Around Memorial Day Weekend 1970 when I was five years old, my grandmother won me yet another prize at a wheel of chance on the Asbury Park Boardwalk: a copy of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, my first big-boy LP. A few weeks later, civil unrest broke out throughout the city, and I didn’t step foot onto the AP boardwalk for a decade!
The West Side of Asbury Park – a mecca not only for jazz, soul, and R&B, but black entrepreneurship – was burned down by its own residents in protest of racial and economic injustice in the city and throughout the country. Until very recently, I never wanted to venture to the shell that remained of Asbury’s West Side, but now I do, and it makes my soul sing to see how its returning to its former glory.
One of the reasons for that is a valiant and noble group of music and history lovers known as Asbury Park African-American Music Project. They are refurbishing the Turf Club, the only standing venue of what once was the Jersey Shore’s take on 52nd street. Dozens of nightclubs, such as the Orchid Lounge, where a young Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band, got his musical start, were just steps apart.
But only the Turf Club now remains, and a benefit for its revitalization as a community venue for music and culture will take place 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. Sunday, June 5 in the nearby garden of Blackbird Commons, 131 Atkins Avenue.
“Throwback Sunday: A Jazz Cocktail Sip” will feature live jazz by the Jimmy Givens Trio, southern food, cocktails, and the Turf Club Story, which also can be enjoyed among many others within AP-AMP’s digital museum here. Tickets are $50 and sponsorships are available at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you love Asbury Park, its music, and history, you won’t miss it because those things that we love are going to get even better thanks to the passionate work of AP-AMP.
I spoke with some of the founding board members about their inspiring efforts. They include:
- President Jennifer Souder, an Asbury Planning and Public Library board member trained in landscape architecture and urban planning with a focus on integrating cultural narratives, equity and sustainability into the built environment
- Treasurer Yvonne Clayton, an Asbury Councilwoman and Planning Board member who grew up and still lives on Springwood Avenue and is a retired corporate leader
- Dr. Melissa Keeling, an accomplished professional musician, composer and music educator who earned a Doctor of Musical Arts – Music Performance (flute) at City University of New York, is a professor at Western Kentucky University, and became involved in AP-AMP while living in Asbury.
Also a founding board member is Secretary Kathleen Melgar, director of the Asbury Park Public Library, an employee there for more than 15 years who is committed to prioritizing community engagement and local history.
I also spoke with Asbury native Charles Trott, a visual artist and arts history educator who created AP-AMP’s logo and is the founder of Diasporic Images of Africa, which primarily uses visual art to show Africa’s connection to countries and cultures around the world. Charles serves on AP-AMP’s Advisory Committee with lifelong Asbury resident Ruben Bray, head security office at the city’s Bradley School and a DJ/sound specialist with Total Xperience Entertainment Group, and Bruce Booker, an artist of many talents living in Asbury Park who creates gardens and woodworks, as well as film documentation of community life as the owner of the There You Go Productions.
I also spoke with Madonna Carter Jackson, an author-photographer who lived more than 30 years in Asbury and graduated from APHS Class of 1967. She has written several books about Asbury Park’s West Side that transform her father’s archive of hundreds of black and white negatives into a pictorial journey as seen through the camera lens of Joseph A. Carter Sr. (1917-1980). Throughout her career, Madonna has owned and operated three Carter’s Photographic Studios in New Jersey, Florida, and South Carolina. Joseph Carter’s photos now can be enjoyed online as Asbury Park A West Side Story on Facebook.
I hope you appreciate the following story about Asbury Park African-American Music Project and the city’s wonderful West Side enough to support them! STREAM AP-AMP here!
What is the Asbury Park African-American Music Project?
Jennifer Souder: The Asbury Park African-American Music Project (AP-AMP) is a volunteer-led, community-driven nonprofit that celebrates the stories of Springwood Avenue, the heart of Asbury Park’s African American community and a place that shares narratives with African American communities around the country.
AP-AMP’s mission is to:
- Share the music, cultural heritage and stories of Springwood Avenue through oral histories, research, writing, and programs
- Develop accessible resources that reflect Asbury Park’s African American music heritage for the City of Asbury Park and others to use as a basis for interpretive heritage projects
- Address a lack of representation in traditional historic resources and give voice to the stories of Asbury Park’s African American community
- Engage all who live in and visit Asbury Park in the active exploration, interpretation, understanding, and preservation of Asbury Park African American cultural heritage
Since its founding, AP-AMP’s has worked intentionally to have the history of Asbury Park’s African American community, which has been underrepresented in the narratives about Asbury Park, shared by those who experienced it. AP-AMP is focused on uplifting those stories and demonstrating the value of documenting, sharing, and celebrating a more comprehensive and inclusive public history. AP-AMP accomplishes this through research, oral histories, programs and outreach. As part of our efforts to preserve African American cultural heritage, AP-AMP is working to restore the Turf Club, the last standing music venue on Springwood Ave.
Visitors can continue to enjoy the contributions of the African-American community and the unique musical space they created within Asbury Park through AP-AMP’s digital museum at asburyamp.org, shared through a partnership with Pass It Down, an interactive platform designed to bring community history to life. AP-AMP’s oral history interviews (audio, video, and transcripts) are also accessible through the Bruce Springsteen Archives at Monmouth University.
Who are the leaders of AP-AMP, and how and why did they get involved, what are their goals, and what impact do they want to make?
Jennifer: AP-AMP’s core team is an eclectic crew of six Asbury Park-based dedicated volunteers, who make up the board and advisory committee and came together around a passion for the preserving the music and history of Springwood Ave. and a goal of making it central to the story of Asbury Park. The board is made up its founding members Yvonne Clayton, Jennifer Souder, Kathleen Melgar and Melissa Keeling. The Advisory Committee includes Charles Trott, Ruben Bray, and Bruce Booker.
What are the most fond memories AP-AMP leaders have of the West Side, and how does that inspire them to help the organization today?
Yvonne Clayton: As far as my memories of Springwood Avenue, it was the activity. There were always people out and about. The stores and restaurants were busy. It was hard to find a parking space. Hopped up cars with young men sitting low in their cars slowly driving down Springwood Ave and flirting with the young ladies. Music coming out of speakers from the record stores and other establishments. The vegetable store had stands on the sidewalk as did Cuba’s newspaper store. Bunce and Carter was a pharmacy with a soda counter upfront for milkshakes, root beer floats or Alka Seltzer if needed.
At night and on weekends, the street was transformed into a show place with beautiful people dressed in their finest. The nightclubs were crowded, and live music poured from the doors of places like the Turf Club. When the clubs closed, party goers would either rush to one of the after-hours places to continue the evening, or one of the late dining places, or Kershaws for BBQ, and finally home to bed. And for the youth, there was the West Side Community Center, a safe place of supervised programs, music lessons, tap dancing, drum and bugle, etc. On Saturday nights, dances at the St. Peter Claver Hall until 11 p.m.
Sunday was a day for church. Springwood Ave. was lined with churches, and almost everybody went. Families and children dressed in their Sunday best. The church was a social center and many activities happened at the church, or the West Side Community Center or The Carver Hotel. Teas, fashion shows, pretty baby contests, etc. The West Side was a self-contained neighborhood that provided all the services a community needs to sustain itself.
What impact has AP-AMP already had on its community and how?
Madonna Carter Jackson: I have been deeply impressed with the enormous impact AP-AMP has made in the community with their limited resources and volunteers to shed a bright light on the Asbury Park music and entertainment history that include musicians and entertainers that would simply be forgotten. Our future generations would otherwise never know the rich history of their hometown celebrities; thus, opening conversations and much needed positive dialogue on race issues in the community that would recognize history that has been unrepresented in media and society because of discrimination. Lastly, the Asbury Park Music Project is an essential tool for sharing and telling the full history of the musical and cultural history of the community of Asbury Park, NJ, and not what is simply classified as celebrity in an isolated arena.
Why should Asbury Park music and history lovers support AP-AMP, and how can they volunteer and donate?
Charles Trott: Asbury Park music and history lovers should support AP-AMP. The Turf Club is the last and only — almost 70-year-old — standing music venue left on Springwood Ave. Generally, people remember and understand history best when they can visit and interact with an actual place, as well as its story. Like any other public service organization, we rely on our patrons to financially help us continue this work. The best way is to go to our website (asburyamp.org) to learn about us, and then they’ll understand why they should donate to this worthy cause.
What was the Asbury West Side music scene like prior to 1970, and what influence has it had on the Asbury Park music scene and its participants since 1970?
Melissa Keeling: Asbury Park’s West Side rich musical history dates to the turn of the 20th century. Although the entire West Side community is less than 1 square mile, dozens of music venues once stood along Springwood Avenue. These venues, such as the Turf Club, Cuba’s, Orchid Lounge, and many others, were known for hosting jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B acts.
Throughout the streets on any given night, from one of the many famous clubs that dotted its strip, listeners could hear the musical sounds of not only icons such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, but also local musicians such as Dee Holland, Cliff Johnson, Al Griffin, and countless others. These clubs were only the start of a larger musical springboard that expanded throughout the entire West Side, with local musicians serenading the rest of the town from their backyard to their front porch.
Although many of these clubs closed their doors since 1970, the musical legacy of the West Side lives on through the rich tapestry of music heard in Asbury Park today. According to JT Bowen, “The sound of Asbury Park … you have to [include] the R&B from the West Side, because some of the white artists came down to hear what was going on. That’s how Bruce became Bruce.”
What are your thoughts on why the fires and damage happened on the West Side during the civil unrest of July Fourth weekend in 1970?
Charles: We need only to look at the history of those times, the sixties to 1970. Cointelpro had established itself on the national and world stage. Provocateurs were always a factor and tactic. The 60-year-old reasons still exist as they did then. They are police and judicial treatment, housing, employment and education. Connect the dots.
How and why is The Turf Club still standing?
Jennifer: We don’t know exactly how and why the Turf Club is still standing, but we’re glad that it is, and we’ve been working hard to make sure it continues to stand. We do know that the Turf Club has come up time and time again in our more than 30 oral history interviews as a place that holds significance to so many people. During AP-AMP’s interview with Mr. Cliff Johnson, who is now 96 years old and played every venue on Springwood Ave., he reminisced, ‘When I think about the Turf, I remember it as the mecca of night life on Springwood Ave. If you were a jazz fan, you knew that the Turf Club featured the best that jazz had to offer in an atmosphere that made you feel like you were on 52nd Street in New York City … One of my fondest memories was being booked to perform there. The corner of Atkins & Springwood was the center of it all!’
As the only remaining venue of the scene, it represents a chance to make sure today’s community and future generations know about the vibrant music scene that once flowed along Springwood Ave. Mr. Cliff Johnson remembers, ‘I was playing at the Elks … On my intermission, I would walk around the block … to the Capitol, listen to what the musicians were playing there … walk just a few steps down from the Capitol, walk into the Turf Club, check those guys out. It was like a round robin … All this was within four minutes, three venues within four minutes, and music going all the time. It was fantastic.’
What is the history of The Turf Club?
Melissa: Of the dozens of music venues that once stood on the West Side of Asbury Park, only one structure remains: The Turf Club. It originally opened in 1940 at 1125 Springwood Ave. On June 30, 1956, it opened at a new spot across the street at 1200 Springwood Ave., where the building remains today.
Music became a mainstay of the Turf Club beginning in 1959 and particularly the 1960s, offering local and national jazz, blues, and R&B acts. Many local musicians performed there, including Al Griffin and the Gents of Jazz, Cliff Johnson and the Squires of Rhythm, Dorian Parreott and the Cubops, and keyboardist Dee Holland. Nationally recognized performers, such as saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who would later join Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; jazz saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, known for his work with Lionel Hampton); organist Jimmy McGriff, and countless others, performed at the Turf Club during this era.
On Jan. 14, 1970, the club was renamed ‘Wakie’s Show Place.’ In the uprising of July 1970, many West Side businesses were burned and never reopened, and Springwood Ave. then suffered decades of disinvestment. But Wakie’s survived and continued to book musical acts. Many performances were advertised in the local newspaper at Wakie’s between 1970 to 1972, including JT Bowen and The Chosen Few. JT Bowen was singer of The Chosen Few, an R&B band based in Asbury Park, with Clarence Clemons and George and Gilbert Davis. Mr. Bowen performs today with JT Bowen and the Mighty Kings of Soul, and recalled during his interview with AP-AMP, ‘My first night out of the service, and I went into the Turf Club … Our main place was the Turf. They had some great bands, good musicians came in there, from all over. That’s the one thing about Asbury too: they used to bring people in from all over the world.’
Since 1972, the club had several different names and owners: ‘Turf Melody Lounge’ (1972-1988), ‘Mae’s Melody Lounge’ (1988-1990), and ‘Sports Turf’ (1990-2000). Musical acts, such as the local group Toogie and the Gang, continued to perform at the Turf throughout the 1970s, but by 1979, it was no longer the brilliant night spot it once was. The Turf finally shut its doors around 2000, and remained vacant for many year … until recently.
How and why is AP-AMP able to have events in The Turf Club now?
Jennifer: In 2020, AP-AMP partnered with community members to revitalize the structure. Through collaboration with Springwood Avenue Rising, a local community partner, artist Larry Walker painted murals on the exterior, which includes images of local musicians, some of whom played the Turf in its heyday. The interior of the building had had become overgrown with vegetation, and AP-AMP organized a clean-up day with a group of hardworking volunteers including the Asbury Park Quality of Life Committee, the Asbury Park Environmental and Shade Tree Commission, Asbury Park Department of Public Works and Springwood Avenue Rising.
In the summer of 2021, AP-AMP initiated a series of open-air concerts inside the Turf Club called ‘Tuesdays at the Turf.’ These concerts featured many local musicians who had once played there, such as Al Holmes, Vel Johnson, Bill Carter, and Bob Lee. ‘Tuesdays at the Turf’ marked the first time live music had been performed at the Turf Club in over 20 years. Since the Turf Club is currently a vacant roofless structure, the events were homegrown roll-up-your-sleeves, carry in chairs and coolers of water type of events under the open sky. These evenings of music were extraordinary and a coming home for many from the community, including a particularly special moment when saxophonist Cliff Johnson stopped by and listened to some of the musicians that he inspired. The events included generous technical support from Asbury Audio and the Cazzeek Brothers provided security. Macrobites, who serves healthy delicious food across the street, joined Tuesdays at the Turf so attendees could purchase a snack. Through the generosity of our community and partnership with Vince Gifford, the Asbury Park African-American Music Project purchased the Turf Club in January 2022.
What are the plans for The Turf Club? When will it officially open, who will operate it, and what programming will it have?
Jennifer: The Asbury Park African-American Music Project has been gathering stories about the Turf Club since 2017 and is working to restore the Turf Club into a community music and cultural venue. AP-AMP is raising funds for the comprehensive renovation of the Turf Club beginning with a historic preservation plan and construction of a roof. AP-AMP is working with Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects to develop a Conditions Assessment Report & Historic Preservation Plan, and comprehensive design for the Turf Club renovation. We don’t know when it will officially open, but if we are awarded a grant we have applied for from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the construction of the new roof will start in 2022. AP-AMP is fortunate to have support from many professionals, including historic preservationists, architects, landscape architects, and attorneys who have been providing guidance for the Turf Club restoration.
Once renovations are complete, AP-AMP envisions a community music/cultural venue that retains the intimacy and evokes the spirit of the Turf Club in Springwood Avenue’s heyday. We see it as an opportunity to revitalize a piece of African American history — not to preserve a superficial façade of a bygone era — but to reactivate the Turf Club as a catalyst for community-empowered redevelopment of Springwood Ave. The Turf Club will provide opportunities for people of all ages to hear live music, learn to play music, and be immersed in the cultural heritage of Springwood Ave. This project is informed by AP-AMP’s community history program that preserves and shares the stories of Springwood Avenue and includes research, oral histories and the dissemination of AP-AMP’s materials on AP-AMP’s digital museum through Pass It Down, an interactive platform designed to bring community history to life. As a community-driven project, the development process itself provides benefits, such as intergenerational engagement, community-building and investment. Long term, the Turf Club will be a place of joy for the community that both connects to the past and provides an inspiration for the generations to come. The renovation and reopening of the Turf Club is a symbol of success for the community, which has experienced significant disinvestment and cultural erasure.
The project’s goal is not only to preserve history but also to ensure that the celebration of this history cultivates joy and benefits for both the community that was here during Springwood Ave.’s heyday, the community that is here today, and the future community.
Will the programming include hip-hop and club music or stick to its soul, jazz, and R&B roots?
Jennifer: The Turf Club programming will celebrate its roots of soul, jazz and R&B, but the Turf Club will feature all genres of music. AP-AMP works to cultivate and promote intergenerational learning, including passing of history and sharing of music from one generation to the next. AP-AMP has been fortunate to be beneficiaries of music events around Asbury Park, such as hip-hop events at the Asbury Lanes organized by WeStar and Trinity Church by Light Brigade Collective, What a Wonderful Year at the Wonder Bar organized by Telegraph Hill Records, Asbury Band Aid at the Stone Pony and Asbury Park PorchFest. Through these events, AP-AMP has connected with musicians of all genres and looks forward to them joining the lineup at future Turf Club events.
Does AP-AMP or anyone else have any plans to resurrect any other historic West Side clubs, such as The Orchid Lounge?
Jennifer: AP-AMP is focused on the Turf Club for now and the urgency to document the history of Springwood Ave. while we still have the opportunity to sit and hear these stories from those who experienced the history first-hand.
What events does AP-AMP have coming up, when and where, and what are the goals of those events?
Jennifer: AMP AP-AMP is hosting ‘Throwback Sunday: Jazz Cocktail Sip’ on Sunday June 5t at 5 p.m. The Jazz Cocktail Sip is a fundraiser for the Turf Club and will be held in the garden of Blackbird Commons, 131 Atkins Ave., down the street from the Turf Club. The evening will feature live jazz by the Jimmy Givens Trio, southern food, cocktails, and the Turf Club Story! Tickets are available through Eventbrite or with cash/check at the Asbury Park Public Library. Sponsorships for the event are also available.
AP-AMP also plans to the host ‘Tuesdays at the Turf’ this summer. The series will run for six consecutive Tuesdays beginning July 5. The lineup promises to entertain and will feature both musicians who performed in the Turf Club’s heyday, as well as the next generation of musicians. Tuesdays at the Turf are designed to bring the community together to hear live music and generate support for the Turf Club’s renovation.
What other means of fundraising is AP-AMP pursuing, and how can volunteers help with it?
Jennifer: AP-AMP launched the New Year, New Turf Campaign in 2022 and created a committee that is helping to focus on fundraising efforts for the Turf Club. AP-AMP needs volunteers to help with fundraising and with events. AP-AMP is also always looking for help from people interested in archival work and administrative support. There are many ways to help AP-AMP and become part of preserving the history of Springwood Avenue! People can always find out more, check out AP-AMP’s documentaries and digital museum, purchase AP-AMP merch and donate online at asburyamp.org The AP-AMP team can be reached here: email@example.com.
Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
Jennifer: As Kofi Boone, North Carolina State Professor/scholar of African American landscapes, notes, ‘The places in cities where Black people led their lives in the 20th century are too often the same locations at risk due to the forces of urban renewal, gentrification, and displacement. Revitalizing these cultural landscapes, such as the Turf Club, through community-led arts and cultural programming is a proven strategy used to make heritage relevant and connected to future generations.’
Kofi Boone is a University Faculty Scholar and Professor at NC State University in the College of Design. Kofi is a Detroit native and a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSNR 1992, MLA 1995). His work is in the overlap between landscape architecture and environmental justice with specializations in democratic design, digital media, and interpreting cultural landscapes. Kofi has provided ongoing guidance to AP-AMP.
Bob Makin has produced Makin Waves since 1988. Follow Makin Waves on Facebook and contact Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.