Music in the African American community is not just about rhythm. It’s about tradition. It’s about culture. It’s about perseverance. And it’s about community.
In Africa, music was a core component of daily life. Music became one of the few things slaves brought with them when they were seized from their homeland and cruelly dispersed all over the world. Over the generations, the music changed from pure tribal sounds to take on some of the characteristics of their surroundings in Europe, Brazil, the West Indies and North America.
Today, African American music is a fusion of spirituals, Afro beats, R&B, calypso, gospel, reggae, hip-hop, blues, pop, rock ’n’ roll, funk and other genres. Together they have influenced every aspect of music theory and history. Black innovators, writers, producers, artists, sound technicians and others have profoundly influenced the global cultural landscape.
Although Black Music Appreciation Month, officially decreed in 1979, is held every June, groups can celebrate all forms of African American music and its amazing, transformative history all year long at the following museums and performance venues.
National Museum of African American Music
The decision to create the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) in Music City was a no-brainer. Nashville has long been the home of some of the finest recording companies, producers, songwriters and entertainers in the world. And it became the spoke of the wheel when an estimated 6 million African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South came through between 1916 and 1970 during the Great Migration.
Like any major move, it wasn’t just the people — their distinctive traditions sojourned with them as well. For African Americans, an important part of those traditions is music.
Opened this past spring, the NMAAM is the only museum in the country that specifically focuses on the many ways African American music has influenced and produced the distinctive soundtracks of this country.
In the 56,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility downtown, original instruments, photos, costumes and other memorabilia are highlighted in expertly curated, interactive galleries. Some 50 genres and subgenres of music, from early slavery-era spirituals to gospel, blues, R&B, jazz and hip-hop, are beautifully folded into the social, political and historical settings and issues present during that particular genre’s heyday.
Throughout the museum journey, visitors enjoy immersive film experiences, animated timelines, listening stations and sing-along studios, all designed to educate, entertain and inspire. Throughout, the visitors can scan their admission wristbands on certain elements to create unique playlists that are emailed to them after their visits.
You can’t talk about Detroit without mentioning the Motown Museum. Located in the original studio and birthplace of Motown Records, it is affectionally dubbed “Hitsville USA.”
The company was originally founded in 1959 as Tamla Records by songwriter and record company executive Berry Gordy Jr., who also lived on the property with his family. A year later, the name was changed to Motown Records. Scores of soon-to-be-chart-topping artists like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five became blockbuster legends here between 1959 and 1972.
Unlike most other museums, where the experience is self-directed, visitors explore the Motown Museum on guided tours. Docents serve as personal storytellers as they immerse visitors in the history behind the curated exhibits, the studio spaces, the instruments and the recording equipment that helped birth the Motown sound.
Specially tailored tours are available for groups, meetings and conferences, family reunions and other themed gatherings.
The museum is in the midst of a multiphase $50 million expansion project called Hitsville Next. Designed around the historic Motown-era structures, it will expand the property to 50,000 square feet and will encompass an ultramodern performance theater, a professional recording studio, hands-on exhibits, meeting spaces and other community-focused engagement opportunities.
National Blues Museum
In the MX district of downtown St. Louis along Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway, the National Blues Museum is dedicated to preserving this seminal musical genre and art form.
Its location is significant because scores of blues artists traveling to Chicago and other cities made St. Louis a performance stop. Bringing their own Southern sounds and styles, they were soon blended with the “Northern versions” of jazz and ragtime, in the process creating a new, unique sound that became known as St. Louis Blues.
Throughout the $14 million, 23,000-square-foot facility opened in 2016, visitors enjoy a wealth of interactive, artifact-driven gallery spaces and exhibits, including two specialty spaces: the Mix It Up Room and the Jug Band Interactive.
“This museum really emphasizes that [the blues] is a truly American art form that cannot be found anywhere else and that this genre is intertwined with African American history in this country,” said assistant director Delyn Stephenson. “Without blues and its predecessors, there would be no rock, pop or other types of modern music. It is a foundational art form.”
Many of the exhibits also illustrate how profoundly the blues influenced other music styles and performers worldwide, mostly notably British invasion bands like the Beatles, as well as how it is increasingly infused with contemporary music, synthesized rhythms and drumbeats, and other engineered sounds.
The museum also features a series of public programming, a state-of-the-art theater and the Lumière Place Legends Room, which hosts live music performances, all suitable for individuals, families and groups alike.
Ground Zero Blues Club
Recognized as one of the top live music venues in the world, the Ground Zero Blues Club at Blues Alley in the heart of historic downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, is the place to enjoy live, authentic Mississippi Delta Blues music.
It was in Clarksdale that venerable musicians like Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Ike Turner, and Charlie Patton got their starts, and that music mastery tradition continues today at Ground Zero.
“As a blues tourist destination, the Ground Zero Blues Club fits into the overall music history in a highly significant way,” said co-founder and president Bill Luckett. “Clarksdale has been regarded for decades as “ground zero” for the blues — meaning that Clarksdale was the epicenter of the [Delta blues] music scene.”
Luckett also pointed out that one thing that may differ from people’s usual perception of the genre is that blues music can carry happy as well as more somber tones.
The club attracts blues fans in equal measure from the U.S. and from across international borders to enjoy a wide array of live music Wednesday through Saturday — and occasionally on Sunday — accompanied by down-home Southern fare.
Private parties including live entertainment can be arranged for groups.
In 2021, the Ground Zero Blues Club is celebrating its 20th anniversary of showcasing the best of today’s Delta Blues musicians and the area’s rich blues heritage. Plans to open a second club in Biloxi, Mississippi, are underway.
John Coltrane House
Born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926, moving to Philadelphia after high school, John William Coltrane always had a creative ear and a talent for music.
Upon returning to Philly after serving in the Navy in World War II, where he played the clarinet and the tenor saxophone in swing bands on base, he lived in a beautiful Dutch-gabled home in the city’s Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood.
Many venerable African American jazz musicians of the 1940s performed in Philadelphia, and it was here that Coltrane began his career as a sought-after composer and jazz pioneer who would be later referred to simply as Trane.
Even today, the Grammy-nominated artist who released some 25 albums throughout his short career — he died in 1967 at the age of 40 — is regarded by some jazz historians as “one of the most influential performing soloists in the history of jazz.”
Despite being placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999, Coltrane’s home — because of the overall deterioration of the neighborhood — is now in danger of demolition. However, a dedicated group of community and civic leaders is trying to save this prominent residence from such a fate, with the hopes of potentially transforming it into a museum about Coltrane’s life and work.
The historical marker outside denotes 1952-1958 as the dates Coltrane lived in this home. By pioneering an entirely new sound and method that still reverberates around the world, he solidified his legacy as one of the most influential musical giants of the 20th century.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
The history of Black music cannot be told without the story of Stax Records. As the entity that produced artists including Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, Wilson Pickett and so many others, it was a major force responsible for catapulting Memphis into the national and international limelight.
That history, as well as its social, political and economic influences is shared at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, in the Soulsville USA neighborhood on the original site of the Stax Records studios.
“Soul music has a rich history that can be told only by those who created it,” said Tim Sampson, communications director for the Soulsville Foundation. “Not only were its musical contributions some of the most authentic sounds in the history of music, but it also helped change popular culture forever and played an integral role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Memphis and the southern United States.
“Memphis is, of course, a hotbed of music innovation, and Stax is a mixture of all of those influences, which became known as the Memphis Sound. That legacy continues to influence generations of musicians today.”
Visitors are immersed in the state-of-the-art galleries that highlight over 2,000 artifacts and memorabilia, everything from period recording equipment to photographs, musical instruments, hit albums, video interviews, costumes and other relics. Other highlights include the Express Yourself dance floor, vintage episodes of the iconic Black music television show “Soul Train” and interactive listening stations.
Special tours for groups, family reunions or other celebrations, some featuring creative student performances of classic hits, can be arranged with alumni of the Stax Music Academy.
Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District
Kansas City, Missouri
Since the early 1900s, Kansas City, Missouri, has been synonymous with great jazz and blues music. By the 1920s and 1930s, live jazz and blues could be heard in over 200 venues along 12th and 18th streets downtown, vital hubs in the African American community. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Orin “Hot Lips” Page, Louis Armstrong and other artists could be heard almost every night of the week.
Today, the Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District encompasses four primary entities: the American Jazz Museum, the Blue Room Nightclub, the Gem Theater and the Mutual Musicians Foundation.
The American Jazz Museum is a state-of-the-art facility that immerses visitors right into the experience of this original American art form. The Blue Room is the museum’s “working exhibit” and a quintessential city jazz spot. It hosts a wide array of local, regional, national and international artists against a backdrop of jazz memorabilia, artifacts, vintage photographs and other throwback accoutrements.
The Gem Theater was built in 1912 as a silent film house and has been restored into a cutting-edge, 500-seat performing arts center. Dance performances, community events and an annual Jammin’ at the Gem concert series featuring national and international artists are among the activities here.
Founded in 1917 and designated a National Historic Landmark, the Mutual Musicians Foundation is the only place in town to enjoy a Late Night Jam Session. Held Friday and Saturday nights from 1 to 5 a.m., it’s also when musicians used to convene after their regular gigs to unwind, swap techniques, rehearse and provide their fans with more intimate performances.