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Don Farwell

Consider this your travel section of Tailgate. A proposed getaway for a trad fan that does not involve a long trek might go like this:

   Arrive at Fells Point along Baltimore’s Northwest Harbor. Stroll along the beautiful pier and take in scenes of the harbor, the city skyline, and the colonial architecture. Frequent the shops, the antique stores, and the market. Have dinner at Bertha’s where (you can say it along with me) you can eat Bertha’s mussels. After dinner, gravitate to the bar and hear some great trad, courtesy of Big Bertha’s Rhythm Kings. BBRK begin playing at 9pm every Wednesday.

   Long known as a bastion of folk music (Mary Cliff of WETA has for years been playing things recorded at Bertha’s), it is also the home of one of the best trad bands in the area. The leader is John Wessner on trombone, and with him are John Jenkins, clarinet, Jim Riley, banjo, Tylden Streett, drums, and Tom Holtz tuba. Says John:
We celebrate our 11th anniversary this month (June). We plan to drink more and better booze for the celebration. It may be hard to tell, since we’re just winding down our 10th anniversary celebration.
   John Wessner plays lead trombone, and boy, does he lead with authority!

   The band plays a traditional jazz repertoire, and other stuff as well, but all pretty much in a hot jazz mode when I heard them last. However, John characterizes their playing this way:
We pretty much play what we please. We do three or four of Jimmy and John’s originals each week. We’ve played pieces by Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver, early bop, hot five, New Orleans, jump, and pop. The contract I use for private parties says that “the band will be recognizable to its followers as Big Bertha’s Rhythm Kings and will perform the music for which it is known.” Mostly we try to be a high energy group. Back when I started running this group and the Last Chance, I wanted groups that were not playing “in the bag.” Real jazz was invented and played by vigorous young musicians, not old names playing safely for the tourist and nostalgia trade. If you remember the original BBRK with Henning and Gil, we couldn’t even all fit in a bag. If you’re not playing on the edge you’re taking up too much space.
   Even when performing standards like one I heard from the band, “Dark Eyes”, they were stomped off in that do or die manner. High energy? absolutely. Musical? You bet. Trad? Plenty. John Jenkins did a poignant version of the old Stan McDonald tour de force, “Love Me With A Feeling”. I heard the band kick off a Jimmy Riley original, “Going Down to New Orleans”. Then they ripped through “Big Bear Stomp”.

   Their website,, contains some interesting stuff. Did you know, for example, that John Jenkins was a graduate of the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music; that Jim Riley was a founding member of the Bay City 7, and also played with the Pier 5; that Tom Holtz is currently with the Marine Band; and that Tylden Streett is a sculptor and teacher at the Maryland Institute of Art, and has played with Clyde McCoy? John Wessner’s day gig is chairing the Physics Department at Towson University. He has also been with the Pier 5 band and with Stan McDonald’s New Orleans Jazz Doctors. These guys have also been involved in a lot of other music, but I leave it to you to access their website for more info.

   Historic Fells Point is the second oldest area in Baltimore, established in 1730 by shipbuilder William Fell. Its streets are named for Fell family members, hence “Ann”, “Bond”, and “Aliceanna”. One house, the c.1765 Robert Long House, is the oldest in Baltimore. It was at Fell’s Point that the famed “Baltimore Clipper” was designed and built. In the 19th century, Irish, Germans, and Polish migrated here to work in the canneries. Bertha’s Restaurant and Pub sits at 734 South Broadway amid this historic setting. Mussels notwithstanding, it has a complete menu, and is the creation of jazz fans Tony and Laura Norris. (In addition to running Bertha’s, Tony teaches guitar at American University).

   All the potential for a perfect day in the land of pleasant living.
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