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Sounds of the past still echo at Baltimore's premier jazz club

The New Haven Lounge is the last of a dying breed: a sophisticated venue that caters to fans and musicians alike.From the outside, the New Haven Lounge looks more like a strip-mall pizza joint than Baltimore's last living example of an old-fashioned jazz club.

No neon lights announce its presence into the still night, and it might be the only live music venue in the city to forego a cover charge and offer free, secure parking to its visitors.

But to step through the doors of the small, family-owned venue run by Keith Covington and his mother and sister is to undergo a transformation.

“Visually, it's a throwback to the way that jazz bars used to be in the ‘50s and ‘60s- small, smoky, well-lit,” Covington said.

The walls are lined with murals: a scene from “Stormy Weather” featuring King Oliver's band on a street in New Orleans, where the music first took flight; posters of Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and other greats who have passed through Baltimore; memorabilia and various awards that the club has won since its debut in October 1987.

The wooden walls and high ceilings provide great acoustics to keep the musicians happy, while the audience enjoys the experience of sitting close to the band. Beckoning the listener away from the main stage is a lounge with an inviting, homey feeling, where guests can monitor the performance on closed-circuit televisions.

The decor is indicative of the Covington's goal: to preserve the tradition of jazz in Baltimore with a sophisticated, yet welcoming atmosphere.

The New Haven features live jazz every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, drawing an eclectic mix of musicians, jazz fans, and neighborhood regulars.

“We work with the very best people, be it local, regional, or national,” Covington said.

This past weekend, for the club's 18th anniversary party, Covington booked three of the most eminent jazz organists in the world. While the dynamics of the crowd will depend on the night's act, his search for the absolute best talent from New York to Washington, D.C., always keeps his audience satisfied. New Haven regulars demand a high standard of professionalism from the performers.

“We've been able to develop a true listening crowd and they can determine whether the musician is really qualified to practice the craft,” Covington said.

His decision to spotlight many different types of jazz, from bebop to avant-garde and contemporary, attracts a wide variety of people to the smoky little club on Havenwood Road.

“We're one of the few places that's racially integrated and economically diverse,” Covington said. “Everybody is there for one reason: to listen and accept the music. The one thing they have in common is an appreciation for the music and the musicians.”

The club's owner fell in love with jazz in a very unconventional way. For Covington, the most enjoyable part of Saturday morning cartoons were when his favorite characters such as the three little pigs would take on the role of be-boppers.

“I was 10 years old when I bought my first jazz record,” Covington said, citing John Coltrane's “African Brass Volume Two” as the one that reeled him in. “It's been my passion for quite some time.”

Covington experimented with other types of music, but his love of jazz kept calling him back. “For me, the better parts of other shows were always the jazz and blues licks,” Covington said.

In an effort to keep the club's scene fresh, Covington hosts other activities, including a quarterly jazz breakfast, which he says is another throwback to the days when jazz ruled the popular music scene. The New Haven also features an open mic poetry competition on Tuesday nights and blues music on Wednesdays.

“Blues are always fun, always a house packer,” Covington said. “There are college students, professionals, working class people… all digging the same vibe.”

So how does it feel to be considered the last real remaining jazz venue in Baltimore?

“Bittersweet,” Covington said. “Particularly when major stars come in; then you really get to hear from them, ‘This is a throwback, and these types of venues really don't exist anymore.'”

While he is comfortable in his current role as king of the jazz scene, Covington feels that a little friendly competition might actually make his audience more enthusiastic about what the New Haven Lounge does.

“People become very used to what we do and they begin to lose appreciation,” Covington said.

He dreams of the day when his favorite music will experience a renaissance in the city he calls home.

“I like the idea of being the best at what we do, but I also relish the idea of us having some legitimate competition,” Covington said. “I would love to see one of these on every corner and every one of them full.”

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