NASHVILLE — After 14 years of delays and fundraising troubles, the National Museum of African American Music is finally on track to be built in Nashville.
Project leaders say construction is expected to begin in early 2015 for the museum, which will be one component of a larger redevelopment on the site of the old Nashville Convention Center led by developer Pat Emery.
The former convention center site is the third location leaders have selected over the past 14 years for the museum, which lowered its fundraising goal when the city offered the site. Museum president and CEO H. Beecher Hicks said the museum is about two-thirds to its latest goal of $25 million, but indicated it is not essential that the full goal be met before construction begins.
The project turned a corner last year when new leadership was put in charge, highlighted by hiring Hicks and naming banker Kevin Lavender as chairman of the board. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean followed by hosting a fundraiser for the museum at his home late last year.
“I think there were skeptics in the beginning and there are still some now,” Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. President and CEO Butch Spyridon said. “Hiring (Hicks) was a major statement from Kevin and his leadership from the board. The fact that 10 years later we’re closer than we’ve ever been says the project is real. It’s resilient, and it’s worthwhile.”
Besides serving as another music-themed tourist attraction, the museum has extra cultural significance in Nashville.
Known best for country music, some say Nashville’s original “Music Row” was Jefferson Street, which until the 1970s was a vibrant corridor of live music venues where iconic musicians like Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix built their careers and where local legends like Frank Howard, Jimmy Church and Marion James earned a living.
Effort began in 2000
The wheels were put in motion for Nashville to build a museum to honor African American culture in 2000 when the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce created a task force to study the issue. A year later, a feasibility study supported the creation of the Museum of African American Music, Art and Culture. That idea was changed to focus on just music in 2011.
Initially, the project had a fundraising goal of more than $43 million, but that was reduced after the city offered up the convention center. In 2006, the city committed $10 million toward the project, and Dean says the city’s commitment still stands.
Lavender said the 2008 recession damaged fundraising efforts, adding that potential donors wanted to see the project advance before committing donations.
“I believe there is strong interest and demand for this type of museum, and the planned location is in a vibrant section of our downtown,” Dean said.
Paying homage to Nashville Artists
Some museum supporters say the city hasn’t done enough to honor the legacy of the Jefferson Street music scene. Construction of the museum, they say, would go a long way toward paying homage to the African American musicians who have called Nashville home.
Local businessman Lorenzo Washington started a record label last year on Jefferson Street, called Jefferson Street Sound. Washington’s mission is show that the music industry can function there again.
“People are excited at the prospect of this finally happening and honoring the Nashville artists who played on Jefferson,” Washington said.
Nashville’s Frank Howard was a popular vocalist and a staple on the Jefferson Street music scene, which thrived from the 1940s through the 1970s until the interstate project gobbled up several of the nightclubs and put others out of business.
Howard hopes the museum will honor the legacies of musicians who were influential to many genres of music, but never became household names like B.B. King, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. Those highly recognizable artists performed in clubs on Jefferson Street, but Howard called them “pass-throughs” who would play a gig and then move on to the next town.
“Start with us, the local guys that brought this music forward,” Howard said. “This is where this music came from. It irks me just a little bit, but I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude. …
“I’m worried about people forgetting the people that really made the music in this town like Earl Gaines and Freddie Waters. I consider Freddie Waters one of the greatest singers.”
Hicks said the museum would honor the Fisk Jubilee Singers, gospel musicians and the local artists as well as the accomplishments of a broad range of legendary African American performers, from soul queen Aretha Franklin to hip-hop artist Ludacris to pop artist Beyonce.
And the museum has already started a series of community-based programming such as teaching Nashville schoolchildren about early instruments such as the spoons, the washboard bass and the cigar-box guitar.
“We’ve reached already several thousand kids and adults with the program we’re doing,” Hicks said. “That’s beginning to turn the light bulb on for people, and they’re beginning to see us tell the story already even before the construction starts.”
To learn more about the National Museum of African American Music community programs, visit www.nmaam.org.