Have you ever visited the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center? I have. Do you know who Eubie Blake was? I didn’t. That is, not until his life story would significantly impact my own.
This experience began at age 16, when I was in desperate need of a summer job. In my search for that job, I was directed to apply for work through the Mayor’s Office of Art and Culture, back when there was such an office.
It was there that I met a rather stern, yet gregarious, woman named Hattie Harrison. Ms. Harrison was an esteemed member of the Maryland legislature and a Baltimore public school teacher.
I remember sitting in her office undergoing an examination of sorts, as if she were trying to determine if I would be a good fit for what was to come. Fact is, I had no idea what she had planned for me. I simply wanted a summer job, and I didn’t care what that summer job would turn out to be.
What I also didn’t know at the time is that Ms. Harrison was about to change the trajectory of my entire life. I was about to become an artist.
By the time I left her office, I was hired for my first acting gig in a summerlong arts program. I would portray Officer Krupke in the musical “Westside Story.” I would also begin the lifelong pursuit of acquiring and developing the skills required to be a performer.
I grew up in East Baltimore, in a housing project called Perkins Homes. Like most young people, my ambitions were a reflection of my environment — those things I could see, touch and feel.
The main post office wasn’t far from where I lived. The skinny on the street was that it held great promise if you pass a test and land a job. So that is where I set my sights. I was all but certain I’d get one of those coveted $18,000-a-year jobs. I considered that big money.
Beyond my aspiration to be a postal worker, I had intermittent fantasies of becoming a pimp or numbers runner, both of which would have required considerable imagination and great acting skills. I am thankful that Ms. Harrison was able to tap into my vivid imagination and determine that I had what it takes to become a performing artist.
That summer, I spent countless hours at Dunbar High School rehearsing for “Westside Story.” I would head to the Eubie Blake Cultural Arts Center for more extensive training.
There I met Ms. Sylvia Hardison, the equivalent of a den mother for young aspiring artists. I also met Ms. Janetta Jones, who would become my first vocal coach.
The Eubie Blake Cultural Arts Center, now the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center, was then, and remains, one of Baltimore’s cultural gems. It has changed the lives of countless young Baltimoreans who otherwise might never have had access to such consequential educational experiences.
Eubie Blake was a native Baltimorean, born James Hubert Blake on Feb. 7, 1887. He died 40 years ago, on Feb. 12, 1983. We commemorate his birth and his passing during the month when we formally recognize the contributions of Black Americans throughout history.
Blake was 4 or 5 when, while out shopping with his mother, he wandered into a music store, climbed onto the bench of an organ, and started playing. When his mother found him, the store manager was said to remark, “The child is a genius. It would be criminal to deprive him of the chance to make use of such a God-given talent.”
Blake used that talent as a pianist and composer of ragtime, jazz and popular music. He and his long-time collaborator, Noble Sissle, wrote “Shuffle Along,” one of the first Broadway musicals written and directed by African Americans.
“Shuffle Along” brought jazz to broadway in 1921 and became hugely popular. The musical was significant as the first show featuring Black performers to become a big hit. It also launched performers and composers to successful careers, and some of them would go on to achieve international fame, including Florence Mills, Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. William Grant Still, who would go on to become a conductor and a composer of operas, ballets and symphonies, was in the pit orchestra.
Memorable songs from “Shuffle Along” include Love Will Find a Way,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “ and “In Honeysuckle Time.”
Blake also contributed to other Broadway musicals and revues such as “Elsie” and “Blackbirds of 1930.″ He and Andy Razaf collaborated on “Baby Mine,” “That Lindy Hop” and “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More.” They also co-wrote the timeless jazz standard “Memories of You.” In all, Blake is credited with having at least a hand in more than 350 compositions.
When I consider how the center named for Eubie Blake has served his legacy for decades, I look to my own experience there. Countless young Baltimoreans have had their futures, or perhaps their lives, saved by the place, as I did.
My performing credits include professional stage productions spanning five decades. I have performed in plays authored by August Wilson and William Shakespeare. I have been a guest artist in enormous concert halls with world-class symphonies.
Now, I have turned my attention to performing as a jazz vocalist and lyricist. None of this would have been possible were it not for my youthful exposure to the arts and the training and instruction I received.
Eubie Blake’s legacy is one that deserves to be maintained and shared with young people who, if only given a chance, would make wonderful art and enrich all our lives.
That is the mission of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center.
Again, I ask: Have you visited the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center? If you haven’t, I hope you will. Do you really know who Eubie Blake was and is?
His legacy and the institution that bears his name is worthy of our support. More than that, we do a community a disservice when we deprive young minds and young artists who would do us proud, if only given a chance.
Keith Snipes is an actor, singer, songwriter and poet. Keith Snipes & Company will be performing at Keystone Korner Baltimore Feb. 15.