Looking for class in Fells Point
Fells Point is known as a good place to party and get hammered, but if you can manage to get past the rowdy college crowd you might stumble upon one of its hidden treasures.Ask any group of 20-somethings why they are headed to Fells Point, and chances are you will hear a variety of answers, none of which have to do with its burgeoning live jazz scene.
But one bar beckons music fans who are interested in more than 2-dollar drafts and a place to try on their beer goggles as they search for their latest one-night stand.
Bertha's on South Broadway features live, local blues and jazz four nights a week. That is just one aspect of the bar that makes it stand out from its neighbors, said Bernard Lyons, the daytime bar manager and a local jazz promoter.
Another thing that is noticeably different about the bar at Bertha's is the lack of intoxicated sports fans screaming and spilling their beer as they watch the Ravens game on a tiny, fuzzy TV screen. That's because Bertha's has very few televisions, and those it does have are perpetually muted so as to allow the crowd to concentrate on the music.
“Fells Point is changing a lot and getting very yuppified and sanitized, and it's not like that in the bar,” Lyons said.
He described Berthas as a laidback, old-style bar with a lively crowd of all ages, from college students to retirees. There is one thing that unites the diverse regulars and keeps them coming back week after week.
“People know they're going to hear nice music,” Lyons said.
Tuesday is one of Bertha's busiest nights as they feature Paul Wingo, a guitarist and Baltimore native who has been playing in the area for over 20 years. Fans who are into the more traditional form of jazz known as Dixieland can enjoy Big Bertha's Rhythm Band on Wednesday nights. Lyons explained that the regular acts that play Bertha's do not perform anywhere else in Baltimore, making it a premier venue for live music. Occasionally, other local and regional acts visit Bertha's to work the crowd and sample some of the restaurant's famous mussels.
A native of Manchester, England, Lyons is fond of the Baltimore jazz scene and feels that its strength is rooted in its history.
“Originally, Baltimore had a strong, classic jazz tone,” Lyons said in reference to the many successful artists who are Baltimore born and bred.
As a jazz enthusiast today, he observes their influence from two opposite ends of the spectrum.
“A lot [of older acts] are rooted in bebop, and younger guys are into the freer end of the music,” Lyons said, adding that on the west side of town there are still old-style places where guys have traditional jam sessions
He is especially fond of the New Haven Lounge “because it is one of the last black-owned clubs that is really rooted in the neighborhood,” Lyons said.
In addition to tending the bar at Berthas, Lyons promotes jazz and other forms of improvised music around the Baltimore area.
He is responsible for booking the acts that play every weekend at An Die Musik, an independent music store on Charles Street. The second level of the store features an 80-person concert hall with a beautiful old grand piano that is perfect for jazz performances.
“It's probably the best piano in Baltimore, which is why I went in there to originally promote music,” Lyons said.
On Monday nights, jazz students from Baltimore's legendary Peabody Institute perform in the intimate setting. Lyons said that a broader range of music can be heard at An Die Musik, including an experimental form of jazz known as avant-garde.