Lorenzo Washington on Preserving Nashville’s Blues and R&B Epicenter

Inside Jefferson Street Sound headquarters

The lasting harm that was done to the historically Black cultural, business and residential center of North Nashville when I-40 was built through it in the late 1960s is well-documented. And the thriving entertainment scene on Jefferson Street that was a hotbed of R&B activity even before country music became the city’s claim to fame is something that people are aware of — note the occasional mural of Jimi Hendrix you’ll see around town. But it’s a rich vein of history that’s both broader and deeper, and the place to learn about the finer details is Jefferson Street Sound Museum.

Founded and curated by Lorenzo Washington, Jefferson Street Sound is a relatively small nonprofit organization that hosts a mighty collection of photos, memorabilia and artifacts illuminating many of the musicians and spaces that were part of the bustling community from the 1940s through the ’70s. There’s stage wear from blues queen Marion James, as well as material from her extensive archives. You’ll find memorabilia of Jackie Shane, a Nashville-born transgender soul pioneer. There’s a piano that belonged to William Oscar Smith — a gateway into the legacy of an outstanding jazz bassist who was also also the first Black musician in the Nashville Symphony. In addition, Smith taught at Tennessee State University and founded of the W.O. Smith Music School.

It’s a treasure chest of stories that ought to be a major point of pride for Music City. However, the pandemic and other pressures are threatening Jefferson Street Sound. Per Instagram posts from the museum, more visitors are sorely needed to keep the doors open. “I haven't struggled like this in 11 years, but I am afraid of what could possibly happen to this business,” Washington said in a recent interview with NewsChannel5.

That story focuses on a pending Metro Council resolution that could provide some much-needed help for some North Nashville small businesses. The resolution is still in the works and isn’t set for its first reading until February, but you can help right now. You can book a guided museum tour most days of the week, or stop by when the space is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. You can also make a direct donation via PayPal or buy a copy of Washington’s book Rising Above, a personal history that dovetails with the history of North Nashville. Keep an eye on Jefferson Street Sound Museum’s website and Instagram profile for updates.

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