“People who come to Nashville for a weekend don’t usually know about the music history of Fisk University, or the city’s civil rights traditions,” says Steven Lewis, the NMAAM’s curator. “And until now, there really hasn’t been a place downtown where visitors are presented with African American culture, in a forthright way.”
Jefferson Street, two blocks north of Fisk, is another overlooked artifact of the city’s musical history. Today it is unremarkable, a little abandoned, but in its heyday after World War II, it was a thriving entertainment district and the bedrock of Black economic power in Nashville. “In 1955, Jefferson Street was the most beautiful thing you would ever want to see, watching Black folks in Ford Crown Victorias with the chrome running across the top,” says Lucius “Spoonman” Talley, an 82-year-old instrumentalist who has performed at the Country Music Hall of Fame Rotunda and runs spoon-percussion workshops for NMAAM.
“All of this was during segregation.” At its peak, says Talley, Jefferson rivaled even Memphis’s Beale Street, then considered the epicenter of Black blues music. The corridor was crowded with Black-owned clubs filled with the sounds of blues, early rock and roll, R&B, and jazz. Performers like Ray Charles, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin performed in venues like Club Baron and Del Morocco. “I used to run errands for Little Richard and take his clothes to Jefferson Street Cleaners before he’d headline at neighboring clubs,” says Talley. In 1962, a young guitarist lived above a beauty salon on Jefferson, fine-tuning his signature sound with local audiences under the name Jimmy James before moving to New York; the world would eventually know him as Jimi Hendrix.
A mural titled Baron ’63 on Jefferson Avenue
Racist urban-planning policies devastated the area with an ill-placed interstate. Decades later, Jefferson Street resident Lorenzo Washington realized the need to preserve the area’s history. “It’s the only street in the city that we could call ‘our’ street,” he says. In 2013, he converted his modest white brick home into the Jefferson Street Sound Museum, a humble space crammed with photographs and posters of the street’s once-thrumming nightclubs. There are paintings, too, of musicians like Marvin Gaye, who performed at Jefferson Street clubs, donated by local artists; and countless memorabilia, records, and images of the Black musicians who made a mark on this city and, in many cases, the world.
“We’re still here telling the story, as we want the legacy of Jefferson Street to survive,” says Washington, who at 78, still leads museum tours himself. (His son, Ryan, now helps run the museum.) “We don’t want it to be forgotten or be dismissed from all of the history that’s being told about Nashville.” He is hopeful that the opening of the NMAAM will encourage visitors to seek out lesser-publicized spaces like his to learn about the city’s largely unsung …….