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‘Live at the Left Bank’ CD Series Brings New Life to Jazz Society

Culturally speaking, a lot of Baltimoreans say the city hit bottom in 1984 after the Colts slunk out of town in Mayflower vans. But local jazz fans beg to differ: They point, instead, to the demise of the venerable Left Bank Jazz Society as the worst thing to happen to Baltimore since, say, the fire of 1904. It’s easy to understand why. The LBJS thrilled area beboppers for decades by bringing jazz greats such as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Wynton Marsalis — just to name a few — into town for weekly concerts. But the nonprofit club folded nearly three years ago, a victim of homelessness and declining attendance after deteriorating conditions forced it to leave its main venue, the Famous Ballroom, in the mid-1980s.Yet while the beloved Colts fade in memory, local aficionados of America’s original art form can now rejoice. Thanks in large part to the joint efforts of the University of Maryland School of Law’s intellectual property law clinic and University of Maryland Baltimore County, the LBJS has a deal with a New York producer to turn its taped archives, “Live at the Left Bank,” into a series of 25 to 30 CDs. Better yet, royalties on the CDs will underwrite the renewal of the LBJS. In fact, an advance allowed them to make a comeback of sorts last year, with monthly concerts at the Teamsters Hall on Erdman Avenue in east Baltimore.The first releases — “The Electrified Sonny Stitt,” “My Foolish Heart” by tenor sax man Stan Getz, and “Three Sessions in the ‘70s,” featuring pianist Cedar Walton — were issued this fall. “Our hook is that your hands [applauding] might be on the record,” said LBJS president John Fowler. “The hip thing about the Left Bank Jazz Society was that you’d see literally everybody in the city at concerts, whether they were major jazz fans or just casual listeners.”Layers of complexityNegotiations with Label M in New York City spanned nine months before the deal was signed last May and the LBJS turned over nearly 350 tapes. A group of students under the direction of law clinic professor Max Stul Oppenheimer represented the jazz club in the complex project.“We did nothing without the clinic’s approval,” Fowler noted. “They came to the meetings and talked about sticking points. There’s no way we could have afforded to pay for this [legal] work.”Major issues on the table included the percentage of royalties that would go to the society, how long the record company would retain ownership of tapes not issued as CDs, promotional expenses, the royalty advance and an LBJS veto over any proposed releases.“Max was a fantastic person in the process,” Fowler said. “It was nine months of our stupid phone calls and questions. Max had two students working on the contract, and it worked great — evening calls, three-way calling, the whole deal.”Oppenheimer, an adjunct professor at UM Law and the intellectual property director at Pharmeneutics, a Baltimore firm that assists high-technology startup ventures, praised his students and called the project “the best clinical experience you could design.”Like jazz itself, the legal undertaking was complex.“You’ve got a whole series of rights in a musical performance, including the underlying copyright of who wrote the music and words, and the performance itself,” he explained. “Also, the performances were improvised, so you’ve got the performers’ overlay of their own rights. Plus, in a quintet you’ve got five people doing that. On top of all that is the possessory rights of the person who owns the tapes. “What you needed to do was get all those rights in one neat bundle for each individual work,” Oppenheimer said. “Multiply that by 200 or 300 tapes, and it’s an enormous job.”Marita Mike, who worked on the project along with fellow students Susan Milner, Jessica Porter and Jason Pinnix, called her involvement in the project “exciting.”“It was all about music and jazz, and the club was so excited,” said Mike, who earned her J.D. last year. “Everybody had the same ultimate goal — to get the jazz out and to get the Left Bank up and running. What sticks with me is the experience of working with a big record company.”Milner said the project provided “a great taste of a huge part of Baltimore’s history.”“Academically, it was the most involved project I worked on,” added Milner, who graduated from UM Law in May. “And it was exciting to work with one of the top entertainment law firms in New York City, which represented Label M. It was real-world stuff.”Joel Dorn, the president of Label M, said the law clinic “represented their clients very well.”“We’re doing what we promised, and they delivered the tapes,” said Dorn in a phone interview from his Manhattan office. “They’re happier than they thought they’d be. We kept our word and they kept theirs.”Dorn left no doubt that the club’s archives — which were not professionally taped and not recorded with commercial release in mind — are something special.“They chronicled a golden age of jazz when many jazz giants were alive,” the record producer noted. “It may be the single best repository of the time.”The fact that the music was recorded live adds to its archival value.“Something happens in a performance that doesn’t happen in a studio,” Dorn pointed out. “Plus, the musicians didn’t know they were being recorded, and there isn’t the self-consciousness… . As a consequence you have one of the finest archives of what happened in that golden age. It’s magical stuff.”Formed in 1964 by a group of friends who love jazz, the LBJS was sponsoring 48 concerts a year in its heyday — usually consisting of three 45-minute sets in the intimate surroundings of the Famous Ballroom. The audience sat at tables and picnicked on food and drink brought from home, or ate ribs, minced barbecue, collard greens, corn bread and other soul food purchased on site.Some of the concerts at the Famous Ballroom “were like religious experiences,” Fowler recalled.“Duke Ellington arrived before his band, so he sat down at the piano and took requests from the audience,” Fowler said, his voice tinged with awe. “The whole time we were at the Famous, we’d just open the doors and folks showed up — usually 600 to 700 people, but sometimes as many as 1,200.”After the LBJS left the Famous Ballroom, attendance dropped, and the club began losing money at concerts held at various venues around Baltimore. About two-and-a-half years ago, the well ran dry and the LBJS folded.“With the CD deal, we got an advance to put us back into business,” Fowler said. “If they sell well, then this could be the addition we’ve been looking forward to for years.”Since its first reincarnated concert series wrapped up in October, the LBJS is booking artists for next year at Teamsters Hall. The shows are scheduled monthly and still feature national acts such as pianist (and Baltimore native) Cyrus Chestnut and trumpeter Wallace Roney.“We tell people, ‘If you don’t like the show, we’ll give you your money back,’” said Fowler, who then shook his head. “But gett
ing them in the door the first time — man, it’s hard. It’s a shame, because jazz is our national art form. But the CDs will be a major help in bringing attention to the society.”For information on tickets and upcoming artists, call the LBJS Jazzline at (410) 466-0600 or point your browser to http://www.baltimoremd.com/leftbank.