Jazz has returned -- with gusto -- to the King of France Tavern at the historic Maryland Inn, where the late, great Charlie Byrd played for 25 years.
World-class jazz on Annapolis's Church Circle had died with Byrd in 1999, but his sister-in-law Elana Byrd has valiantly brought it back.
It was time, she decided, to return the tavern to its former glory. Time to bring back the piano, the guitar and also that bass that her husband, Joe Byrd, played with his brother in the Charlie Byrd Trio for years.
It was time to bring back the hotshot musicians.
So the weekend after Thanksgiving, the folks at the Maryland Inn opened the tavern for a Charlie Byrd tribute.
"We sold out immediately!" Elana Byrd crows. "It was a roaring success."
Since then, she's been taking over the tavern one weekend a month and bringing in such luminaries for two-night stints as Stef Scaggiari and Sue Matthews, Howard Alden and Chuck Redd, and Steve Abshire and Vince Lewis, who will join with Joe Byrd tomorrow night and Saturday.
These weekends, when Elana Byrd is in charge, the tavern fills fast. She greets guests at the door, takes their tickets and shows them to their seats, where they crowd around small tables to eat, drink and listen to the music. The musicians perform two shows nightly, at 8 and 10 p.m. The tavern's exposed-brick walls, dark, moody lighting and rathskeller layout all help create a somewhat exotic, bohemian atmosphere.
On these jazz weekends, Annapolis's luminaries come out -- last month's show brought in Mayor Ellen O. Moyer among others, some in stiletto heels, others in boat shoes.
As longtime tavern-goer Arlene Berlin put it: "Nobody dresses up in Annapolis. Only tourists wear coats and ties."
For Elana Byrd, the weekends resemble "having a big party. I love doing it."
Part of her affection is for the tavern itself. She met Joe Byrd there in 1973.
"I wandered in and sat on a bar stool on a Saturday night," she reminisces, sitting in the sunroom at her Edgewater home and tapping a slim cigarette against the ashtray. "I was with two girlfriends, and I stayed for both acts because I loved the music so much."
She also fell in love with Joe. They married in 1977.
"My jazz education was sitting on that same bar stool," she says now, "and listening. Everybody that was hot came through. The artists stayed at the Maryland Inn, and we'd have them over to the house for dinner."
Annapolis, back then, was an especially artsy place. During the 1970s, Berlin was running an art gallery, the Watermark, on Prince George Street. The King of France and the Charlie Byrd Trio were an essential part of Annapolis's charm.
"We always used to go there, my artists and I," Berlin recalls, "and it was a place where a lot of art people liked to hang out. You could sit at the bar and you were listening to fantastic music."
But after Charlie Byrd's death, jazz at the tavern dwindled to nothing. Returning the club to its former glory became a passion for Elana Byrd. She is by vocation a lawyer, but music is her life.
In her home, Elana is surrounded by pieces of art she picked up while accompanying Joe on his tours with the Charlie Byrd Trio. On one wall climbs fans she collected on a trip to the Far East -- one from Bali, another from Indonesia and two from Japan. Above, closer to the ceiling, hangs a hat from Singapore and a batik fan from Jakarta.
Indeed, their saltbox Colonial-style home is a testimonial to their longtime worldwide adventures.
In Joe's music room are his Yamaha piano, three bass instruments -- a full bass, 1/2 bass and 1/8 bass -- and walls covered with a vast array of masks from all over the globe. He visited more than 100 countries with his brother and their group, when it traveled as a Goodwill Ambassador for the State Department.
As the blond and ponytailed Joe put it, leaning back into the sofa with his purring black cat: "You can't do a commercial tour with a jazz band in a place like Nepal."
During the past 40 years, Joe Byrd also performed at the White House for presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. In the hallway between the Byrds' kitchen and Elana's law offices is a series of photos showing Joe playing for, or shaking hands with, leaders from all over the world, including the president of Afghanistan in the 1960s.
Still, Byrd is pushing forward instead of retiring. He released two CDs recently, including "Brazilian Nights," which evolved from Charlie Byrd Trio tributes he did a couple of years ago, and "Basically Blues," which shows off his southern style.
In the "Blues" liner notes, Jim Ohlschmidt of Acoustic Guitar magazine said the collection is "like a bowl of gumbo," and concluded, "There's a whole lot to savor and enjoy here."
Which is exactly Elana Byrd's goal for the tavern jazz weekends, to return to Annapolis a type and quality of music that local people otherwise could only find on a CD or the radio.
Elana's success is especially satisfying for her proud musician husband.
"She's worked very hard at it," Joe Byrd says of his wife's mission at the King of France. "And so far, so good."