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In a Baltimore basement, a jazz detective strikes gold

Two men smile while talking on the sidewalk in front of a brick theater.
Michael Zamora/NPR
Record producer Zev Feldman (left) and John Fowler, a charter member of the Left Bank Jazz Society, meet outside the Charles Theater in downtown Baltimore. The building once hosted some of the best jazz musicians in the country.

John Fowler sat in the lobby of the Charles Theater comparing it to the place he used to know.

There was no marquee outside announcing the next performer. The restaurants and shops around the street had changed. The building that used to have a library now consisted of popcorn machines and movie posters. And the two flights of stairs that had previously led to a ticketing area and a stage had disappeared.

The building in downtown Baltimore used to be known as the Famous Ballroom. It's where Fowler spent most Sunday evenings decades ago, helping put together jazz concerts with some of the genre's giants: Art Blakey. Duke Ellington. Count Basie. John Coltrane.

An older man in glasses and dark clothing looks around a performance space with colorful flowers behind him.
/ Michael Zamora/NPR
Michael Zamora/NPR
John Fowler can't help notice how the building around him has changed.

"There were plastic stars and plastic moons and plastic clouds in the ceiling," Fowler said. "It was a canopy that looked like a circus tent. It was a dance hall, but everybody knew: on Sundays, come to Charles Street."

From the mid 1960s into the early '80s, nearly every Sunday starting at 5 p.m., the Famous Ballroom was reserved for concerts put on by volunteers from the Left Bank Jazz Society. Fowler was a charter member.

"My son grew up here. You could bring your kids; the word got out that a woman could come to the Ballroom and not be bothered if she didn't want to be bothered," Fowler said. "So we put all of that together. We've had 1,200 people in that room."

After hundreds of shows, the Ballroom deteriorated and the organization moved out by the early '80s. Still, hundreds of those live shows were recorded, mostly for the private listening of the Left Bank and for the artists themselves.

Those recordings had been stored away for decades, and only about a dozen had been released commercially. But now, thanks to a couple of producers, three more recordings are out for the public to hear.

Three album covers from jazz records are displayed on a glass tabletop.
/ Michael Zamora
Michael Zamora
Albums from Sonny Stitt, Walter Bishop, Jr., and Shirley Scott have just been released.

Bringing the legends back

Three albums came out last month featuring performances by saxophonist Sonny Stitt, organist Shirley Scott, and pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. These releases come after years of work by producer Zev Feldman and musician Cory Weeds.

Feldman grew up less than an hour from Baltimore, in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and has become a jazz detective, making a career out of finding archival jazz recordings. So once he had the opportunity to dive into the Famous Ballroom's, he took it.

A man gestures with his left hand while talking in a room with several empty chairs behind him.
/ Michael Zamora/NPR
Michael Zamora/NPR
The albums have been a labor of love for Zev Feldman.

"We're talking about artists that traveled the whole world, but this is Maryland history," Feldman said. "This is Baltimore history. And it started here."

Feldman said he wanted to honor the history of the Famous Ballroom and the Left Bank Jazz Society in producing these records, but also recognize these three artists that don't always feature in the jazz conversation.

Three black-and-white photos side by side of a man holding a saxophone, a woman standing at a lectern and a man with sunglasses perched on his forehead.
/ Christian Rose/Fastimage; Raymond Ross Archives/CTSImages; Jan Persson/CTSImages
Christian Rose/Fastimage; Raymond Ross Archives/CTSImages; Jan Persson/CTSImages
From left: Sonny Stitt in concert in 1974; Shirly Scott at the New York Jazz Festival in 1968; Walter Bishop, Jr., performing in 1968.

For him, the raw material he digs up can't simply be good; it has to be great. That's what he found in these recordings after shifting through many boxes in Fowler's basement in Baltimore.

Take, for example, the recording of a 1973 performance by Sonny Stitt — a pioneer in the industry who hailed from the bebop jazz movement. "He was someone who was one of the most amazing gunslingers, if you will, in jazz, with dexterity in the way he played," Feldman said.

The newly released record is called Boppin' at the Bank: Live at the Left Bank. Fowler said the organization booked the saxophonist nine times: "In Baltimore, you say Sonny Stitt, you got a packed audience."

"When he came to town, every local horn player in the city showed up," he added. "They all stood at the back of the Ballroom, like listening to the master. And once in a while, he would let one or two of them come up on stage. But, you know, you couldn't find anything better."

Then there's the record titled Queen Talk: Live at the Left Bank, recorded when Shirley Scott performed at the Famous Ballroom in 1972. "It was a really wonderful live date. We were really struck by the energy. She opens up the recording with John Coltrane's 'Impressions,' but there's also some pop music and things from the day," Feldman said.

Scott was an influential jazz artist, but as Fowler put it, she received less attention due to her gender. Women had to be harsh to make their way through the industry, he said, demanding respect and appropriate pay.

"Of course, the men would say, 'Oh, they're ball busters,' [but] they were just looking out for themselves," Fowler said. "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."

Scott's marriage to another great saxophonist, Stanley Turrentine, also pushed her name to the side.

The third and last album features Walter Bishop, Jr. It's titled Bish at the Bank: Live in Baltimore, from a show recorded in 1967.

"When I listen to Walter Bishop, Jr., I hear the traditions of bebop jazz," Feldman said." You can hear it in his comping and his voicings, in his approach to playing the piano. And you hear that music; you hear that tradition."

Talking about these three tapes, Feldman harped on the idea of enjoying the tapes: "You don't need an owner's manual. All you need to do is put it on and listen. And this music feels good."

Connecting with the old to understand the new

For Fowler, knowing the history of Baltimore's jazz scene is vital for understanding the current state of the genre. He said the reason why the city appealed to musicians for these legendary performances was, in part, because of its proximity to New York. But also, the Left Bank paid them on time.

"Once the word got out, the phone would literally jump off the hook. Everybody wanted to come down, and everybody wanted to bring the new group down to try them out in Baltimore," Fowler said.

The Left Bank volunteers continued to put out shows in other venues after moving out of the Ballroom, but the crowds of jazz fans had started dwindling with the rise of other genres. In total, the organization promoted shows in Baltimore for about 40 years.

A man points upward while talking to another man as they walk through the inside of a theater with brick walls and large windows.
/ Michael Zamora/NPR
Michael Zamora/NPR
If these walls could talk.

But the way Fowler described it, the vibe at the Famous Ballroom was unmatched, on and off the stage. "Everybody had fried chicken, crab cakes, homemade potato salad, [even] the liquor, because you could bring everything with you. Once you walked through the door and bought your ticket, you could even bring your own ice if you wanted to," he said.

That brought a diverse audience: young and old, and Black and white — something unusual at the time. "We didn't realize until a couple of writers from the newspaper mentioned that Left Bank was one of the few integrated concert venues in 1964," Fowler said. "We just said, 'Hey, 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."

It was also a very demanding audience: "Gimmicks didn't work in Baltimore, you had to play. When you got a standing ovation at the Ballroom, you had really played."

And for Fowler and Feldman, unearthing these recordings is about appreciating the history of this genre, to better understand where it is now, especially with the increasing number of vinyl album sales in the past 16 years. But Fowler turned to a quote that is commonly attributed to Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey: "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots."

"Unless you understand this, you're going to miss Christian McBride and all of the new cats, but you've got to start with the basis," Fowler said.

And putting that work in front of the public is what they are trying to do — with these three albums and future ones from the Left Bank Jazz Society.

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Two men look at the camera, one seated and one standing, as they hold up three jazz albums.
/ Michael Zamora/NPR
Michael Zamora/NPR
Fowler and Feldman are doing their part to keep the jazz spirit alive.

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.
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Noah Caldwell