CHICKEN BONE BEACH CONCERT SERIES CUT BACK – By William Kelly
What’s become of Chicken Bone Beach Jazz?
Chicken Bone Beach. That’s what they called the segregated beach in Atlantic City between Missouri and Mississippi Avenues that was frequented by blacks who took their box lunches with them and left the bones behind.
"It was demeaning and derogatory, there’s no question about that," said Henrietta Shelton, the co-founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation. "The name came when people said they saw chicken bones in the sand that black people left on the beach. People eat all kinds of things on the beach, but because black people were seen on that beach and some of us eat chicken, it was given that name."
Kentucky Avenue, not far away, was home to the Club Harlem, Grace’s Little Belmont (home to "Wild Bill" Davis), the Wonder Gardens, and Jimmy’s Barbeque, source of many of the bones left on Chicken Bone Beach.
The beach was said to be frequented by the famous stars of the Kentucky Avenue clubs like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie and Sammy Davis, Jr., whose mother was in the chorus line at the Club Harlem. "They’d be doing what everybody was doing on a nice day in Atlantic City," said Henrietta Shelton, "socializing, enjoying themselves, cooling off in the ocean."
Shelton is co-founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation with Gene Wallace, "to create pride in our Black heritage and promote family values and unity through the celebration of African-American history in Atlantic County at Chicken Bone Beach." They also support battered women and the homeless families in the Atlantic County area, and award scholarships to students.
But of all the Chicken Bone Beach programs, the free jazz concerts are the most visible and most popular.
"We chose jazz because we did not want to be in competition with the casinos," said Shelton, "but we also wanted to get the story out, and straight-ahead jazz has been telling that story of black people and continues to do so. So we are not celebrating derogatory, we are telling the old story of how black people took what was derogatory and turned it around and made it great."
Over the course of nine years, and with broad community support, they featured a good mix of classic jazz and up and coming local performers, just like the old Kentucky Avenue clubs. Among those who performed at the Chicken Bone Beach concerts were Roy Ayers, the late Etta Jones, Buster Williams, Lenny White, Charles Fambrough and the Jazz Crusaders, so the level of entertainment was high.
What started out to make Atlantic City’s Chicken Bone Beach an historic site, and call attention to the loss of the Kentucky Avenue nightclubs by hosting free jazz concerts on the boardwalk, blossomed into real tangible cultural events.
For her work on creating the Chicken Bone Beach Foundation Henrietta Shelton received major awards, including the 2005 Governor’s Conference Excellence in Tourism Award and the 2006 Spirit of Hospitality, by the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority.
Now, rather than continuing to expand their programs, the jazz concerts have been scaled back this season to two shows, mainly because of loss of sponsors. City support wanes with changing administrations, the casinos faded away and the CRDA cut off their funding.
Some blame the CRDA for the loss of the Kentucky Avenue clubs in the first place. Some of the Kentucky Avenue Clubs were going strong until the advent of casinos, when they were bulldozed and replaced by vacant lots and a Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) financed shopping center that failed.
"There was a feeling that something had been lost," said Shelton, who says that it wasn’t only the loss of the old clubs, but the loss of sponsors for the boardwalk concerts. Shelton also has a full time job at the FAA Tech Center, but she is soliciting new sponsors and is seeking grants to continue the jazz concert programs.
They almost cancelled the season altogether, but then Comcast came to keep it going at least through two shows and CN8 TV announcer Art Fennell will join David Goodman as MC and they may be taped for later airing on cable television.
And they’ve kept the level of talent high, with Grammy Award winning trumpeter Wallace Roney, performing Thursday (July 3), along with the CBB Youth Jazz Ensemble, who opened for them at Kennedy Plaza, between Mississippi and Georgia Avenues on the boardwalk.
The Philly born Roney went to Duke Ellington High School in DC before graduating from Berklee and Art Blakey’s University of Jazz Messengers. As one of the few mentors of the late, great Miles Davis, Wallace Roney played with Davis at a celebrated show at Montreaux, and after he died, went on the road with Davis’ band. Roney also played the old Kentucky Avenue Clubs in Atlantic City with Art Blakey, so Roney’s appearance is considered special among local jazz buffs.
The next, and last show on this year’s program, Thursday July 10, was led by Tia Fuller, sax queen extradonaire, who has real degrees in jazz, and teaches when she isn’t performing. Her CD "Healing Space," is said to offer "melodic medicine."
Opening for Tia Fuller was local jazz organist Dan Fogel, from Margate, who was backed by Pittsburgh drummer, Billy James. While Dan is well known from the old Kentucky Avenue days, his latest CD "15 West" was reviewed in Jazz Times, where Dan was described as "a rhythmetic daemon at times, introducing all sorts of rhythmetic surprises in the background."
Billy James played drums for over a decade with Ella Fitzgerald and nine years with the late Etta James, who sang at a previous Chicken Bone Beach concert. Billy James has also toured with Lionel Hampton and played with South Philly guitar guru Pat Martino, so he certainly brings out the best in Dan Fogel’s organ.
Fogel, who had a professional moving company deliver his classic Hammond B3 to Kennedy Plaza, is probably the last of the soul-swing organists who gave Kentucky Avenue a unique sound that you heard just walking down the street.
"Kentucky Avenue was a hotbed for jazz organ," says Fogel, "and when I was young I was in the midst of it, with ‘Wild Bill’ Davis, Jimmy McGriff and Don Patterson," who he notes, Billy James has also played drums for. And together, they helped revive that old Kentucky Avenue spirit.
While this year’s Chicken Bone Beach concert series has been cut back considerably, it could be revived, and additional sponsorship could keep that old Kentucky Avenue spirit around town.
For more information see the Chicken Bone Beach web site
Or call (609) 441-9064.
Wallace Roney with Miles Davis Tribute Band