Label M and the Left Bank
By Brian L. Knight
Saxophonist Sonny Stitt once said of the audience at the Left Bank Jazz Society, “"When I go to Europe, the audiences are just like you: they're listeners." Pianist Horace Silver had similar thoughts: "We've just come back from Blues Alley in D.C. We had an enthusiastic audience but nothing beats the audience here at the Left Bank. This is the Europe of this country." From these accolades, it is easy to see that the members of the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore were serious about their jazz music.
The Left Bank Jazz Society held its first concert on August 8, 1964 and ever since, the Society has occupied numerous locations in the Baltimore area. The earliest shows were held at the Al-Ho Club and then the Madison Club but after a series of fires, the LBJC moved their base of operations to the Famous Ballroom which was the main function room during the jazz heyday. The concerts were held on a Sunday afternoon from 5-9 PM and the cost of admission was about eight bucks. Built in 1892 by architect Jackson C. Gott, the Beaux-Arts buildings originally served as a facility for cable car manufacturing. In an October, 1999 interview with All About Jazz, LBJS promoter and tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin spoke of the LBJS: “ The Left Bank Jazz Society (LBJS) was an organization that started in the '60s and presented top name jazz artists in concert every Sunday from 5pm to 9pm at a place called the Famous Ballroom in downtown Baltimore. The audience was mixed and the atmosphere was like an indoor picnic. Folks brought their own food and booze and you could also buy beer and soul food. I saw Woody Shaw's group, Phil Woods, Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition, and many others. Sonny Stitt played there a lot, Sun Ra's Arkestra was there many times. I've spoken to quite a number of musicians who played there and they all tell me that that was one of their favorite places to play”
After 14 years of trying hard, Joel Dorn finally acquired the tapes of the numerous legendary Sunday afternoon recordings that were sponsored by the Left Bank Jazz Society. Dorn is already known for his production work with both Atlantic Records and 32 Jazz – now he is focusing on the Left Bank recordings through Label M. As Dorn says himself, the recordings, “You’re Gonna Be Stunned.” Dorn continues, “ It was a magic time in jazz when all those giants roamed the bandstands. So few of ‘em are left. I cannot tell you how happy I am to help you back to those fabulous days (and nights). Now maybe you’ll understand why all of us old guys can’t stop talkin’ about those times.”
The first two recordings to come out this series captures a pair of legendary saxophonists later in their careers who show that age doesn’t affect energy or performance, On March 21 of 1971, Sonny Stitt went into the Famous Ballroom with Hammond B3 organist Don Patterson and drummer Billy James. This is a great recording that not only has Stitt teaming up with a Hammond b-3 for an evening of funky party music but the recording also highlights Stitt on the electric saxophone. Along with Eddie Harris, Stitt was the primary mover and shaker for the electric saxophone and this label m release has Stitt in all of his electric glory (not to mention some acoustic glory as well). The other features Stan Getz (saxophone), Richie Beirach (piano), Dave Holland (bass) and Jack Dejohnette (drums) and it was recorded May 20, 1975. For an instrument that was dominated by Afro-American wizards such as Coltrane, Rollins, Gordon, Young and Webster, Getz was the white man equal. They played two Chick Corea tunes – “Fiesta” and “Litha” as well as Ralph Towner’s ‘Lucifer’s Fall.”
Besides Getz and Stitt, the Famous Ballroom was a major stop over of the veritable who-who of modern jazz. In 1964, Dizzy Gillespie came to the room. During the Spring of 1965, Herbie Hancock showed up with a spectacular supporting cast of bassist Ron Carter drummer Tony Williams and saxophonists Sam Rivers. A couple of months later, the society hosted Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb and Wes Montgomery. Duke Ellington came in 1971 and Sun Ra in the mid 1970s. The list goes on and on.
In addition to these Label M recordings, there has been other documentation of LBJS concerts. There is a George Coleman recording from 1966 and a Wynton Kelly recording from 1968. Saxcophonist Gary Bartz released Live at the Left Bank Jazz Society from his March 30, 1969 performance. Roy Brooks released an album of the same title from his April 1970 show. Both these shows also capture the great Woody Shaw on trumpet.
Since these performances, the LBJS has moved their shows to Teamsters Union Hall in Baltimore but the spirit is still going strong. Besides its trademark Sunday performances, the LBJS promotes jazz through the creation of the 24-hour a day Jazzline, a taped telephone message which lists coming jazz attractions for the Left Bank Jazz Society; the sponsorship of Jazz Extravaganza, a radio show in Baltimore every Saturday night; a jazz lecture series at 27 Maryland colleges; fund-raising concerts; the presentation of free summer concerts for inner-city schools; free weekly summer concerts in Columbia, Maryland, and the presentation of jazz concerts at Maryland penal institutions under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
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