The Chamber Jazz Society of Baltimore had its origin in the winter of 1990-1991 when three Baltimore area friends were talking around the dinner table about the dearth of opportunities in Baltimore to hear jazz. There were then excellent jazz programs at the King of France Tavern in Annapolis, and they recalled exciting concerts at the Famous Ballroom on North Charles Street where, under the sponsorship of The Left Bank Jazz Society, the brightest stars from New York City would perform, having ridden the train to Baltimore on Sunday afternoons, returning the same evening.
The programs and the presentations at the King of France were, they thought, exactly what small group jazz programs should be. The room was small, the audience paid close attention to the musicians; and did not talk or eat while the music was being made. The proximity to the performers allowed their styles, the nuances of their playing to be easily seen and appreciated.
The musicians who appeared at the King of France were sometimes young players with interesting new styles, sometimes older, but established players . Bob Wilbur tried out his Benny Goodman sextet program, Art Hodes and Ray Bryant played steady and solid piano, Betty Carter sang “What a Little Moon Light Will Do” with a cadence and phrasing never heard before in that funny little song’s history, and of course, Charlie Byrd, with his brother on bass, and Chuck Redd on drums, made regular appearances there.
At that dinner table discussion, the idea took shape: a society could be formed that would give jazz its due – a concert setting, in a small auditorium, where audiences could listen and watch without distraction, where attention would be undividedly on the music. The group also wanted to invite musicians that would allow the organization to function without needing substantial subsidies, or high ticket prices. The organization could be simple, it could be managed by volunteers, and it could offer a special and needed musical opportunity for jazz fans in Baltimore.
A board was assembled of people known to have an interest in jazz who supplied the leadership, financial judgment, and advice about programs. Start up money was raised from a number of friends and on a spring evening in 1991 the first concert was held in the Meyerhoff Theater at The Park School in Brooklandville. The program that evening featured a group of musicians lead by cornet player Richard Sudhalter, with Bobby Pring on trombone, Loren Schoenberg, tenor sax, Keith Ingham, piano, Eddie Locke, drums, John Goalsby, bass, James Cirillo, guitar. The next year, 1992-1993, the Society gave two concerts: the first a group led by bassist Jay Leonhart with Marvin Stamm, trumpet, Gene Bertoncini, guitar, Bill Charlap, piano, Dennis Mackrel, drums; the second a two piano program with Dick Hyman and Derek Smith.
Programs continued at The Park School in Brooklandville for five years. The trustees of the school contributed the use of the intimate Meyerhoff Theater. Although one or two concerts occurred on weekday evenings, the Sunday afternoon at five o’clock format was quickly established. In 1995, the board decided to move the concerts to The Baltimore Museum of Art as a more central and familiar location, but retaining the relative intimacy that the small auditorium there allowed.
The popularity of The Chamber Jazz Society’s programs has steadily increased. In the 1997-1998 season the number of concerts was increased to four, and in 2001-2002 to five. During this period of growth the Society has been supported by grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, and by contributions from many donors. Its objectives remain the same: to bring to Baltimore outstanding jazz musicians, to present them in an intimate concert setting, to keep ticket prices as low as possible, and to carry forward the long and illustrious history of jazz in Baltimore.