Jazz masters Ethel Ennis and Cyrus Chestnut reach across generational lines to share Baltimore sounds
Published: October 30, 2013
Cyrus Chestnut was still a student at Maryland’s North Harford High School when he first got the chance to play with Ethel Ennis. This was around 1980. Neither musician is quite sure of the date, but Chestnut does remember how excited he was to play with one of the state’s brightest jazz stars. By the late 1970s, Ennis was semi-retired but she had already sung with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman; recorded for RCA, Capitol, and Atlantic; and been publicly praised by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holiday. Now she was guest vocalist for Howard County’s Columbia Big Band, which featured the teenage prodigy on piano.
“At one point during the show,” Chestnut recalls, “she just started singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and I started playing behind her; for a few moments, it was just the two of us, and I thought that was so cool. Even now, three decades later, with our show coming up at An die Musik, I’m going, ‘Wow, I get to play with Ethel Ennis.’ She’s amazing. She can swing her you-know-what off. She has so much charisma, she can make a rock dance. She could have been one of those legends like Ella and Billie; instead she became this hidden treasure in Baltimore. I would hope that for these two nights, vocalists of all ages will bust the doors to get a master class in singing.”
When Chestnut and Ennis perform as an unaccompanied duo at An die Musik Friday and Saturday, it will be the first time they’ve played together since that early date in Columbia. They’ve sometimes been on the same bill, though never in the same band. But this month, as they’ve rehearsed at Ennis’ brick rowhouse near Mondawmin Mall, they’ve rediscovered a long-forgotten chemistry.
Relaxing in that house, her gray afro trimmed close and her black-and-white plaid shirt open over a white T-shirt, Ennis confesses that at first she felt naked in the duo format. She waves her hands in front of her and mimes pulling a blanket around her. “You’re more exposed with just the piano,” she explains. “It gives you more freedom for improvisation, but you don’t have that extra support. But Cyrus is a safety net. He’s an orchestra; he supplies the bass line and percussion. He’s like Allstate: You’re in good hands with him.”
During the rehearsals, the duo worked up songs from Ennis’ large back catalog plus a few that she has planned for her next album. She’ll be singing a song in Chinese, “Sunshine in the Grassland,” which she learned in 1988 when she was a cultural ambassador to Baltimore’s sister city of Xiamen. She and Chestnut also came up with a brand-new song that they co-wrote during rehearsals.
“We were sitting side-by-side at the piano talking one day,” Chestnut says, “and this idea popped up in my head, so I just played it. I said, ‘Here you go; see if you can do something with this.’ She did and came back with some lyrics that were so in tune with what I had in mind. We call it ‘Goodbye.’ She’s a great storyteller. In fact, a lot of our rehearsals were me listening to her stories about her life in music. I had no idea how extensive her experience was. I was always saying things like, ‘You recorded with Hank Jones?’”
Yes, she did. Her 1956 debut album, Lullabies for Losers—recorded with Jones, the legendary pianist, and drummer Kenny Clarke—had long been out of print. But last year the French label Le Chant du Monde released a two-CD, 42-track box set, Ethel Ennis: The Complete 1955-1958. The set begins with that Jubilee Records LP, still a miracle of relaxed craft as the 23-year-old Ennis sings of heartache stoically, never whiningly. The box set goes on to collect her Atco singles, her two fine albums for Capitol, and six live tracks from her 1958 stint with the Benny Goodman Orchestra featuring Zoot Sims and Roland Hanna. Though the anthology is only available in Europe, it is only a few clicks away on the British or French versions of Amazon.
When Billie Holiday heard the Jubilee album, she called an old friend back home to demand, “Who’s this bitch from Baltimore?” She got the number and called Ennis at four in the morning. “She woke me up to talk about my record,” Ennis told me in 2001. “But she gave me encouragement. She said, ‘You have a great voice; you don’t fake it. Keep it up and you’ll be famous.’” But that wasn’t to be. Despite many close calls with fame, she never quite grabbed it—perhaps because she was so ambivalent about it.
“They had it all planned out for me,” she continued. “‘Go here and have your picture taken.’ ‘Go to a choreographer.’ That was a disaster. ‘Go to the right parties.’ I’d ask, ‘When do I sing?’ and they’d say, ‘Shut up and have a drink.’ ‘You should sit like this and look like that and play the game of bed partners.’ You really had to do things that go against your grain for gain. I wouldn’t.”
So she has spent the past 50 years at her Baltimore rowhouse, the past 46 of them with Earl Arnett, the Baltimore Sun reporter who went to interview Ennis and ended up marrying her instead of writing the story. Last November she celebrated her 80th birthday at An die Musik, the same month that Chestnut commemorated his 50th with a show at the venue. Henry Wong, the owner of An die Musik, had the idea of putting the two of them together during their shared birthday month, and that got the ball rolling.
“When she starts to sing,” Chestnut says, “she’s easy to accompany, because her sense of time is so incredible. She knows where she wants to go and how to get there. She not only knows what she wants but she knows how to communicate it, because she started out as a pianist herself. She challenges you to step up to the plate, just like Betty Carter.”
Chestnut was Carter’s pianist from 1991 through 1993, after having played with Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Terence Blanchard. Chestnut launched his solo career in earnest in 1994 with his U.S. recording debut for Atlantic Records, Revelation. Topping the Gavin jazz chart and the Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, the disc lay down the template for Chestnut’s career: original compositions that grounded astonishing jazz/classical technique in blues and gospel, much as Mingus and Ellington had done before him. There were six more albums on Atlantic, as well as another nine on various other labels, including jazz interpretations of the songs of Elvis Presley and Pavement.
Over the past two years, Chestnut has released two quartet albums, last year’s The Cyrus Chestnut Quartet and this year’s Soul Brother Cool, both with the same rhythm section of bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Willie Jones III. Chestnut, who composed 17 of the 18 tracks on the two records, has lost none of his ability for writing adventurous tunes rooted in the church and the juke joint. The earlier record is preferable because saxophonist Stacy Dillard is a more inventive and pleasurable horn player than trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, who replaced Dillard on the new release. In either case, it’s interesting to hear Chestnut lead a horn quartet rather than his usual piano-trio format. “Ethel and I just connect to each other,” Chestnut says, “because we share a common ground in the church. We’re kindred spirits. Anyone who comes from Baltimore, a certain spirit comes out of their playing that other people can feel. When you play something for someone from California or New York, they go, ‘Oh, you’re from Baltimore.’ After they finish joking about The Wire, they say, ‘There must be something in the water down there in Baltimore.’ The same way they say there’s something in the water in Detroit or New Orleans.”
In the past five years, Ennis has played only a handful of shows each year. Another of her former colleagues passes away every few months. She insists, however, that she’s got plenty of projects in the works: more songwriting, a DVD documentary of her video clips over the years, and a new album, to be called Ethical Ethel, because it will focus on message songs.
In the midst of detailing all these plans, she breaks into her trademark gap-toothed grin and declares, “I guess I’m still blooming.”
Ethel Ennis and Cyrus Chestnut perform at An die Musik Friday and Saturday. For more information, visit andiemusiklive.com.
> Email Geoffrey Himes