THE TABOR, BALTIMORE — Every member of the Clarence Ward III Jam Sessions band said basically the same thing: The music saved their lives. “I would probably be in trouble honestly; I’d probably be running the streets if I didn’t have music at an early age,” said saxophonist Sam King, who was headed to college on a music scholarship the week after we spoke.
“I didn’t have a father figure,” Sam said. “My mom and my brother raised me by themselves. They did an amazing job but at the same time, if it wasn’t for music, I probably would have been running the streets and would have ended up in jail a couple of times, but I thank God it wasn’t that way.”
Drummer Jaron Lamar Davis (sitting in for the regular house band drummer Nick Costa) sees jazz the same way. “We talk about that all the time — for Sam and me and a lot of guys from Baltimore, you can’t reach a certain level of playing until you’ve gone through pain and struggling in your life and then you take that to your instrument and that’s when that pain comes out,” Jaron said.
“That’s not a timbre they teach you in school — it might sound like a nasty sound to many people, but it’s a personality and that’s how a lot of guys play even if they’re not thinking about it.,” Jaron said.
Clarence Ward III, the band founder, echoed both Sam and Jaron. “Living on the East side of Baltimore — the area I grew up in — things were going on there and it was kinda rough,” Clarence said. “It was guilt by association where I lived. A lot of bad stuff. I used to have a bad temper. I would lash out and stuff like that. Jazz was the last thing I was thinking about.”
But then he met a musical mentor: jazz trombonist Charles Funn.
“He saved my life by introducing me to this music; he kept me outta there,” Clarence said. “Playing music channeled my energy — I got to release that anger or sadness or whatever it was through the music. That’s been my saving grace. Some people don’t have any way of expressing themselves safely.
“That changed my life,” Clarence said. “Oh yeah, he saved my life for sure.” During the 2015 riots in Baltimore, Clarence and some of his guys were in town playing to try to calm things down (Washington Post story; Clarence is quoted at the end).
“In Baltimore, we’re going through a heck of a lot of craziness, man,” Clarence said. “When the riots happened, I was one of the first guys down there — myself and some of my guys who are here at the jam session.
“We went down and played down there; we played for our city and it wasn’t about being scared or anything like that,” he said. “I live eight blocks from where the riots happened. “I didn’t mind going down there because this is my city. I was born and raised here, and if our city is going to get better, it’s going to take people from our city to do extra,” he said.
For more than two years, Clarence ran a “Monday Sessions” jazz jam at the Tabor Ethiopian Restaurant in downtown Baltimore to give aspiring local musicians, especially teens and pre-teens, the chance to express themselves and their feelings in a positive, constructive and safe environment. In the summer of 2018, Clarence moved the Monday Sessions to the Terra Cafe at 101 E. 25th St.
That’s what Clarence did for his saxophonist Sam King: Offered him a safe, creative oasis. ”For me it’s an escape from the reality of life,” Sam said. “When I play, I’m free. For that moment, however many moments or seconds I’m playing, I am free. I am able to express myself without consequence, without reaction, and without anyone judging me.”
“When it is all said and done, I just want to make sure this city has a place where cats can come and really, truly express themselves,” Clarence said. “We’re not bogged down by much of anything — you get to play what you feel. A lot of cats come in who are not straight-ahead players. I don’t set them up for failure. They groove. I set up a groove for them so they can do their thing. I’m not about embarrassing cats.
“We’re growing,” said Clarence. “This is our second year and it’s about growth — growth in my city and growth in the musicians, tremendous growth. It all comes together and it makes me feel awesome. Honestly, I am happy that I am able to bring the music that, in my eyes, saved my life, down here.”
Two of Clarence’s own young early teen mentees, Ephrain and Ebban Dorsey, played well beyond their years this night. They weren’t much bigger than their instruments and initially looked a little like deer in headlights. Until they started to play. They are exquisite musicians and, according to Clarence, are on their way to big things.
“You saw how we got the young ones down here tonight,” Clarence said. “That’s where it starts — bringing them in and showing them something a little different.”
When it comes to his own music, Clarence plays with heart and soul.
“When all is said and done, you gotta play what’s in your heart and also some soulfulness,” Clarence said. “You gotta feel good. If you don’t feel good, it’s almost like you’re passing gas in a hurricane.”
Does his music have a message? “What is music saying? I would say it’s saying ‘love’,” Clarence said. “That’s the biggest thing, it’s about love That’s my thing: expressing love and care for everybody.”
Clarence learned how to express that love through something of a musical odyssey.
“I grew up loving rap, R&B, and hip hop,” he said. “Up until I started playing saxophone, that’s the only thing I really knew. I would hear smooth jazz, but it didn’t feel right . When I played alto sax, my mentor said, ‘Man, you sound like you got that Cannonball Adderly sound.’ So I I’m like: ‘What?!’ I didn’t know who he was. So I did a whole lot of research and when I heard Cannonball, my whole world changed.
“From Cannonball to Byrd, those were my early cats. Dizzy and all the boppers,” Clarence said. “I’m bred in bop. Hard bop and a lot of big band jazz like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. All of that stuff — swing, feel-good music — went through my blood.
“My aunt gave me Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” as one of my very first albums, and that made me realize, ‘Wow, this is good stuff,’” Clarence said. “But the album that really changed my style honestly was ‘The Tokyo Sessions’ by Roy Hargrove and Antonio Hart. I’m a young guy and I’m listening to this cat and like, wow, this is the cat I wanted to imitate musically. So I became a really big Roy Hargrove fan in the process. And that’s why I started to play the trumpet — I wanted to capture the spirit and soulfulness of Roy Hargrove.
“The second time I met Roy, he came up and spoke to me!” Clarence said. “It was like meeting Michael Jackson back in the day!”
Now Clarence is a star in his own right. Clarence has toured and performed with icons such as Gladys Knight, Nancy Wilson, and Aretha Franklin. In the R&B world, he’s worked with the Chante Moore, Ruff Endz and Ledisi. He has also worked with gospel greats CeCe Winans and Richard Smallwood. He played countless venues in the U.S. and Japan before returning to focus to focus on his beloved Baltimore.
And he tells his own story through his instrument.
“I don’t have to say that much,” he says. “I can speak through my instrument with some real heart-felt music. That’s what it’s about for me at this point: speaking to folks by playing some music that feels good, playing from the heart.”
If you want to hear some heart-felt music played by some guys who care deeply about their music, their city, and their fellow musicians, make your way to the Terra Cafe on Monday nights (once the whole corona virus thing is over!). You’ll be glad you did.
THE MONDAY “JAZZ JAMS” HOUSE BAND:
- Clarence Ward III: Trumpet
- Jaron Lamar Davis: Percussion
- Samuel King: Alto Sax
- Michael Graham Jr.: Bass
- Darius Scott: Keys
- Ephrain and Ebban Dorsey: Sax
Learn more about Clarence: