July 22--The hub of the African American Music Trail is starting to take shape in downtown Kinston.
The location where the park is now being built was at one time a mecca for the rich sounds of jazz, blues and gospel -- attracting such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, known as the "Queen of Jazz"; Louis Armstrong; and Dizzy Gillespie.
Kinston's tobacco barns were part of a route traveled by black musicians and their families, said Sandy Landis, executive director of Kinston's Community Council for the Arts.
"They would perform in warehouses because they were the biggest places," she said. Some of the older folks remember climbing under the building as children to listen to the music, she added.
Kinston was home to Little Eva, who wrote and sang "Loco-Motion" in the 1960s, and still home to rhythm and blues saxman Maceo Parker, former bandleader for James Brown and known for his funky music.
The location of the new African American Music Park, on South Queen and Springhill streets, was the New Dixie Warehouse, one of the tobacco barns used as a music venue.
It's also near Lincoln City, a neighborhood that was once home to people who were involved in the music scene, but it became buyout property after it was devastated by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Landis said.
So what better place to build a center to honor the great musicians from the early- to mid-20th century, as well as the sounds of today's black musicians?
The four-acre park, expected to open in early October, is part of the music trail that runs through Lenoir, Greene and Wilson counties.
"We actually started the trail," Landis said about the local arts council. "We were looking for a project where we could identify and authentically record African American musical artists."
Nine years ago and through a grant, the arts council hired a folklorist from the N.C. Folklife Institute at Duke University to find and interview local black musicians from Kinston's rich historical past to record their stories. Landis said she thought there were four or five of those musicians in the area.
"I couldn't have been further from the truth," she said. "... We were finding so many musicians from this area that needed to share their stories."
The folklorist interviewed about 10 Lenoir County musicians, and the project attracted the attention of the N.C. Arts Council.
Through the Creative Economy: Place Based Economic Development grant the following year, the documentation continued when the local arts council received another grant to help Greene and Jones counties write for grassroots grants for arts education. Through that endeavor, both counties became involved in the documentation process and a part of the trail. An Invitation grant provided for the photographing and interviewing of the musicians.
In the third year, Wilson became part of the trail, as well.
In the years following, the emphasis was on developing the trail and providing educational opportunities about musical artists in schools and other venues.
The park, a catalyst for downtown revitalization, is arts-driven economic development, Landis said. The trail is one of a variety of types of trails located in the state to increase tourism.
"This is the only music trail," Landis said. "We're looking at how to use this information to better the community."
"Sonny" Bannerman, 78, is a musician on the music trail. He plays the tenor sax -- mostly at church these days.
"I started in a school band way back in the '50s," he said. Bannerman played in the marching band at Adkin High School.
He said the music park is "a wonderful thing."
"I'm happy to see it, to tell you the truth," he said. "There were a lot of musicians during that time (in the 1950s and earlier)."
Bannerman said he would like to be there when the park opens.
"Oh, I'm looking forward to that," he said. "I'd sure love to be there."
Construction of the $500,000 park began in the spring on property owned by the city of Kinston and paid for through four grants -- from the N.C. Arts Council, N.C. Department of Transportation, the National Endowment for the Arts and Golden LEAF, which provided for a canopy on the bandstand at Pearson Park.
Still, the project needs about $45,000 more to install landscaping, lights and identification signs, Landis said. Donations are being accepted at the Community Council of the Arts.
The park's walkways, benches, sculpture bases and an anchor for a 23-foot-wide by 13-foot-high sculpture, designed by a team of artists, are in place.
"The anchors for the main sculpture are 15 feet underground," Landis said. "The landmark sculpture will be housed at the park, but is kind of a welcoming gate of the trail and establishes the trail."
Several public meetings were held providing input from residents as to the design of the park, she said.
"It really is the culmination of nine years of work," Landis said about the park.
Margaret Fisher can be reached at 252-559-1082 or Margaret.Fisher@Kinston.com. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretFishr.
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