A glimpse of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue in another day: James Brown throwing off his cape at the storied Royal Theater, and Miles Davis blowing his trumpet amid the glitz and bright lights that once made the auditorium a mecca for jazz and blues.
The character of the neighborhood around the now-defunct Royal Theater isn't so sparkly now, having been sullied by crime and drugs since the club closed in 1970. But Maryland Institute College of Art students are doing their part to illustrate what they hope will be a new page of city history on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Kirk Jackson and other students want to help bring back the theater's -- and the neighborhood's -- magic. Starting next week, the biggest names of jazz and rhythm and blues once again will light up the West Baltimore corridor where nightclubs once thrived.
This time, the artists will appear on murals painted by Jackson's nonprofit art group, Urban Renaissance.
"So many people say the Royal Theater used to be The Spot, like it was Baltimore's answer to Harlem's Apollo Theater," said Jackson, 19, a sophomore. "This was us trying to help rebuild Pennsylvania Avenue, us making a conscious effort to help restore what it used to be."
The 12 panels -- portraits of such legendary artists as Aretha Franklin and Duke Ellington, as well as more recent stars such as Lauryn Hill and Tupac Shakur -- will be unveiled today at the Father's Day Cadillac Parade and Royal Theater Show on Pennsylvania Avenue. The 5 1/2 -foot-by-3 1/2 -foot panels soon will be installed in window frames above a neighborhood business, the Crazy Mart.
A hub at one time
Before the 1960s, the area around the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue was a center of commerce and night life, home not only to the Royal Theater, but also hotspots such as the Regent Theater, the Sphinx Club and the Comedy Club. American jazz greats performed nightly, among them Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
With desegregation, some African-Americans moved out of the city, and The Avenue began a downward slide. By the late '60s, the lively nightclubs that once had attracted up to 25,000 patrons on Saturday nights were all but silenced.
The murals are a way for people to remember a bygone era. George Gilliam, executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative, said they're also a way to honor the street's history while improving the area.
He met Jackson when he saw members of Urban Renaissance painting caricatures of children near the Crazy Mart four months ago.
Jackson had recently founded Urban Renaissance with fellow MICA students Rahiem Milton and Levon Lewis; their mission is "to promote positive change and personal growth through art."
The marriage was perfect, Gilliam and Jackson said.
"We look at the resources available to the community," Gilliam said. "This is phenomenal talent that's right here in the community, that's going to school. We are utilizing all our resources in the community to help make it a better community."
Gilliam's idea was to honor the many musicians who had made the Royal Theater famous. He gave Urban Renaissance a list of names: Franklin, Brown, Davis, Calloway, Holiday, Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Nina Simone.
Bridging the gap
But Jackson and his friends felt something was missing. "We wanted to bridge the gap between his generation and our generation," Jackson said.
So they added two names: rapper Hill and Shakur, the rap star killed when shots were fired into the car in which he was riding in Las Vegas in 1996.
The students first went to the computer lab to research their subjects.
"We found out most of the people [on the list] were in the same situation as today, with drugs, getting caught up in material possessions," Jackson said. "We wanted to bring out some of their downfalls."
For Shakur, Milton painted two images of the slain rapper, an older and a younger version. Seven small circles appear in the middle of the painting, possibly representing seven sins, said Milton, 21.
For Brown, Jackson painted a picture of the Godfather of Soul on his knees on stage, underneath an image of the singer's strained face as he shouts.
Other artists involved in the project include Terrance Wilson, Benari Stewart, Sie Langley, Isaiah McKee, Lydia Williamson, Wakisha Smith, and Khalil Gill.
"Doing this gives me a chance to express myself," Jackson said. "Seeing murals, I always wondered growing up, `Who did that?' I never knew actually who did them. This gave me a chance to not only find out who does the panels, but to actually do it."
Lewis said many people will be able to relate to what the murals express. "I wanted to let people on the street know that I feel where they're coming from," said Lewis, 19. "There's more to the people on these panels than just the images."