Pianist Ellis Larkins has accompanied Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams; to hear them tell it, he is the perfect partner, a jazz connoisseur attuned to their distinctive styles. "It started back when I was playing in school" at Baltimore's Booker T. Washington Junior High School, Larkins recalls. "I just always loved to play for singers. I used to thing of myself as a full band behind them."
Larkins' father worked as a janitor and cook by day and by night played violin for the Baltimore City Colored Orchestra. And though Larkins was considered a classical prodigy (he performed for Eleanor Roosevelt at age 10 and studied at both the Peabody and Juilliard conservatories), he switched to jazz because "there were no opportunities for black classical pianists" in the '30s and '40s.
"There were people who were equipped to do it," Larkins says, "but there was no backing for them. Even in New York, there were no opportunities, no field. And there really wasn't anyone until Andre Watts."
On Saturday, Larkins will team with another Baltimore native, Larry Adler, who also went to Peabody and then went on to become a world-renowned virtuoso on the harmonica. They have worked together a number of times over the past 25 years, and because they are both masters of their art, they'll step on the stage at Peabody's Friedberg Concert Hall without any rehearsal. "We play off the top of our heads," Larkins says. "We'll start something and then see what happens. It's just a feel you have and one thing always leads to another."
Also on the bill is yet another Baltimore native: Edward L. Rowny, who played in the Baltimore Harmonica Band with Adler and went on to a military career and then to the rank of ambassador to the Geneva arms negotiations.