There’s a place you can go to hear jazz in Baltimore where ticket prices are affordable, a food or drink minimum is nonexistent and you can rest easy knowing your money will go directly back to the artists.
The nonprofit Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society (BCJS) aims to carry on a longstanding tradition in Baltimore of bringing the cream of the crop in jazz musicians to town—a mission that arose from Baltimore’s jazz golden age on Pennsylvania Avenue.
But with a niche audience and limited publicity, this organization might have slipped under your radar.
“It’s probably a little bit more of a best-kept secret, says BCJS President J. William (Bill) Murray.
Now in operation for more than 30 years, BCJS has dedicated its team and talents to bringing quality jazz music to the Baltimore area since 1991, showcasing the nation’s best in an intimate setting—a 360-seat auditorium in the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“Typically jazz is heard in smaller places,” Murray says. The word chamber in the name acknowledges another intimate music experience—classical chamber ensembles.
There’s something about experiencing live music up close, he adds. With the onset of COVID-19 two years ago, the board considered livestreams but found the audience was willing to wait for in-person shows.
Stefon Harris—who will be performing music from the new album “Sonic Creed” with his band Blackout during the April 10 show, the first through BCJS since the pandemic—feels the same about live shows.
The New York musician who primarily plays the vibraphone and marimba says that members of the 20-year-old band often play off the energy of the audience before they start or ask the audience for a starting note.
An arts educator, Harris notes, “I think that’s why jazz in particular, but art in general, is so valuable to our society.” He explains that jazz puts us in a position to face the unknown and learn to listen and discover.
One of the goals of BCJS has been to provide a diverse mix of jazz. Like Harris, many previous performers were from New York—where the most nationally prominent musicians used to play.
Throughout history, Baltimore has strived to be a destination for jazz.
The Left Bank Jazz Society would always host national players Sundays at 5 p.m. at what is now the Charles Theatre. BCJS carried on this great tradition, which ensured artists could make it to Baltimore after weekend gigs in their cities and still get home early.
This idea originated with founders Gloria Katzenberg, Parvin Sharpless and Stanley Panitz.
“There were three prominent members of the Jewish community who were vacationing together on Martha’s Vineyard and lamenting that there was no place that they could listen to jazz in the Baltimore area,” Murray says.
The first concert was held at The Park School of Baltimore—where Sharpless was headmaster—before shows moved to the BMA auditorium in the mid-’90s. Murray joined the board in the early 2000s.
As with any arts and entertainment-based organization, the BCJS had to put their activities on hold as COVID-19 surged. Thanks to continued donations and grants—in particular, an recurring grant from the Maryland State Arts Council—the organization was able to stay afloat.
Now the challenge will be rebooting the program and getting it in front of audiences again, Murray says. BCJS typically performs five concerts per year—most of them after the first of the year.
“There’s a football team in town. Maybe you’ve heard of them? And they tend to play at the same time we do,” Murray jokes.
Other than that obvious competition, he knows the BCJS is a bit niche. Most people who go to jazz concerts are jazz aficionados or perhaps students studying music.
“One of the challenges is getting younger people coming to concerts—in particular jazz concerts,” Murray says, “not unique to us—it’s nationwide.”
Though he would like to draw in younger audience members as well, the goal is reaching those who are looking for it—and they come from a rich tradition in Baltimore.
Jazz had a vibrant scene in Baltimore during the 1950s and 1960s. Pennsylvania Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods had more than two dozen jazz clubs. Nationally recognized artists such as Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Chick Webb were also born or educated here, according to background from BCJS.
Today, Baltimore claims some major contemporary jazz artists such as Gary Bartz, Cyrus Chestnut, Antonio Hart and Warren Wolf.
Above all, the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society wants to keep live jazz alive in Baltimore.
Many Baltimore venues are either streaming or don’t provide the same concert experience. BCJS fills in the gaps in a scene of restaurants and small clubs.
With about 35% of its budget funded by donations, Murray says bringing in top talent can be challenging, but when people see national names they know, it’s a huge draw.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1991-1992 season, the society has three concerts scheduled for April 10, May 15 and June 12. The first had been rescheduled from 2020.
Three artists from super group ARTEMIS have played BCJS concerts in other groups. Murray notes a group like this one is a huge milestone—jazz being a man’s world for many years and not-to-miss because it won’t be around forever.
This occasion will be Harris’ first time playing through BCJS, and he’s excited to support an organization that’s been sustaining jazz for years.
“One of the things I learned when I first started touring many years ago was that it’s not always large institutions that sustain this art form. It’s usually a collection of individuals who care deeply about it and work their butts off to ensure that opportunities continue to exist for jazz,” he says.
Harris has been reading music since he taught himself at age 6. He had played 24 instruments by high school and his grandfather, Pee Wee Harris, was one of the first Black heads of radio in upstate New York, spinning gospel, soul and jazz.
“I think you know immediately when you come across something that just captivates your spirit,” Harris says, adding that he used to bang on pots and pans for hours.
What’s most important to him is the story that’s conveyed through music. Jazz is a platform of expression, often for marginalized voices, he says. It’s about connecting to the audience in real time.
Harris believes jazz has the potential for a wider reach. As long as the music is honest and culturally relevant, people will always relate to it, he says.
A recent survey showed BCJS audience members are asking for more local artists as well. The board partners with local nonprofit Baltimore Jazz Alliance to boost local and regional musicians and plans to weave some of the artists into its programming as well.
For more information on BCJS and tickets, or to make a donation, visit baltimorechamberjazz.org.