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Spirit of Historic 4th Ave District Kept Alive with Jazz Festival

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By Jasmine Phillips
For The Birmingham Times

As a hub for black commerce and culture during the days of segregation, the historic 4th Avenue Business District in downtown Birmingham is one-of-a-kind. The district sets the scene for the tastemakers of yesterday and stands today as a testament to the resilience of a people.

Seeking to celebrate the spirit of the historic district, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, inspired by the “Taste of Chicago,” launched the first Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival just 15 years ago. The one day festival has become a tradition and a popular summer event in the City of Birmingham.

The festival began in 2003 but skipped a year which means the event Saturday will be the 14th annual in downtown Birmingham. The festival is free and open to the public. Urban Impact Inc., a local nonprofit community economic development agency, is devoted to keeping the thriving spirit of the district alive by hosting the annual Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival.

“In addition to the festival highlighting various aspects of the district, it’s a time for communities and families to come together,” said Octavia Grady, Community Relations and Partnerships Officer for Urban Impact Inc. “This festival remains at no cost for those far and near and remains a staple of Birmingham’s expression of cultural heritage.”

History

It was in the early 1900s when Jim Crow segregation laws were in effect, that African Americans were not welcomed into white establishments. Angry and wanting to create a solution that would impact the neighborhood, a few African Americans decided to establish their own businesses. The neighborhood along 4th Avenue from 15th to 18th Street North developed as the City of Birmingham’s black business district. From black-owned banks, churches, doctor offices, movie theaters, nightclubs, black businesses flourished all through the 1960s. Some of the known businesses were the Champion Theater, Bohemian Bakery on Coplon’s corner, the Dunbar Hotel, and the Alabama Penny Savings Bank. In the 1960s, the 4th Avenue District was the African-American mecca. It was a vibrant commercial corridor that hosted entrepreneurs like business mogul A.G. Gaston and newspaper publisher Emory O. Jackson. However, once segregation laws were deemed illegal, the energy around the district changed. Many of the businesses set up shop in different parts of town to attract more to diversify their customer base. While in decline, the district still had a core of businesses, some of which are still in operation today.

Today

Refusing to let a piece of history disappear, in 1980, Urban Impact, Inc. was founded with its sole mission to preserve and redevelop the Historic 4th Avenue Business District. In the early 20th century, over 30 percent of black businesses in Birmingham were concentrated in the 4th Avenue Business District. A direct initiative of the first Richard Arrington Administration, the early work of Urban Impact was successful in the areas of historic preservation and commercial revitalization with the help of the newly minted Fourth Avenue-Area Merchants Association (F.A.M.A.).

From community programs that focus on education, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy, and events such as the Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival, much has been accomplished and  the greater 4th Avenue Business District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, includes the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, The Colored Masonic Temple, Kelly Ingram Park, The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, St. Paul United Methodist Church, the A.G. Gaston Motel, the Pythian Temple, and a number of other historical district sites.

“As a younger professional, it is awe striking to work in the same block as the Foot Soldiers, park next to a building designed by the first African-American credentialed architect (Masonic Temple; Robert Robinson Taylor (1922), and serve legacy businesses like Nelson Brother’s Cafe, which is celebrating its 75th year in business,” said Elijah Davis, business development officer of Urban Impact. “I’m truly honored to be a part of the Civil Rights District Development Project, and I’m passionate about propelling its economic and cultural legacy for generations to come.”

Today, the 4th Avenue Business District is one of the few remaining black business districts that remain intact in Alabama and the southeastern United States. The district covers 18th Street North to 15th Avenue North, Abraham Woods Boulevard to 2nd Avenue North.

The Artists

Nationally-recognized and homegrown artists have performed at the Jazz Fest on the main stage including: Bobbi Humphrey, Kim Waters, Ben Tankard, Norman Brown, Euge Groove, Ronnie and Deborah Laws, Michael Ward, Joey Summerville, Dee Lucas, the Birmingham Heritage Band, Bo Berry, Daniel “Jose” Carr, Lonnie Liston Smith, and Roy Lucas.

This year’s headliner will be the World Famous GoGo Brass Funk Band, The Brass-A-Holics, from New Orleans. Atlanta’s Dee Lucas and Birmingham’s Daniel “Jose” Carr will be returning to the main stage along with fellow Birmingham musical stars Vann Burchfield, Dee Harper, and The Tragic City Band.

With this being the 14th Anniversary of the jazz festival, the line-up will also include spoken word by Birmingham poets Shaun Judah, Angel Vann, Free Voice, and Chris Moon. Along with spoken word and live musical performances, guests will also get their laugh on with Comedians Charles Winston and Darrell Jaye blazing the main stage with jokes. The festival will be hosted by Birmingham Comedian & 98.7 KISS Deno Posey.

There is also a “Community Pick” contest that the winner of the contest will be given the chance to open up the Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival. Nominees include Dominique Posey, Overfloe Muzik, The Greenlight Band, LyssaLou The Poet, and On Purpose with Dwight Houston.

Spectators will not only be able to enjoy the music but also enjoy food vendors and visit the local businesses in the 4th Avenue Business District from the Historic Green Acres Café, to Ferrill’s African Wear, to the young and urban clothing store FLY V.

The festival “gives us time to reflect upon and celebrate the district’s history while looking toward the future vision of the district,” said Ivan Holloway, Executive Director of Urban Impact.