture store turned into the modernized home for Jubilee Arts, which offers dance, writing, and visual-arts classes for local residents. In a garden next door stand sculptures of a mule and a dog, students’ creations. On the southwest corner stands Martha’s Place, a brick home renovated into a center for recovering female addicts. Next door is a meditation garden with a lily-pad pond and a mosaic mural of a woman with uplifted arms. On the northeast corner are four renovated rowhouses that serve as Martha’s Place’s long-term housing. Next to them is another garden, planted with birch trees and backed by a forest-themed mural. On the northwest corner is a city park that has been cleaned up and replanted by the neighbors, who have successfully lobbied the city to turn the fountain back on.
When Marcus first saw this intersection in 1996, it was an open-air drug market, surrounded by dilapidated houses. He was a Loyola College student volunteering for the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, and he was impressed by the commitment of several locals to turn their neighborhood around. He was most impressed by Elder C.W. Harris, a local pastor who had just started the Newborn Holistic Ministries. Marcus quickly became a volunteer for the nonprofit organization and eventually dropped out of college to serve as a staff member for Newborn. Today everything you see at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Presstman—Jubilee Arts, Martha’s Place, the three gardens, the rejuvenated fountain—is a Newborn project.
It was also in 1996 that Marcus got serious about jazz. He had been a competition-winning classical clarinetist at his high school in suburban New Jersey, but it wasn’t until a fellow Loyola student started playing jazz records for him that Marcus fell in love with the genre. And when someone played him Eric Dolphy’s Outward Bound, which features the leader on bass clarinet, it was all over. Marcus got himself a bass clarinet and put his classical days behind him.
“Jazz just grabbed me,” he says. “I loved the rhythm and the harmony. I said, ‘This is what I’ve been searching for.’ And when I heard Dolphy on bass clarinet, I said, ‘This instrument is very cool, there are a lot of possibilities here that haven’t been explored.’ The bass clarinet has such a soft, round tone that it’s hard to cut through the louder, faster tunes, and there were times when I was tempted to pick up the saxophone. But I have a stubborn streak. I wanted to prove I could do it. I wanted to prove the bass clarinet can be used not just in avant-garde situations and not just on slow numbers but also on mainstream harmonies and uptempo rhythms. I don’t think there’s any precedent for what I’m doing.”
Marcus realized he was a latecomer to jazz and would have to work extra hard to catch up. So that’s what he did. He had the advantage of good classical technique on clarinet, but he started practicing long hours at night after his day job. He hung out at jam sessions and accepted whatever sideman jobs came his way. Before long he formed his jazz orchestra to play all the thick, counterpointed harmonies he was writing. That scratched his composing and arranging itch, but he also had a soloing itch, so he formed a quartet as well. By 2006 he felt he had caught up and released his debut album, the jazz orchestra’s In Pursuit of the 9th Man.
“I’ve always been struck by the power of larger ensembles, but I didn’t want a big band because a 14- or 16-piece group can be unwieldy,” he says. “That’s why I went with a nonet, because with nine musicians you have that power but you still have a lot of flexibility. Writing for a big band instead of a combo is like writing a novel instead of a short story. You have more opportunity for exposition and development.”
Currently, however, Marcus is working on his first quartet album, which will be released next spring. There will actually be two quartets on the disc: one featuring Marcus, bassist Eric Wheeler, drummer Eric Kennedy, and pianist Xavier Davis (with guest clarinetist Don Byron) and the other featuring Marcus, Wheeler, drummer Warren Wolf, and pianist George Colligan. All but Davis are Maryland musicians, though Wolf and Colligan have national reputations. The Michigan-born, New York-based Davis (an alumnus of the Betty Carter Trio) is just one example of the collaborations Marcus has forged with out-of-town players.
Philadelphia pianist Orrin Evans, for example, has played in Marcus’ gigs and Marcus plays a major role on Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, one of the year’s best jazz albums. Marcus composed, arranged, and soloed on the seven-minute tune “Inheritance” and arranged Evans’ own composition, the 11-minute “Easy Now.” It’s no coincidence that Evans’ record, with its resounding bottom and dark, dense harmonies, so closely resembles the music of Marcus’ nonet. The like-minded collaborators are both pursuing a path that avoids the twin dangers of self-indulgent experimentation and formulaic tradition. And both men are committed to using music not just for aesthetic ends but also for social purposes.
“One of the powerful things about jazz was that even when this nation had legal segregation, jazz was a powerful force for bringing people together across racial lines,” Marcus says. “Though we don’t have legal segregation now, we are still quite divided as a society, so it pains me when I see the same separation in jazz—when you have all-black bands or all-white bands. I got interested in jazz of the ’50s and ’60s when the music was folded into political and social movements. I feel like my music is connected to my community work in a similar way.”
> Email Geoffrey Himes