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Towson University

The art of jazz

There was a time when the words “live jazz” conjured up images of sharply dressed gentlemen playing on small stages in smoky, dimly lit clubs while young hipsters writhed on a crowded dance floor.

There are still several venues in Baltimore that offer authentic improvisational performances, with contemporary varieties ranging from free jazz to avant-garde. The Chamber Jazz Society of Baltimore exists for those aficionados searching for a more refined experience.

Founded in 1990, the Society is an alliance of jazz fans and musicians who have a common vision. They present high-quality performances in an intimate setting at the Baltimore Museum of Art, free of the distractions of a club atmosphere. They feature a variety of genres, from traditional to contemporary, and the audience's attention is only on the music.

“Our mission at Chamber Jazz Society of Baltimore is to present excellent jazz music in a small-group setting,” said Liz Sesler-Beckman, a board member. “We present standards and originals and strive for a balanced season that has a little for everyone.”

Sesler-Beckman said that the Society tries to schedule one concert each season that features a well-known “grandmaster” of jazz. One such recent performance was by bassist Ron Carter. They also make it a point to give representation to women artists and young up-and-coming musicians.

“The most important criterion is that the quality of the musicianship is high,” she said.

Sesler-Beckman explained the Society's role in filling the void left by the demise of jazz as a popular genre.

“I think that there has [recently] been less press dedicated to jazz promotion (for instance in The Sun ) overall,” Sesler-Beckman said. “Festivals like Artscape seem to be giving less stage time to jazz groups. I do think that world music and crossover groups like fusion and jazz-funk are gaining in recognition and popularity.”

Despite the fact that press releases are sent to all area newspapers, Sesler-Beckman said that she has not seen an appreciable difference in the popularity of jazz in Baltimore since the Chamber Jazz Society was founded. She noted the record shop An Die Musik and Morgan State College as two venues that host decent jazz concerts.

“The jazz club scene in Baltimore is still limited,” Sesler-Beckman said. “New Haven Lounge is the exception to that rule and puts on some high caliber shows.”

The Society is focused on increasing its membership and attendance, as well as the diversity of its audience. Jennifer Blades, the administrative manager of the Chamber Jazz Society, said that the concerts generally attract between 250 and 300 people in a venue with a capacity of 350. The majority of listeners are over 45 years old and more than half of the patrons are white.

Sesler-Beckman believes in the preservation of jazz as an “indigenous music of the United States.”

“It is important to keep the jazz scene strong in Baltimore… because this improvisational music is a creative, original, and evolving musical form that is thought-provoking and fun to listen to at the same time,” she said. “I hope that Baltimore can continue to develop a strong jazz audience and that our citizens come out and support live music.”

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