Friday, October 5, 2007
For years, musicians have traveled to 48th Street off Times Square when they needed to buy a new instrument or have their old one spruced up like new. And if they were horn players, they often went to Baltimore’s. The Jon Baltimore Music Company is the latest incarnation of Baltimore’s, a local shop that’s been on Music Row for over 35 years. I found it during a recent visit to the block when I went looking for history and what remains of this vanishing marketplace.
At Jon Baltimore’s I was greeted with warmth by salesman and musician Pete Miranda, a cat (in Pete’s lingo) who’s played with artists like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and The Temptations. When I told him I was interested in the history of the place, Pete walked me through the store, telling me about its famous customers, like Gerry Mulligan, Ornette Coleman, and Doc Cheatham.
He introduced me to Jon Baltimore who was busy at his workshop making repairs to a customer’s Buescher saxophone, a beautiful instrument covered with intricate scrollwork. The customer had come in needing a quick fix, he had a gig that night, and Jon was happy to oblige on the spot.
The four of us hung out and talked about old Times Square, Pete and Jon reminiscing about the days when cats would come to 48th to do their shopping then, just for the hell of it, stand on the corner to play. It didn’t matter that they were major musicians, they just loved the fun of playing on the street. Pete remembered the joy of being a kid in Times Square when 8th Ave was full of pawnshops, the windows packed with brass horns, and for a dime you could visit Hubert’s and watch fleas toss a football back and forth.
Jon started his career as an instrument repairman when he was 9 years old. He learned in his father’s shop, a kind of musician’s social club where he spent much of his childhood soaking in the often exciting and sometimes dicey atmosphere of New York’s nightclub scene in the 1970s. He recalled sleeping in a booth next to his father when the now-vanished Latin Quarter was raided and escaping through a back door. Four years ago, he bought the business from his father, who wanted to change the shop to appeal to tourists. But Jon wanted to keep it real, and he has.
The place feels like it’s been there forever, with its gleaming inventory, pictures of famous faces, and Jon’s workshop—a cluttered space of controlled chaos, tools that look like they were forged in the 19th century, windows hung with horns in various states of repair.
Today, he told me, he tries to run "an authentic shop, like in the old days, with no horseshit." Most of his customers are regulars. He treats them fairly and never charges more than he thinks is right. “You can still make money but do it in a righteous way,” he said, “Sell quality instruments and charge a realistic price.”
He spent at least half an hour working on the customer’s sax, replacing the pads and making sure every pin, key, and screw was in good shape. When he was done, the horn sounded smooth and ready to go. Jon charged the guy just 20 bucks.
“Music is a beautiful thing,” Jon said, “You want to inspire people.” His shop is definitely inspiring and worth a visit for anyone nostalgic for an authentic New York.