"The four-count from the clack of Ethel Ennis’ beige open-toe flats resonated off the stone tiles inside Marianne Matheny-Katz’s house, where Ennis enraptured the room with a rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues.” Her performance was an impromptu offering after being called from the audience at the close of the evening’s program. Ennis, a sage performer who has traded riffs with Ellington, Basie and Goodman, presented each line like a bawdy storyteller brimming with a good yarn: “Oh, he boiled my cabbage, and he made it awful hot/He boiled it, I got to tell you that he made it, made it awful hot/But when he slipped the bacon in, he overflowed the pot.”
For sure, Ennis’ performance would have drawn praise and applause in any club, anywhere, but what made it significant on this June night is that her signature voice marked the 34th concert given in three years at a performance space created in Matheny-Katz’s suburban Baltimore home. Together with her husband, Howard, the couple has been hosting, on average, a show a month since 2007 at their residence, dubbed Jazzway 6004. The Katz’s work is representative of a growing culture populated by promoters who’ve abandoned the traditional club setting in favor of presenting artists in living rooms, restaurants, coffee shops, uniquely designed spaces or any place that fits a well-tuned piano.
From cities along the East Coast to California’s wine country, promoters are putting on shows that reflect their musical palates, often specializing in straightahead or experimental jazz. Also reflective of these recessionary times, promoters say they make little or no money on the outings; some operate at a loss. They attract audiences through aggressive use of Facebook and other social media. Many present at venues that seat less than 100 people, and are driven by a need to provide an environment where the music can be heard so that jazz, as a cultural force, will continue and thrive.
Jazzway 6004 rests in a tiny enclave dotted with mansion-esque dwellings just past the Baltimore city limits. A renovation in 2005 trimmed the original six bedrooms to four and created a performance space that seats 65 and houses a 6-foot Baldwin grand piano and a sound system. Matheny-Katz recalls how the couple didn’t initially intend to hold concerts, but their desire to showcase local talent moved them to open their home to the public. The first concert in June 2007 sold out. “People started calling us and asking, ‘When is your next concert?’” says Matheny-Katz, a vocalist who was prepping for a Billie Holiday tribute show in mid-July. But she’s not eager to invite just any artist: “We tell them we have a narrow focus. We don’t just present anybody; we have to believe in them and have a personal interest in them, and we don’t present anything but straightahead jazz. We don’t do smooth jazz or folk music; don’t really do blues too much. We will make exceptions if we like the group, but basically we are trying to foster the jazz tradition.”
The concert in June had a $35 ticket price, which provided compensation for artists and covered cheese spreads and desserts for the after-show mingle where folks can chat with people like Ennis, or, on this night, saxophonist Tia Fuller, who was sitting in with vibraphonist/pianist Warren Wolf’s trio. Over the past three years, Jazzway 6004 has cultivated a community consisting of hardcore jazz enthusiasts and newbies who want a safe place to navigate the genre. “There are people who started to come because they like the scene, they like the house and hanging out and being up close to a performer,” Matheny-Katz says. “It is a nice social atmosphere and it is definitely a community based on an appreciation of music, whether they have advanced jazz listening skills or not.”