Musicians revitalize early jazz melodies
Most jazz bands today play famous tunes by Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.
One Baltimore band, however, revives the early songs of Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson — jazz music from the 1920s and 1930s, decades earlier than the most popular songs in that genre.
That’s the mission of the Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra, a 12-person ensemble comprised of musicians ranging in age from 24 to 74.
The band was formed in 2017 by Lynn Summerall, 72, a Baltimore native who spent his career as an announcer of classical music programs at National Public Radio.
Since 1992, Summerall had been leading a similar band in Norfolk, Virginia. He was inspired to name it the Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra because many grand hotels of the early jazz era had a rooftop garden for music and dancing. He was also paying homage to several famous orchestras of the time, such as the Coronado Hotel Orchestra and George Devine’s Roof Garden Orchestra.
“I wanted a name that was authentic to the 1920s and that sounded kind of fun,” Summerall said.
Back to Baltimore
After Summerall retired in 2014, he returned to his hometown. He grew up near Northwood and attended Baltimore City College.
In 2017, after overcoming health problems, Summerall turned his attention to a pile of historic sheet music that was collecting dust. He had spent years gathering manuscripts, frequenting the Library of Congress to rescue early jazz songs from obscurity.
“It took me a lot of hours at the Library of Congress and elsewhere to assemble these couple hundred songs,” Summerall said. “I wanted to put it to use.”
So, he posted an ad on Craigslist for musicians and started to build a band in Baltimore.
Many people answered his ad, including classical pianist Lisa Weiss. Her father introduced her to jazz music. “Now that I’m in this band, we’re doing all this stuff he loves,” she said.
Weiss began teaching herself how to play piano at age three, and by age seven she was performing in concerts. “I learned how to read music before I could even read [English],” she said.
Weiss went on to get degrees in music from Harvard, Yale and the Peabody Conservatory (now part of Johns Hopkins), where she earned her doctorate.
Even though Weiss still spends a lot of her time giving music lessons, she is able to practice with the band more often now that she has retired from being a professor of music at Goucher College, where she started teaching in 1986.
“It’s very liberating,” Weiss said. “My schedule is more my own.”
More time for music
Unlike Weiss, the band’s alto saxophone player, Randy Loiland, could not dedicate himself to music for a number of decades.
“I was working, traveling, raising [two] children,” Loiland said. “I didn’t practice a whole lot.”
His love of music began in the fifth grade, playing clarinet for the school band. He learned to play saxophone in college, but stopped playing for years when he went to work for the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, a research facility for chemical and biological defense.
Now that he’s retired, he has joined four bands.
Retirement has also allowed tenor saxophone player Leo Brandenburg more free time.
“I can dedicate all of my time to improve my play,” Brandenburg said. “I love retirement.”
The Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra has 26 members available to perform. They were drawn to the unique repertoire of music known as swing-era jazz.
“All the melodies are just beautiful,” Weiss said. “I’m very appreciative to be a part of it.”
The fast tempo is challenging but fun for many of the musicians. Even the instruments are different from traditional jazz bands, with a tuba instead of string bass and a banjo instead of a guitar.
Founder Summerall has always been drawn to this type of music. It is more optimistic, he said, than postwar jazz, which experimented with “free tonality” and less structured rhythm and meter.
“The music and the country changed in the 1940s,” Summerall said. “There’s something about this [earlier] music that’s particularly uplifting, fun and toe-tapping.”
Even young people are supportive of the century-old music. Two band members are 24 years old, and their friends attend their performances, most of which take place at Paulie Gee’s Pizzeria in Hampden.
Without the Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra, the era of 1920s jazz might be lost to Baltimore.
“I don’t think there is another ensemble like it,” Brandenburg said.
The Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra will play on Feb. 9 and March 8 from 3 to 5 p.m. at Paulie Gee’s Pizzeria, 3535 Chestnut Ave., Hampden. For more information, call (410) 235-1566.