Five decades ago, Jefferson Street was a hub of social, musical and intellectual life for African-Americans in Nashville — a place where students from nearby Fisk crossed paths with the giants of rhythm and blues, where a kid named Jimi Hendrix stationed at Fort Campbell served his apprenticeship as a hotshot guitarist. This weekend, the organizers of the Jefferson Street Jazz and Blues Festival want the neighborhood to hum again with that kind of creative energy — and their fondest hope is that it won't stop.
Now in its 12th year, the two-day event celebrates Jefferson Street's musical heritage and international importance as a hotbed for jazz, blues, R&B and gospel music. When rock 'n' roll was still in its relative infancy, and Nashville was still chafing under the strictures of segregation, the street's thriving club scene was hosting the likes of Little Richard, Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Etta James. But the building of I-40 in the late 1960s cut a gash through the neighborhood from which it never fully recovered.
This year, however, marks the beginning of construction on Gateway to Heritage, a streetscape improvement project designed to give Jefferson Street a long-anticipated facelift. Its planned public plaza and landscaping are meant to boost economic development and restore some of the luster and vitality the street lost in the days of urban renewal. But on that front, the Jazz and Blues Festival has already been fighting the good fight for more than a decade — part of an ongoing movement to bring Jefferson Street back into the limelight.
Jefferson holds a special place in the history of Nashville soul music and the hearts of the artists who performed there. "Jefferson Street is Nashville's Beale Street," says musician DeFord Bailey Jr., whose father, renowned harmonica player DeFord Bailey, was the first African-American to play the Grand Ole Opry. Jefferson Street, he says, is "the open gate to Nashville."
Billy Cox, the famed bassist who befriended Hendrix and performed with him during his Jefferson Street days, not only seconds those sentiments but says the street's stature gives the music festival added significance.
"Jefferson Street was a leading musical scene in the country," says Cox, who went on to play with Hendrix in his celebrated post-Experience group Band of Gypsys. "This festival is a reminder of how important Jefferson Street was and is as an icon."
Sharon Hurt, who runs the Jefferson United Merchants Partnership, helped to organize the first festival more than a decade ago. She describes the Jazz and Blues Festival as a homecoming for both musicians and Nashvillians — people like Marion James, Nashville's legendary Queen of the Blues, whose music career dates back to Jefferson's glory days. James helped Hurt put together the first lineup and has frequently played the festival in the past, complete with her tiara.
In one regard, the festival has become a victim of its own success. Scheduled throughout its history to roughly coincide with Juneteenth, the national commemoration of slavery's end, it used to take place on Jefferson Street itself. But the popular music fest now draws crowds so large — it hit the 25,000 mark in 2010 — that it had to move to the Bicentennial Capitol Mall last year.
The festival kicks off 6 p.m. Friday with the 9th annual Bridging the Gap Mixer on the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge. This commemorative event gets its name from the festival's underlying purpose — to unite a historically separated community with the rest of Nashville. Vendors and merchants offering food and other goods will line the bridge as Roots of Soul and Steve Roper play sets starting at 7 p.m. DJ Victor Chatman will take over at 10 p.m. until the event ends at 1 a.m.
The Jefferson Street Jazz and Blues Festival begins noon Saturday at the Bicentennial Mall. Neighborhood vendors will offer food, refreshments and goods, while the park's central amphitheater hosts live music throughout the afternoon and into the night. In keeping with Jefferson's history, the lineup of talent spans the worlds of jazz, funk, R&B and blues, including Cojo and the Konnects, the After 5 Tux Band, the Karlton Taylor Trio, the Marcus Finnie Band, the B.B. King All-Stars, Tina Brown, Joe Johnson, and Kevin Whalum. Headliner Howard Hewett, one of the mainstays of '70s/'80s disco-soul hit-makers Shalamar, will close the festival with a set starting at 7:30 p.m.
A Children's Pavilion will offer crafts and activities throughout the day, while seven musical acts tailored to youth will perform from 3 to 6 p.m. Admission to the Bridging the Gap mixer is $10 for adults and $5 for children. There is no admission for the events at the Bicentennial Mall, but those wishing to sit in the 2,000-seat amphitheater can do so for an additional $5 (and VIP seating is available in the first few rows for $20).
Acts are subject to change. For more information, visit JumpToJefferson.com.