Many people think Asbury Park’s musical history began with Bruce Springsteen and The Stone Pony. But in actuality, it began with Springwood — Avenue that is — on Asbury Park’s west side.
Asbury Park African-American Music Heritage Project
“In early 2017, a few Asbury Park community members started strategizing about ways to celebrate and highlight the music, culture and history of Springwood Avenue, the heart of the African American community. Together with project partners, the team submitted a proposal to the NJ Historical Commission, (NJHC). In the summer of that year, the NJHC awarded the Asbury Park Public Library a grant to conduct research, oral history interviews, and outreach about Springwood Avenue. This began a journey that has taken our team and the stories of Springwood Avenue far beyond what we could have hoped for. Thanks to the success of APAAMHP, a new nonprofit organization, the Asbury Park African-American Music Project Inc. (AP AMP) was launched at the end of 2018.”Grant Summary
The AP-AMP celebrates the stories of Springwood Avenue; a volunteer-run, community–driven project. Over the past year they have interviewed and documented the lives of music greats who were well-known and highly revered during Springwood Avenue’s music hey-day. Below is a brief excerpt from one of those interviews.
Clifford “Cliff” Johnson
Clifford Johnson was born on Ridge Ave in Asbury Park, December 25, 1925. The neighborhood he grew up in was predominantly Black and Italian. His mother was a music teacher who taught voice and piano lessons in their living room. “Back in those days, everyone had a piano.”
His mother gave him lessons, but he was more interested in the saxophone. He learned how to play from Professor Maragglia who had a studio on Bangs Avenue. He played his first gig at the age of 14 in a club called Cuba’s. “It was the most popular club in Asbury Park in the 1920s & 30s.” When Cliff returned home from military service in 1946 he recalls, “music was everywhere on Springwood Avenue, from Drummond all the way down to Main Street.”
“They would come from the east side in their furs and their limousines; everyone just melded together. It was incredible to see how well people got along”
Some of the popular jazz clubs of the day were The Turf Club and The Orchid Lounge. Folks would come from all over to the west side of Asbury Park to see music legends like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, and they would come to listen to the local greats like Dolores “Dee” Holland, Al Griffin, Clifford “Cliff” Johnson, and JT Bowen, just to name a few. Both black and white musicians from outside Asbury Park would come to play on Springwood Avenue.
“Music is not black or white – music is music, and music unites.”
Music was the
Cliff Johnson, just celebrated his 93rd birthday this past Christmas, recalls:
“I was playing at the Elks . . . on my intermission, I would walk around the block to the Capitol, listen to what the musicians were playing there . . . walk just a few steps down from the Capitol, walk into the Turf Club, check those guys out. It was like a round robin. Those guys, when they were on a break, they wanted to come see how we sounded. All this was within four minutes, three venues within four minutes, and music going all the time . . . all the time . . . all the time. It was fantastic.”
In the interview, Johnson talks about a different way of life when he was growing up, a different culture. Neighbors would watch out for each other’s children. There was more unity, more respect; for young people, women, the elderly, and the church. That time is now known as the “by-gone era.”
After Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, Johnson recalls a “racial unrest” that was beginning to permeate not just Asbury Park, but the entire country. The divide between blacks and whites was beginning to widen, mistrust was mounting. “You could feel it.” Shortly after the Newark riots, Asbury Park had their own racial upheaval. It began on the weekend of July 4th, 1970 with one brick thrown through a store window.
The fires that ran along Springwood, not only destroyed homes and businesses, they also destroyed the music venues; the very existence of Springwood Avenue had been shattered and the musicians whose livelihood came from them. When the dust settled, sadness loomed. Springwood was no longer a place to go and hear music or have a good time; it had also become a by-gone era.
Johnson is glad to see the effort that has taken place over the past few years to educate people about the history of Springwood Avenue. It was an illustration of American black culture at its finest. He feels
To be continued…
Credits: Thank you to Mike Sodano and Nancy Sabino from The Showroom for creating the Down the Avenue video and thank you to the Asbury Park Library, Jennifer Souder, and the AP-AMP team for sharing their hard work and documentation of these great stories with asburyinsider.com
This post was edited from its original version 2/20/19