Bringing the Jazz Back

Arnetta Johnson on trumpet and Kendall Haskins on bass, both members of the Reginald Lewis Quintet play in Lawnside, N.J., once the home of a vibrant jazz and blues culture. The group is five college students who reunited this summer to play. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Arnetta Johnson on trumpet and Kendall Haskins on bass, both members of the Reginald Lewis Quintet play in Lawnside, N.J., once the home of a vibrant jazz and blues culture. The group is five college students who reunited this summer to play. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 25, 2014

The walls are a splash of warm colors, with whimsical figures playing piano, a flowing upright bass, and a saxophone. They are a tribute to the history of Lawnside, a time when lenient liquor laws brought partyers and jazz enthusiasts across the Delaware to munch on ribs, sip drinks, and relax.

The borough was a meeting ground for blacks and whites alike from the 1920s to 1970s, when the country was scrutinizing segregation and contemplating the future of race relations.

The music that fills the dining room of Rochester's on summer Friday nights in 2014 serves a different purpose. The music is performed by local college students hoping to make some cash to pay for school. It's also an attempt to reclaim that forgotten culture.

Everyone is "very energized about us playing. They come listen to us playing, they invite us back, they hope to hear us again," said Micah Johnson, 22, a student at Miles College in Alabama, who plays drums for the Reginald Lewis Quintet.

The group is booked through the summer at Rochester's. "They're excited that music is coming into the place again," Johnson said.

The quintet is made up of five college students who knew each other from the Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy in Camden. The band is named after sax player Lewis, 21, who attends Jackson State University in Mississippi and whose grandfather played the Lawnside clubs in the 1970s and '80s.

The high school friends went their own directions for college, but still get the chance to play together over the summers when they're on break. Some are saving up for tuition, some for plane tickets back to school, others to help out their families.

"The quintet is great," said Daniel Spearman, 20, the pianist. "I'm enjoying the opportunity of ours to play at such a great venue. It's a great opportunity for us to grow as a group, to grow musically."

For Vernon Rochester - the owner of the bar and grill, on the White Horse Pike in a strip shopping center - the music is a chance to try to re-create Lawnside's traditions, help the students, and drum up some business.

The "response has been dynamite . . . Lawnside being brought up on jazz, it was the heart of barbecue cooking for the region. Everybody came to Lawnside," Rochester said. "We knew it was a win-win situation if we could bring barbecue back."

Evesham Avenue in Lawnside was once the home of a vibrant jazz and blues culture, drawing people from Philadelphia and South Jersey to its many barbecue pits after midnight - when "last call" meant no more drinking in other areas, according to Rochester. Before that, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and one of the first independent African American communities north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

"That was from the culture, from slavery all the way up to when music started to blossom and you had the rhythm and blues," Rochester said. "People were cooking outside and music was a part of that. They were playing the blues, and the blues translated into a more jazzlike thing, and they just go hand in hand."

For a half-century, though, jazz in Lawnside has been spotty at best. The barbecue pits cooled off, the music faded. Clubs would occasionally open, but nothing seemed to last.

Rochester's is the one of its kind for now, according to the owner. Its neighbors aren't barbecue restaurants with Friday night jazz offerings; one of the closest businesses is a ShopRite. There's plenty of parking.

But the music is good, and there's an optimism that Lawnside can reintegrate jazz and barbecue into its quotidian rhythm.

"If you put a curtain in front of them while they're playing, you'd swear that you're listening to a bunch of 40-, 50-, 60-year-old men playing - not a bunch of 20-year-olds," Rochester said. "It's starting to build up."


cmindock@phillynews.com

856-779-3237 @clarkmindock

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