Walk in, and it’s a typical trendy, locally owned coffee shop, with a mix of people on the mismatched furniture talking quietly in two or threes and singles at the tables working on their laptops. The fully-stocked bar is the first sign there’s something a little different about 49 West, a coffee house in Annapolis, Maryland, with what it calls European style. In Annapolis, it’s considered upscale-grung.
The bartender, who also makes the coffee, sees me looking confused. Where’s the jazz? I’d heard about the place from somebody, who knew somebody who’d been there. Jazz karaoke, I’d been told, with a live band doing the background music. That, I gotta see.
The barista-bartender sends me around the corner, where you’d normally look for restrooms in a place like that. Instead, it opens into the adjacent building, behind the coffee shop, like a secret room.
Local art hangs on the bare, red-brick walls. Red ceiling-to-floor curtains keep the fading evening light from entering. The room is just big enough to seat about 40 people, if you like each other. And on Jazz Jam night, people do. They may not know each other, but they share an appreciation of jazz and that’s enough on open mic night.
Every seat is taken, reserved in advance. A few late arrivals try to squeeze in. They’re here to hear Starr’s Jazz Jam — a drummer, keyboardist and guitarist who also plays horn.
Off to the side of the room, a man in a greying ponytail, shorts and knee brace has a violin case next to his chair, waiting to take a turn with the combo.
An older couple nearby are fans. The man is wearing a tie with a piano keyboard on it.
The music starts early; 7pm. The first set is the combo’s alone. It’s listening music. Talking is discouraged while the band is playing.
The keyboardist goes back and forth between organ and piano, sometimes playing both at once. Heads bob to the rhythm, and applause erupts when a good solo goes by. Each musician takes his turn. And with each solo, head bobbing stops as people wait to see what the musician is going to come up with.
The original Joe Byrd Jam was organized by the brother of famous jazz musician Charlie Byrd. Joe’s since passed, but his wife continues to produce the twice-a-month jam session. The group’s bass player, John Starr, has been leading the revised combo, Starr’s Jazz Jam, since 2006.
John plays bass, flute and wind, as well as bass (guitar). When not doing jazz gigs, he teaches. “I’m a freelance musician, I’ll retire when I’m 105.” He’s in his early 60s and just finished a Rock and Roll Jam Camp. John got his first gig when he was 13-years old. A paid gig, $25. Between then and now he got a music degree from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and became a published composer. For a while, he was lead guitarist for Ray and the Mystics.
Open mic night begins with the second set (8pm) and continues into the third set (9pm). Guest artists sign-in for a chance to sing, or play, with a live band. During the first set, while the band is playing, the singers go through music sheets. Some bring their own, while others flip through a selection in a two-inch binder provided by the band. Which to select this week? They only get two songs.
The keyboardist is Tom Korth, former chair of Howard University’s music department. He retired after 30 years on the faculty. On the side through the years, he played professionally here and there across the country.
By the second set, every seat is filled and crowd gets slightly rowdier. Is the singer going to be someone who sings in the shower or really able to belt out a song?
The band is rarely unfamiliar with the chosen song, but it happens, so the soloist sings a few bars to remind the band, which then picks it up as if playing it for years. If the band has problems, they just throw in a riff. The musician version of “la, la, la.”
Bill McHenry, a child night club star who danced with Sammy Davis, Jr. and other big-names, is the Jazz Jam drummer. He gave up dancing and started drums at age 14, and in 1969, was drafted into the U.S. Army where he played with the Army Band out of Augusta, Georgia. He landed in Annapolis in 1984 and has been playing mostly dixieland throughout the area. “Nobody plays a lot of gigs (in jazz),” he says.
The karaoke begins with the second set. But instead of following the words on a screen, the band follows the singer.
“There are singers who start in the wrong place,” says Bill, “We just listen and follow them.” These guys are able to pick up in the middle of a song in full flare, as if you simply walked in on the middle of the song. “A lot don’t know what key they’re singing in,” Bill adds. The band adjusts.
On this night, the band was missing Dick Glass, the regular trumpet player. He’s retired Navy, rank of Senior Chief, having playing in various U.S. Army & Navy bands throughout his career. One of ‘those guys’, recruited by the military to play the tunes at formal functions.
First up is a “first-timer”, a short, pretty woman with short, dark hair dressed in a white jacket with three-quarter sleeves for a formal evening out. Tamara Tucker has a doctorate of Musical Arts from Catholic University. She’s an opera singer who’s performed around the world and teaches voice. Now, she’s learning jazz. She heard about Jazz Jam while sitting in an Annapolis bar with her husband one night. They decided she should give it a try.
Her first song is hesitant. The opera is still coming through. The applause is polite. This is a jazz crowd. They like their notes more raw. The second song is more confident, less jazzy, more of a broadway number which works better with the opera undertones. Tamara’s voice opens up and she begins to smile. Applause interrupts to encourage good notes. At the end, there are cheers in the applause to support the effort, urging her to return.
“It was very scary,” she says with relief as she catches her breath after. “I was out of my element. But it’s something I’d like to do again.” Tamera’s still flushed from the two, short songs — lingering excitement from giving it a go and not collapsing in front of 40 strangers, by a professional used to singing in front of hundreds. Jazz is, just, different.
Next up is a teenager, Sam Garfinkel, a pudgy guy with dark, curly hair wearing a brown t-shirt and jeans. “He’s adorable,” says one woman in the audience. “I just want to kiss him.”
Sam’s just turned 18. He’s been playing here since age 13. He plays with a jazz ensemble in high school, but not many his age play jazz these days. “This is my only opportunity to play with professionals,” he says.
And tonight, he plays a clarinet for his first effort and sings during the second song. A female friend records the entire performance on a smartphone. Sam may be showing up on YouTube. He doesn’t look at the audience during either song. But he knows the lyrics well and his voice gets stronger and more confident. He tries a few dips and long notes. When he hits a note he likes, a small smile crosses his face.
Every once in a while, a soloist forgets the words. The audience pauses to see how they’re going to recover. Will it be a crash or will they power through it? A “la-la-la” is okay; it could be worse. Applause is encouraging.
The guest performances get better as the evening goes on. No, not because of more drinking. Performers sign-up with the producer, Elana Byrd (Joe Byrd’s widow & sister-in-law of Charlie Byrd), who judges ability and sets the pace. The performer can be a singer, a jazz-violinist, a horn-player or any number of other jazz specialities. One regular is a CPA who writes an accounting advice column for the Annapolis daily newspaper. Where else do you get a chance to play in front of a band of professionals? In front of a live audience?
When a good singer gets up, the band stops playing ‘politely’. They hunker down, lean in and jam. Focus gets intense. The music starts to wrap-around the singer. Each instrument takes a turn at weaving through the melody. A competition begins among the band members. Who can string the notes around the singer better? Solos can get wicked.
The audience gets tense and quiet as the music veers on the cutting edge of very good. This is not a garage band. These guys have traveled the country playing jazz. They may be retired, but they ain’t done.
When the song’s over, these musicians are out of breath and the audience erupts. A room full of jazz lovers finally able to exhale after being sucked into the twirling riff. The audience knows they’ve witnessed something extraordinary for a small town. They just got the best out of these big city professionals who’ve come to Annapolis. Twice a month. On Wednesdays.
Only the band members know who won their internal competition that night. The soloists?
They just lived a dream.