Electrifying and provocative, jazz is a study in contrast, creativity, and American genius. A complex art form with roots in African-American culture, jazz came of age in America’s cities, where African-American musicians improvised with polyrhythmic percussion and soul-stirring harmonies.
For musicians in Baltimore’s early jazz scene in the 1920s and ‘30s, jazz was an expression not only of instruments like the saxophone, trumpet, piano, and drums but of the body—dance, lyric, and melody were interwoven to tell stories of humor, heartache, and devotion. Jazz has always had a presence in Baltimore; it’s a uniquely American art form in a uniquely American city.
Today the tradition continues. Baltimore is home to artists and musicians who keep the city’s jazz tradition alive. Read on and stay tuned for upcoming events celebrating jazz in Charm City.
Honoring Jazz Greats and Baltimore Natives
Baltimore was a hot spot of jazz in the 20th century, and is the birthplace of several jazz legends, including Billie Holiday, Eubie Blake and Cab Calloway. You can get even more jazz history at two of Baltimore’s museums dedicated to the contributions of African Americans, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and the Great Blacks In Wax Museum.
Billie Holiday spent her early childhood years in Baltimore. Her presence is celebrated throughout Charm City— on murals and painted screens in Fell’s Point on the 200 block of Durham Street, and on the poignant Sankofa mural at Pennsylvania and North Avenues. A bronze statue of Lady Day by Baltimore sculptor James Earl Reid is less than a block from the historic Royal Theater at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, the fabled performance hall where she performed with other jazz greats during the roaring ’20s.
In 1883, James Hubert Blake was born the son of a former slave. Blake began organ lessons at the age of six. Better known as “Eubie” Blake, the famous pianist and composer met lyricist, Noble Sissle, and together they wrote their first Broadway show, "Shuffle Along," in 1921. Baltimore’s Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center was named after the ragtime legend. Eubie Blake is known to have attended the first free public school for African-American children at Peale Museum.
Legendary bandleader and African-American jazz great Cab Calloway grew up in Baltimore. The consummate performer, Calloway’s scat singing, acrobatic dance moves, and high-energy performances captured the imagination of audiences during his heyday in the 1930s and for generations to come. His trademark refrain (“hi-de-ho”) came from his hit “Minnie the Moocher,” a song which would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame nearly seven decades later. Calloway’s family keeps his legacy alive through their involvement in music, the arts, and arts education in Baltimore.