Fifty years ago, they were two intimately connected but unjustly separated sides of Miami: the luxurious Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, and the black neighborhood of Overtown.
In the days of segregation, the celebrated black entertainers who performed at the Fontainebleau — artists such as Lena Horne, Count Basie and Nat King Cole — could not sleep, eat or drink at the Fontainebleau or any other Miami Beach hotel. When they finished work, they had to head back across the bay — along with the African-American hotel maids and restaurant waiters — to Overtown, where blacks were restricted after sundown.
And though that nighttime convergence created a thriving music and nightlife scene in Overtown, the “Harlem of the South,” the injustice rankled. By the time desegregation began in earnest in the mid 1960s, construction of the I-95 and 395 highways through the heart of the neighborhood had decimated its vibrant music and community life.
On Saturday, Oct. 1, organizers of the idealistic Overtown Music Project host an event intended to shout out against that historic wrong – and raises money for what they hope will be an antidote to the urban blight that prejudice has wrought in Overtown.
Proceeds from Epic, a party at the trendy LIV club at the Fontainebleau featuring the Melton Mustafa Big Band (which includes veterans of the classic jazz era) as well as hip-hop DJs and artists, will go toward creating a jazz and blues archive and education center at Overtown’s historic Lyric Theater.
“We want to bring the music back to Overtown permanently and create a new narrative there,” says Amy Rosenberg, an attorney and entrepreneur who launched the Overtown Music Project almost three years ago. “It’s been this narrative of drugs and trauma and violence. We believe art is transformational and can be a catalyst in the community.”
Rosenberg was inspired to start the project in February 2009, when a Miami Herald story about Overtown’s history was on her mind as she took a tour of the neighborhood.
“I had an epiphany standing in front of the Lyric Theater, this magnificent place built in 1912, and looking around at all these empty lots,” she says. “I decided … to commit myself to bringing music back to Overtown.”
Rosenberg reached out to churches, businesses and community centers in Overtown and beyond, putting together supporters from the neighborhood and from Miami’s nightlife, philanthropic, creative and professional worlds. They include Nathalie Cadet-James, whose mother was a nurse to Clyde Killens, owner of the Knightbeat, Overtown’s most famous club; Carmel Ophir, owner of the Vagabond, an alternative dance club on 14th Street just east of Overtown; Charles Austin, a veteran Overtown musician; and Dorothy Fields, founder of the Black Historical Archives and a veteran activist for recognition of Overtown’s importance.
Another supporter is Irby McNight, who has lived in Overtown since 1969, when he worked at the front desk of the Mary Elizabeth Hotel. One of the most famous operations in Overtown, the Mary Elizabeth’s Zebra Lounge hosted legendary jam sessions, as musicians let loose well past dawn. Even at the end of Overtown’s golden age, the place was jamming.
“At 4 a.m. one band would go on, and at 8 a.m. another band would go on,” says McNight, who will speak at Saturday’s event. He hopes the music residency project will bring some of that energy back to Overtown and inspire younger people to stay.
“Older people talk about how there used to be music everywhere,” McNight says. “Everywhere you went you could hear someone practicing on their horn, their drums, church choirs. The younger people don’t understand that.”
The plan, says Rosenberg, is for the program to host music scholars and musicians and organize events for students from elementary school through college. It is an ambitious project, made more so by the slow pace of renovations at the Lyric Theater.
She has organized other fundraisers, but the Epic party is her most ambitious undertaking yet. The Fontainebleau is donating the use of the club, and Rosenberg says they have already sold 400 tickets.
“We hope to raise awareness,” she says. “This raises funds. But it also brings everything full circle.”
Among those helping to complete that circle on Saturday is mistress of ceremonies and rapper Monie Love, whose hits included 1990’s Monie in the Middle. Love, whose father was a jazz musician and who now lives in Miami’s Midtown area, says she was electrified to discover that a neighborhood that hosted their idols was so close.
“I was like ‘Wow, this is really rich music history, I can’t believe I’ve landed smack dab in the middle of it.’”
Love says hip-hop artists have an obligation to acknowledge and teach about African-American musical history.
“Nobody in hip-hop can hold up their hand in court and say we did not rip off jazz,” she says. “We’re totally connected. Younger artists need to get involved and get connected with this stuff.”
As a teen, Love was thrilled to attend, and perform, in Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She hopes the Overtown Music Project can create some of that excitement in the neighborhood that used to be the Southern answer to Harlem.
“I want to see the same type of acts come through there,” she says. “I totally see this for the Lyric in Miami.”