Despite funding cuts, Henrietta Shelton's jazz concert series will play again this summer in Atlantic City
Before Kicking off the Jazz on the Beach concert series in 2000, Henrietta Shelton hadn't realized that it would put her American Express card $14,000 in debt. But the president and founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, Inc., wasn't going to let a little thing like money stop her from nurturing the series into one of the city's most popular summer events.
"It's just a project I believe in," says Shelton, a 31-year employee at the William J. Hughes Technical Center. The long-time A.C. resident is currently making final arrangements for this summer's concert series, which is scheduled to begin July 6 and run through Aug. 24 at Kennedy Plaza. Initially, the idea for the free weekly concert series, which has presented well known jazz musicians (Donald Byrd, Gloria Lynne, Greg Osby) on the Boardwalk during the months of July and August for the past several years, came to Shelton after presenting a single concert on the beach at Missouri Avenue featuring famed jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers in August 2000.
"We had over 2,000 people on the beach," remembers Shelton, who held the concert in memory of the spirit of all those summers she experienced growing up in A.C. during the 1950s. After that initial concert, Shelton helped write a proposal to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) for a weekly summer jazz concert series. She was convinced that the series would attract tourists to the Boardwalk and liven up the one-time jewel of the city.
So far it's been a success. Shelton's work, not only with the jazz series, but with her foundation's scholarship and student summer jazz programs, has received accolades from all over. Next week, at A.C.'s annual Host Awards gala, Shelton will be presented with the Spirit of Hospitality award, sponsored by the Atlantic City Convention and Visitor's Authority (ACCVA).
"[Henrietta's] created an annual event that's gained a loyal following," says Jeffrey Vasser, the ACCVA's executive director. "It creates a fun atmosphere on the Boardwalk, and attracts people from all walks of life. It also bridges a fascinating part of our past with the present ‚Always Turned On' aspects of Atlantic City."
Shelton's non-profit foundation, and the concert series it presents, ties into the resort's storied past on many levels. Aside from redirecting a focus on the Boardwalk each summer, its primary mission has been to help illustrate to the streams of tourists who line the wooden way what an amazingly tight-knit, beautiful and special place the city's once segregated Chicken Bone Beach was during the first half of the 20th century. And in doing so, Shelton has hoped to present a slice of the city's black past that isn't always obvious to visitors.
"I realized that when tourists came into Atlantic City, they had no idea what we blacks used to be," says Shelton, whose family settled in Atlantic City in the early 1950s when she was a child. "They'd come to Atlantic City and see things all run down and dilapidated, so their vision of us is almost thrown back to the slavery days. I knew the vision of us was as entrepreneurs, people that were dressed up, and of substance, and who owned homes. I knew that part of it [because] that's what I was raised on."
During the first half of the last century, mainstream tendencies toward segregation and racism restricted blacks to use the beach at Missouri Avenue, which was eventually given the nickname, "Chicken Bone Beach." Although the name was thought by some to be derogatory, over the years the moniker has come to affectionately represent a sense of African-American pride and unity in the city, according to Shelton.
Black families visiting the beach town weren't allowed at many other places so they would gather at the Missouri Avenue beach. Even the many black entertainment stars who were in town for a gig could be seen there rubbing elbows with both locals and tourists.
"You could see Sarah Vaughan walking around," says Shelton. "Everybody was at their best. It was a meeting, a gathering. ... And if you moved out of town, every weekend you would still come home and go to that beach."
Shelton remembers, as a child, sharing sand with some of the day's A-list African-American entertainers ‚- everybody from Billie Holiday to Sammy Davis Jr. ‚- many of whom, despite being the main attraction at a city showroom, were also restricted from what public places they could attend.
But out of the negative blanket of racism, the beach-goers turned their beach into a positive: a safe haven and a place with a family vibe and a loving spirit. "Atlantic City was really an interesting town and I was really fortunate to grow up here," says Shelton. "Little by little, I'm trying to tell our story."
Shelton's deep interest and pride in local African-American history propelled her to expand the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation and present the concert series each year despite a number of sponsorship and funding setbacks she's had to overcome.
"The first year I was $14,000 in debt [after] my first show," says Shelton. After writing the series proposal, the CRDA helped with her bills. "The next year, the CRDA came and gave me money," she says. Then other funding followed.
After securing various sponsorships, Shelton used her ability as a coordinator to enlist family and friends to help her with the concert series. They printed up T-shirts, booked acts, found inexpensive production crews and introduced her to people. At first, however, it was just Shelton going it alone.
"I didn't have anybody else to help me," she says. "Everybody else thought I was crazy."
Through hours of paperwork, meetings and phone calls, Shelton has fostered relationships with a variety of people, all of whom lend support in some way to her overall vision. She's established relationships with a few of the casinos in town, local businesses, and corporations such as Comcast. The ACCVA offers help, too, as does the city's Fairfield Inn by Marriott.
"This is how people come into my life," says Shelton, "I've met all these people and they saw my passion and they saw what I wanted to do and they were just there for me."
Shelton says one of the most important thing's she's had to do is learn "how to beg." This, she says, is one of the primary reasons for the success of the non-profit concert series.
“As a matter of fact, before I moved to New York, I saw Coltrane at his mother’s house one day and was talking to him about how I was thinking about going to New York and he wished me luck.”
Plus Drew Toonz, the Atlantic City Antiques Show and (New!) Singles of the Week
The Atlantic County Chapter of the American Conference on Diversity will honor Atlantic City’s Henrietta Shelton at its Annual Humanitarian Awards Dinner at the Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield on Thursday, Dec. 1.
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The line-up for the 11th annual Jazz on the Beach concert series in Atlantic City has been announced and the schedule is chock full of amazing talent.
The Wrecking Crüe
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Fight Night at Boardwalk Hall