restricted access Coda
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Coda S everal stellar players from the days of live performance, records, and radio became the closest thing to living legends in Maryland. The incomparable Rosa Ponselle settled into a home in the Greenspring Valley, northwest of Baltimore, and supportedlocaloperauntilherdeathin1981.EubieBlakeput his music to work at benefit performances for the NAACP, the Urban League, and African American youth groups and schools. He continuedtoplaythepianoasifagedidnotmatter.In1973heperformed at the Peabody during an event marking his ninetieth birthday. He died a decade later, a fewdaysafterhisonehundredthbirthday.RuthVan Hulsteyn continuedtoperformwith the Baltimore Symphony, under half a dozen conductors, well into the 1990s. Marylandmusicclearlysuffered cultural losses in theera of“urban renewal,” and listening closely, one can hear some mixed reports about broader changes in Baltimore at least. Tracy McCleary returned to the Royal Theatre as permanent conductor of the house band about four years after the war. “That was a momentous occasion, I can tell you,” McCleary recalled.1 He put together the Royal Men of Rhythm, a band made up of some of the best musicians in Maryland. (A sign of the changing times was that he began hiring white musicians.) Charlie “Bird” Parker played for McCleary for a time. He and the Royal Men of Rhythm played it all—jazz, swing, and, later, rock ‘n’ roll—and they played it all well. Then in the early sixties Pennsylvania Avenue started to deteriorate . No one saw the trend more clearly than McCleary. “I could see the signs that the whole area had gone by the wayside, partly because places in other parts of town opened up to blacks.” The civil rights movement of the 1960s made movie houses, clubs, taverns , and public accommodations in other parts of the city legally accessible to African Americans. Television kept people home in the evenings. Growing crime reflected and affected life on the streets surrounding. On January 6, 1965, the Royal staged its last major show, ending a grand tradition of presenting African American artists and musicians for mostly black audiences, with Count Basie himself. “I don’t know which died first,” McCleary later mused, “Pennsylvania Avenue or the Royal Theatre.” The destruction of the most important cultural 184  Musical Maryland icon of Baltimore’s African American community was, paradoxically, part of the Upton Renewal Project. The Royal came down in 1971, leaving behind a vacant lot and fading memories of Pennsylvania Avenue during far better days. “The Royal had a lot to do with the evolution in music in this country,” noted McCleary. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into that theater and a lot of people put their lives into it.” At the time, for better and worse, civic leaders in the city struggled to “renew” and reinvigorate Baltimore as their counterparts in nearby cities like Pittsburgh and Washington were trying to do. In terms of musical culture, urban renewal produced the wrecking of the Royal, but it had the unexpected effect, by force of repulsion, of encouraging a lively musical counterculture . It thrived in the places urban-renewal efforts overlooked or left alone, and thus small bistros, Irish music halls, and popular nightclubs sprung up in places like Fells Point, the West Baltimore neighborhood around the B&O Museum, and a shopping center not far from Morgan State University. Urban renewal also made space for an ambitious new venue for the BSO, thanks in large measure to Joseph Meyerhoff, who in 1965 became president of the orchestra’s board of trustees. While also contributing to classical music as a member of the Peabody Institute board, Meyerhoff led the drive to build a hall that would be a permanent home for the Baltimore Symphony. Opened in mid-September 1982, with Leon Fleisher at the piano, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall quickly captured attention for its beauty and acoustical excellence. Responding to a music lover who thanked him for making possible the hall that musicians had long dreamed of (and referring to the BSO conductor at the time, the celebrated Sergiu Commissiona ), Meyerhoff replied simply, “It was Comissiona’s dream. He had the dream and I had the money.”2 Years earlier, an eighteen-year-old tidewater Virginian, Charlie Byrd, had been drafted, trained, and marched onto a troop ship out of Newport News. He never forgot the passage and the musicians he met onboard. “We got together and we used to play with nothing else to do. We learned a lot and kept ourselves from thinking too much about what we were facing.”3 The young soldier landed in...


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