Strolling Down 'The Avenue' -- Again Home Design 1992


April 26, 1992|By WILEY HALL

Once upon a time, Pennsylvania Avenue served as the cultural mecca of Baltimore's African-American community.

They called it "the Avenue," and in the heady, halcyon days following World War II, good times began and ended there.

It was a strip of thriving businesses during the day and hopping nightclubs at night.

The Avenue was where top performers such as Redd Foxx and John Coltrane headed when they played Baltimore, where high society went to be seen, and where politicians and businessmen met to wheel and deal.

On Saturday, May 2, the Associated Black Charities will re-create that atmosphere on the campus of Coppin State College when it hosts "Jazz Night on the Avenue" as its major fund-raising event of the year. Radio station WEAA-FM, Coppin, Anheuser-Busch and Fox Chevrolet are co-sponsors.

Cab Calloway and the Count Basie Orchestra, directed by Frank Foster, will be the star attractions.

Other performers include jazz vocalist Aleta Greene, pianist Mel Spears, the band Underground, comedian Andre Brown and instrumentalists Mickey Fields and Bill Cummings.

Tickets are $75, $40 and $25. For more information about the event, call the Jazz Expressline at (410) 669-7900.

"Jazz Night on the Avenue" is the brainchild of Carol Melvin, 36, the Associated Black Charities' director of development and marketing. The event will mark the second celebration of the Avenue this year. In February, the Arch Social Club paid homage to the old Royal Theater.

"There does seem to be a resurgence of interest in the Avenue right now," said Ms. Melvin. "I'm not sure why that is. A lot of people on our planning committee said the community should never have allowed the Avenue to die, and now they want to

come back."

Q: Tell me how this whole thing came about.

A: I am a big jazz lover, not a purist, but a fan. I particularly love what I call old jazz and I've always been sad that I was born on the cusp, that I missed the glory days of the old Avenue, that I was never able to attend the Royal Theater and the other clubs of that era. So, in the aftermath of last year's fund-raiser, the Ray Charles concert at the Meyerhoff, it just came to me, wouldn't it be fun if we could re-create that era, the feeling of community that African-Americans had there? I started brainstorming with Donna Stanley, our executive director, and Matthews Wright, our director of fund distribution, and the whole idea just blossomed.

The next thing we did was convene a planning committee, chaired by Evelyn Chatmon [assistant superintendent of Baltimore County schools], and they kept coming up with one wonderful idea after another. For instance, they were the ones who came up with the concept of strolling down the Avenue, where people will be able to go nightclub crawling.

Q: I imagine most young people don't even remember Pennsylvania Avenue during its heyday.

A: Well, that's right. This is not just a celebration of that era but an educational opportunity for many of us. It also gave an opportunity for the more, shall I say, revered members of our community to lean back, chuckle and reminisce about what it was like then. It wasn't just about jazz, but a history lesson about pre-integration in our town, when that sense of community was all we had. We had a group of people who remembered those days [come in] as consultants and the most moving thing to me was to hear them talk about the demise of the Avenue, to see places you have lived with all your life literally die one by one.

Q: Tell me about the evening you have planned.

A: The evening will be divided into two parts. From 8 to 9 we will have a photo journey of the Avenue with music by the Douglass High School jazz band at the Coppin Center. At 9:30 comedian Andre Brown will perform. He sat in on our reminiscing sessions and I'm sure got a lot of material about the era. Immediately following that, we will have the concert by Cab Calloway and the Count Basie Orchestra.

The second part of the evening will start at 11, when the nightclubs open up at the Tawes Center. We plan to have five different nightclubs from the era, and four of the clubs will feature live music, including Christopher Brooks, a guitarist from New York City who happens to be Cab Calloway's grandson. I should tell you that the $75 VIP tickets will entitle you to the concert, the showcase of jazz nightclubs, plus a special VIP reception. The $40 tickets include the concert and the nightclubs only. The $25 tickets will be for the nightclub crawl only.

Q: What is this year's fund-raising goal?

A: We hope to net $75,000 this year, and the money, of course, will help support Associated Black Charities and the human service programs we support. ABC is 7 years old and in those seven years we have allocated over $2.8 million for 170 programs in Central Maryland. Most of our programs support the human services, such as teen pregnancy prevention, job skills training, elderly care and substance abuse intervention. On average, we allocate $320,000 a year for 20 ongoing programs and, of course, we want to see that grow.

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