“They don’t have a beach; we have a beach,” says Henrietta Shelton in a voice full of emotion as she speaks to an attentive audience at the Stockton University Atlantic City campus during a rainy April morning.
“They don’t have the Atlantic Ocean; they don’t have a boardwalk. So what are we missing?”
In this presentation specially prepared for Stockton’s African American Cultural Heritage event, Shelton questions why the Atlantic City jazz scene is not up to par with major cities, especially after its forgotten heyday.
Although jazz may be historically associated with New Orleans or Chicago, Atlantic City’s jazz clubs had their pinnacle days of glory from the 1930s to the ’60s, when legendary singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie came to perform before local clubs went dark.
Now, a committed group of city music enthusiasts are working to revitalize the jazz scene. The music genre is seen as a valuable art form that represents black heritage, and an opportunity to bring Atlantic City forward by reaching into the past.
Shelton founded the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation in 2000, to keep the legacy of a historical landmark in Atlantic City alive.
Chicken Bone Beach, the once-segregated Missouri Avenue Beach, was nicknamed by locals. Black families brought fried chicken to eat by the ocean, and then buried the bones in the sand.
Shelton does not find the nickname derogatory; growing up, she witnessed the beach bring comradery among the black community. Similar unity happens through black culture and jazz, says Shelton.
The foundation also hosts jazz concerts and summer camps for local youth hoping to revive the jazz scene in Atlantic City through music education.
“Jazz gives me the same vibes that Chicken Bone Beach gave us,” says Shelton.
Atlantic City’s past jazz scene
The salty air of the ocean and the cawing of seagulls greeted Jane Stark on her first visit to Atlantic City in 1963, 15 years before the city’s first casino appeared.
The Atlantic Ocean was merely the first of this student’s sights during her weekend getaway. Stark, a white undergrad, was not a Top 40s girl, nor did she care for rock ’n’ roll. Instead, she was a fan of jazz by black musicians. Her music guru friends were eager to introduce her to the jazz scene in the resort town.
Stark and her friends ventured over to the renowned Kentucky Avenue, the “black side” of the racial divide during a segregated Atlantic City.
With music on almost every street corner, the atmosphere in A.C. had a kinship to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Men in their best suits and women wearing their favorite glam roamed the streets to their club of choice. Some stopped at the 500 Club for Frank Sinatra or Skinny D’Amato. Others visited the Wonder Gardens to see Dizzy Gillespie or Brother Jack McDuff.
Stark’s group of friends chose Club Harlem.
When they arrived at “the place to be” on a Friday night, the line to get in was phenomenally long as fans waited to hear that weekend’s shows. Numerous headliners regularly performed at the premier jazz club for black artists, including Louie Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., and Chris Columbo, who later became Stark’s friend.
In 1979, Stark moved to this resort and gambling center after being hired as entertainment publicist for Tropicana Atlantic City. In 1992, she publicly thanked Columbo at the Showboat after being honored as Business Woman of the Year by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce.
“If it hadn’t been for Chris and his music, I never would have come to Atlantic City as a permanent resident,” she says.
Atlantic City’s present jazz scene
“Once again ladies and gentleman, The Eddie Morgan Trio,” the emcee announces as Eddie Morgan, Daryl Robinson and Jeff Burnside take centerstage at Kelsey’s on Pacific Avenue in 2014.
The calming sound of the keys and drums fill the air before Morgan’s trumpet erupts among the chattering crowd. On the right beat, vocals begin.
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone … It’s not warm when she’s away,” Morgan sings into the microphone.
Morgan, an Atlantic City native, knows the ins and outs of the local jazz scene as he is a performer by night and music teacher by day.
Launched in 1993, The Eddie Morgan Trio is a local band that performs renditions of jazz standards that old souls know by heart, and modern music in a jazzy way. Today, one of their prime venues is Kelsey’s, a club established in 2012 that serves soul food and features live jazz music.
Morgan wishes he could get more gigs, but it has become more and more difficult for local bands, especially jazz artists, to find work. He recalls that by the late 1970s, Kentucky Avenue’s heyday was overlooked as the city’s casino era moved forward.
Morgan explains that there were once many opportunities for professional musicians in Atlantic City.
In 1978, musicians were excited about the opening of the first casino, Resorts International.
Regulations required showrooms seating 350 or more to use live musicians. A few years later the law was lifted after casinos claimed it to be too costly; tapes were a more viable option.
As more casinos opened, showrooms shifted their focus and less opportunities became available for local musicians to perform. This forever altered the music scene of Atlantic City, Morgan remembers.
Today, there is a lot of live music in a city that touts the “Do AC” slogan, as venues such as the Hard Rock, Golden Nugget, Tropicana, Borgata and Boardwalk Hall frequently draw in big names.
However, Morgan notices that casinos tend to feature performers from major cities instead of locally-based groups like his Trio.
For jazz musicians specifically, the scene is even more limited now that the pinnacle glory days of Kentucky Avenue are gone. Like Stark and Shelton, Morgan doesn’t want that history to be forgotten, and he loves to share his knowledge with younger generations.
Morgan teaches general music at Leeds Avenue Elementary School in Pleasantville, a suburban town outside of Atlantic City. In April, Jazz Appreciation Month, he takes the opportunity to talk to his class about the genre with roots from blues and ragtime.
“To see the music of their culture helps you gain an insight as to the way they feel … the way they think,” he lectures, and adds how jazz originated in the early twentieth century from the black communities of New Orleans.
A study of children ages 8 to 11 found that those who had extracurricular music classes developed higher verbal IQ and visual abilities compared to those with no musical training, cited by the National Association of Music Merchants. Morgan finds that students who study music learn to be more focused, resulting in greater academic success.
With most of the jazz scene in Atlantic City obsolete, and fewer opportunities for younger generations to learn about music, Morgan feels a wave of discouragement. Then hope comes along.
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Atlantic City’s future jazz scene
An abandoned, white-shuttered row home aching with blight sits at 726 Indiana Ave., to the left of the Atlantic City Fire Station. The floor of its porch is bright red, screaming for someone to visit.
“They said, ‘We’ll tell you when settlement is. You have the house,’” Shelton says during a tour of the property one recent afternoon. Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation was offered the house by Well Fargo Bank through its Community and Urban Stabilization Program in 2016, and didn’t have to pay a dime.
Shelton is transforming it into the Chicken Bone Beach Youth Institute for Jazz Studies, which will offer year-round music and art lessons to children in Atlantic City. The top floor is going to be a soundproof recording studio used to generate money to keep the school open.
As the house remains gutted, Shelton fundraises and seeks donations and grants to make her dream project soar into the future.
“The babies made this,” she says of the Jazz Institute Coloring Book, created by students to raise money for the future studio.
Two drawings of Gloria Lynne — a famous jazz singer — by students Maryam Bibi and Millie Kelly are in the middle of the book. Lynne and other jazz superstars performed at the Chicken Bone Beach Jazz on the Beach Series at the Boardwalk amphitheater Kennedy Plaza in 2001.
“This is where the babies are going to do their gardening,” Shelton gestures at the backyard of the soon-to-be jazz house, where students will support a planned community vegetable garden. Eight garden boxes are lined up within a fence. Next door, jugs sit at the end of the fire station’s gutters to collect water for the garden.
“And my vision is having these babies play in the summertime,” Shelton says while gazing at the lackluster landscape around the block, which she hopes to transform into a community park.
“I want to carry recognition to Chicken Bone Beach, and talk about the unity and camaraderie that was on that beach,” she says. “And I can do it through jazz. Jazz artists improvise, and they create at that moment, beautiful music on stage. The song he plays today is not the song he plays tomorrow.”
This story was produced as part of Stories of Atlantic City, a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. The project was produced in partnership with Free Press, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, ivoh (Images of Voices and Hope), Stockton University, Authentic City Partners and ThisIsAC co-founder Evan Sanchez, Grace & Glory Yoga and The Leadership Studio co-founder Alexandra Nunzi, Press of Atlantic City, Route 40, SJNtv and BreakingAC. Stories of Atlantic City is funded with a grant from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. To read other stories produced as part of the project, visit www.storiesofac.com.