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Live Jazz Returns to Kentucky Avenue

The newly opened Redding's in Atlantic City kicked off its 'Jazz Alive' series with Hammond B3 great Joey DeFrancesco Tuesday night, Feb. 8.

By Jeff Schwachter
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Feb. 9, 2011

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For most of the 1950s and '60s, Atlantic City's Kentucky Avenue was a mecca for live jazz music. 
 
As the historical marker on the Atlantic City Boardwalk at Kentucky Avenue reads, "For more than four decades Kentucky Avenue ruled the East Coast music scene. The greatest jazz and blues [and soul] stars of all time filled its many clubs with round-the-clock entertainment, including Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Atlantic City's national treasure, drummer Chris Columbo and his Swing Crew in the forties and fifties." 
 
The night spots that helped make Atlantic City the destination resort that it was in its heyday, all of which have since been demolished without a trace, such as the Club Harlem and Grace's Little Belmont, featured live jazz when the American music was still evolving and its players' creative juices were flowing like wild fire. Folks who are lucky enough to remember what it was like to be at one of those shows, recall the energy, the power, and the joy that filled the rooms.
 
As the late Atlantic City historian and former Club Harlem house band drummer Sid Trusty once said, "Every night was our party. And we invited the world."
 
And during those many Atlantic City summers of yesteryear the world came. And they took in the music. It seeped through their sun-tanned pores. 
 
For many top-name Hammond B3 organ players in particular, Kentucky Avenue's many clubs were where they spent many a summer's day.  
 
Jazz organ greats such as Wild Bill Davis, Lonnie Smith, Groove Holmes, Larry Young, Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff were frequently booked at the many popular jazz clubs that once lined the famous avenue, fondly known as "Ky & the Curb." 
 
Margate resident and world-class Hammond B3 player Dan Fogel, who still appears in the area on occasion playing behind his organ, but mostly performs overseas, spent many days and nights of his childhood at the clubs on Kentucky Avenue.
 
"I just knew I wanted to be there," says Fogel, "but nobody would go with me — 10 years old on the Northside — there were a lot of phobias about being over there."
 
But the young Fogel would sneak out of his bedroom and take the bus to Kentucky Avenue. He started shining shoes outside the clubs as a child, then went on to learn how to play the Hammond B3 by watching and listening to the legends playing inside. By age 16 Fogel was playing regularly at a club called the Wonder Gardens. (His band also featured Fogel's Atlantic City High School classmate Harvey Mason, who would go on to become one of the busiest session drummers in the music business for decades, and who is a member of the group Fourplay.) 
 
Why does any of this matter in February 2011?
 
Because Feb. 8, 2011, to be precise, will go down in history as the night live jazz music returned — triumphantly — to Kentucky Avenue.
 
It came courtesy of the hard work and passion of many people, but especially two men in particular — Harlem transplant Carl Redding and Brigantine producer Joe Donofrio
 
Staring out the window of the large restaurant, which also includes a bar area to the side, on this extremely cold night, one could see the street sign "Kentucky Avenue" on the corner while munching on items such as sweet potato soufflé, Chef Redding's "Soul Roll," southern fried catfish and banana pudding.
 
But as much as the night was about highlighting the amazing food at Redding's, the newly opened southern cuisine restaurant in Atlantic City, it was also about looking back in order to look ahead into the resort town's future. 
 
It may have been serendipity, but Redding's kicked off its much anticipated "Jazz Alive" series with Hammond B3 maestro Joey Defrancesco. His trio tore up the joint, which was packed with patrons of all stripes for the first of the evening's two sets. Among the tunes played were the jazz standard "Embraceable You" and DeFrancesco's tribute to Michael Jackson.
 
Despite Atlantic City's rich jazz history, Francesco, who had been working on a recording project with the late great jazz organist Jimmy Smith just days before he died in 2005, told the large crowd it was his first appearance in Atlantic City. 
 
Still, it was a fitting connection for Donofrio, whose production company is booking the jazz series at Redding's, to have a Hammond B3 giant kick off what many people hope will be a successful and long-term music program at the restaurant. 
 
"Jazz has been a part of my life since I was like three years old," Redding told AC Weekly during the event, adding that he can play various woodwind instruments himself. "So the idea to bring live jazz here was a no brainer for me. I'm from New York and I didn't even learn about places like Club Harlem until I came [to Atlantic City], so this is pretty cool."
 
More than 60 years after the jazz age in Atlantic City, live jazz music has returned to Kentucky Avenue.
 
It may have been a happy accident, but most important is the "happy" part. 
 
And for the folks — young and old — who braved the cutting winds and low temps, many of them locals and some from Philadelphia, New York and points beyond, it was a night to celebrate.
 
Kentucky Avenue is back in business, Atlantic City has a new attraction, and live music is being embraced like it used to be "back in the day."
 
As for Redding's, with its urban vibe, sophisticated atmosphere, large street-side windows, incredible food and the renowned jazz trio on the bandstand, it seemed, Tuesday night, that the future of Atlantic City may be in its storied past.
 
Who knows, a few years from now, you may see people lining up around the block waiting to get into Redding's as they once did to get into the Club Harlem's 6am Sunday Breakfast Show. 
 
Anything could happen.
 
Click here to read about the late jazz legend Art Blakey and his deep connection to the Atlantic City area. Read more here.

What do you think about live jazz returning to Atlantic City's famed Kentucky Avenue?

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1. geoff rosenberger said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 12:18PM

“Spend 5 minutes with carl redding... you'll know you are with a man of great vision and industry. Congrats to he and Donofrio for the jazz series. A related side story should note that Miss Audrey Hart & M.K.Thomas of the ACBCA (Atlantic City Business and Citizens Association, Steven Young and Cornell Davis, of Polaris Development group met in the governor's office last Thurs to bring to light plans to return elements of Kentucky Avenue that should never have been destroyed. They were favorably received, and believe Kentucky Ave shall be recreated bigger and better than ever... good job to all involved.”

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2. JazzHead said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 12:32PM

“That would be the best thing AC could do ... bring back Kentucky Avenue. It should have never been destroyed in the first f-in place.”

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3. Turiya said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 02:58PM

“Let's hope this is just the beginning! I know it can be done if all parties involved pull together. Sorry I missed the 1st night, just can't get to everything.”

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4. sandy warren said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 08:26PM

“The spirits of Art Blakey and other jazz greats from the AC area are full of smiles as are all of us jazz fans who have been waiting for this day for so long!”

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5. Jazz Organist! Dan Fogel said... on Feb 10, 2011 at 01:40AM

“Harvey Mason and I were the Houseband mentioned in this article at the Wonder Gardens for many years. We would start work early in the morning from 6:00 am -10:00am sometimes playing till noon depending on the crowd. We also played the the regular evening shows between headliners.
I recall one evening in particular when my dear friend Organist Jimmy McGriff was headlining that week and he asked Harvey and me and our guitarist to fill in for him as he had to go out for a minute. I'll never forget that evening as he never returned and all these people were coming in to see Jimmy McGriff and instead saw this little white boy up there ;of course Harvey Mason and me tearing up the Hammond B-3; and taking no prisoners ( no pun intended). Jimmy finally returned at the end of the night but the crowd seemed no less disappointed by our soulful performance. I was 13 yrs. old. For more stories on KY Ave. - Videos at Chickenbone Beach and my life - go to www.danfogel.org- option Press section”

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6. Rev. Gil Caldwell said... on Feb 10, 2011 at 05:36AM

“55 years ago, I came to Atlantic City in the summers to earn money
for my tutition at North Carolina A. & T College in Greensboro. I will
never forget standing on Kentucky Avenue listening to the bold and
creative sounds of Jazz coming from inside Club Harlem and Grace's
Little Belmont. I particularly enjoyed the organ music of Jimmy Smith.

How great it is that Jazz has returned to Kentucky Avenue at Reddings. There is a universality about Jazz that breaks through all of the artificial fences we create to separate ourselves. The late/great pianist/educator
Billy Taylor wrote the song that has the words; " I wish I knew how it feels to be free, to break all the chains that are holding me." Thanks to Chef Carl
and Joe Donofrio for sponsoring and promoting a music form that is indigenous to the USA; Jazz. May the Jazz back on Kentucky Avenue break through any of the chains that may be holding Atlantic City back.

Pastor Caldwell, Asbury Church”

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7. Cornell Davis said... on Feb 10, 2011 at 10:02AM

“Kentucky Avenue is the one area in AC that offers the opportunity for grass roots entertainment done in the 21st century. Restoring KY Ave and will bridge the Northside and Southside together and create that drawing hub for persons from all walks of life local and extended to enjoy Atlantic City, NJ 08401”

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8. "Action" JACKSON said... on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:47AM

“Well, i am so glad to see this type of progress taking place in this city. So many negatives, yet with a glimps of light from a visionary man, Mr. Redding, my hat goes off to you. I am excited to see what type of additional synergies with success will begin to sprout up from this. My great uncle Tommy Flannagan would be so happy to see what has happened. Lets get to the heart of the matter, put aside stupid political agendas and make this city what it should be...things don't happen until they are ready to happen...it is time.”

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9. Cinematic Moments Video said... on Feb 14, 2011 at 09:05AM

“Gotta love the resurgence of jazz in South Jersey!”

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10. Anonymous said... on May 3, 2011 at 09:10AM

“I am encouraging my family whose reunion will be held in A.C. July 8, 9, and 19, 2011 to visit Reddings. My husband and I ate there earlier this year and loved it.”

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