Seeking to revive a music scene that’s been relegated to history books, museum exhibits and grandparents’ anecdotes, Lorenzo Washington has started a new record label and hung his shingle on Jefferson Street.
Between the 1940s and the 1970s, Jefferson Street was a vibrant corridor of live music where future superstars like Ray Charles, B.B. King, Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix cut their teeth and where local legends like Ted Jarrett, Marion James, Frank Howard and Jimmy Church made their names.
But a series of factors, especially the construction of I-40, which severed the road from the rest of the city and gobbled up some of Jefferson Street’s most prominent venues, conspired to shush the rhythm and blues, soul, rock and jazz music that emanated from there.
Washington’s label is called Jefferson Street Sound, and his business’s motto is “Back in the Day — Shaping Tomorrow.” The label’s first release — a collection of R&B-infused jazz songs by the Don Adams Band modestly titled “Caution: May Cause Passion” — is available through online retailers.
And Washington has started an affiliated project to pay homage to Jefferson Street’s proud musical heritage by creating a genealogy tree showing the nightclubs and the legendary artists who came through during its heyday. Also included in the tree, which Washington has printed on T-shirts, posters, postcards and donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, are the Fisk University Jubilee Singers and the musical students and faculty from Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University).
Washington believes Jefferson Street Sound is the only active record label on the North Nashville corridor. His goal is to show that the music business can function there, and he hopes to shine a spotlight that could draw live venues back to the street. Pointing to the redevelopment of the Germantown and Salemtown neighborhoods on the east end of the corridor, and the thousands of students attending TSU and Fisk, Washington said he believes a live music venue could thrive there.
“You’re talking about a scene that is so vitally important not just to Jefferson Street, but to our city and our culture,” Washington said.
The Making of The Music Tree
Washington, 70, is not a musician by trade, but this isn’t his first stab at a record label. He previously co-owned and operated hip-hop and gospel labels, though his living has been earned through a cleaning business he owns.
He grew up going to the smoke-filled nightclubs along Jefferson Street such as Del Morocco Club, New Era, Club Stealaway and Maceo’s Club. Some of the venues were a block or two off Jefferson. His work in the music business began in the 1970s when he owned a vinyl record shop on Buena Vista called The Soul Shack.
In 2010 he found space in a house-turned-office at 2004 Jefferson St., and it became the Jefferson Street Sound headquarters. It is decorated with dozens of photos of the artists who played on Jefferson Street or worked with him over the years.
The music genealogy tree was already in the works when Washington contacted James, an accomplished blues singer and fellow defender of Jefferson Street’s musical history, about a project.
“I told her, I want to do a song that’s about Jefferson Street, that’s about the clubs on Jefferson Street and the Jefferson Street scene,” Washington said. “She told me, ‘I already got a song.’ ”
James, Nashville’s Queen of the Blues, had written a song called “Back in the Day,” which poignantly describes what those venues, which ranged in capacity from a few dozen in the audience to as many as 200 at Club Baron, and what the scene was like. The single was produced by Adams, a New Jersey transplant whose primary instrument is the bass. Adams has accompanied an array of artists, including iconic jazz musician Miles Davis and Philadelphia soul star Billy Paul.
Washington would turn to Adams to write, produce and record the label’s first full-length debut under the name the Don Adams Band.
Adams describes the music on “Caution: May Cause Passion” as a new genre because it borrows elements from jazz, R&B and soul.
“We ended up with what we got, which is a really good product,” Adams said. “It’s a whole new genre of music. It’s not just the fusion jazz everybody else is doing.”
A Hotbed for R&B
During the days of segregation, Jefferson Street was the central corridor not just for live music but for a wide range of African-American businesses.
The live music scene was boosted over time by a series of factors, especially WLAC disc jockeys playing the rhythm-and- blues records by the artists who were bringing fans to the clubs on Jefferson Street. Radio play spurred independent labels recording music here, and record stores selling the albums. The popular “Night Train” television show used Nashville talent to highlight the city’s music scene as well.
But the backbone of the local scene was Jefferson Street’s live music. When African-American celebrities such as Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson came to town, they stayed in hotels on Jefferson Street, dined in restaurants on the road and went to the nightclubs for entertainment.
“Even though Nashville has such a reputation as Music City, largely because of country music, a lot of people really don’t realize that Nashville really was a hotbed for rhythm-and-blues music after the war in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” said Michael Gray, a historian with the Country Music Hall of Fame, who curated the 2004 Night Train to Nashville exhibit about the scene. “One of the main things was the live music scene here.”
When the interstate project literally meant some of the clubs were torn down, and the corporatization of the music industry took the record labels out of the city, the live venues slowly went away. By the late ’70s, the live music scene had ground to a halt.
As Nashville bass player Jesse Boyce, who played in the clubs as a young man and then went on to have a celebrated career of his own, explained, Jefferson Street is Nashville’s original Music Row.
“Each generation should know the history of those who came before them,” Boyce said. “That’s why people are so proud of what Lorenzo is doing with Jefferson Street Sound. It’s about the music we all grew up with, and it’s about the new music he’s putting out.”
Washington said that as Jefferson Street revitalizes with new developments on its east end, possibly accentuated by a new ballpark proposed by Mayor Karl Dean, his label could serve as a reminder that it’s time for the music business to return there.
“If I accomplish nothing else, I want people to know that music can return to Jefferson Street. I feel a new ball of energy inside me for what this could be,” Washington said.
Contact Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tnnaterau.