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Nashville museum recalls glory years of Black nightclub entertainment in Music City
By Tom Adkinson
February 17, 2023

jefferson street sound museum
Nashvillian Lorenzo Washington collected reminders of Jefferson Street’s music history for the Jefferson Street Sound Museum, which opened in 2011. Image by Tom Adkinson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When city and highway planners routed I-40 through downtown Nashville in the 1960s, they turned a blind eye to the devastation it would create on Jefferson Street, a thoroughfare that was the heart of a vibrant Black business and residential neighborhood.

Jefferson Street was nationally famous for clubs such as the Del Morocco, Club Baron and the New Era Club. Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jimmy (later Jimi) Hendrix, Louis Armstrong and many others played up and down Jefferson.

Etta James recorded a live album, “Etta James Rocks the House,” at the New Era Club, and there was a solid recording infrastructure for Black artists. Among songs Black artists recorded in Nashville: Arthur Gunther’s rhythm and blues classic “Baby Let’s Play House” and Robert Knight’s mega-hit “”Everlasting Love.”

jefferson street genealogical tree
This piece of art resembles a genealogical tree showing the many nightclubs and musical influences on Jefferson Street. Image by Tom Adkinson

As long ago as the 1920s and 1930s, Jefferson Street was alive with music, and Nashvillian Lorenzo Washington wasn’t about to let the heritage and memories fade away. He’s not a musician, but he has a passion for Jefferson Street music.

That’s why Washington, 80, opened the Jefferson Street Sound Museum in 2011 not far from Fisk University and only about 2 miles from the Tennessee capitol.

It’s a modest museum in a building that once was a boarding house. Big-time museum curators might cringe at the casual display of the artifacts Washington has accumulated, but big-time curators don’t have the memories Washington has – or feel the desire to save a piece of cultural history.

jefferson street sound museum guitars
Among the instruments in the Jefferson Street Sound Museum are these two guitars. One was played in a Temptations’ recording session. Image by Tom Adkinson

jefferson street sound museum wall posters
Entire walls of the Jefferson Street Sound Museum are covered in artists’ photos from the heyday of the street’s nightclub era. Image by Tom Adkinson

Framed publicity photos of famous performers and admiring fans cover entire walls. Two guitars, one from the recording session of the Temptations’ “Fire Fly,” hang in front of a blue curtain. An almost life-size photo of Nashville-born Jackie Shane, a transgender Black performer whose success came in Canada rather than on Jefferson Street, is prominent.

jefferson street sound museum wall posters
A cavalcade of rhythm and blues performers came out to honor DJ John R., but the show was at the Grand Ole Opry House, not on Jefferson Street. Image by Tom Adkinson

Publicity posters take on new meaning when you examine their historical context. One promotes a tribute to nationally famous radio DJ “John R.,” who was a driving force in promotion of Black artists on Nashville radio station WLAC.

Among the performers at that tribute were B.B. King, James Brown, Tony Joe White, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, the Coasters, the Neville Brothers and the Tams. The irony is that the show was across town from Jefferson Street in the Grand Ole Opry House. The year was 1985, and the Jefferson Street music scene was gone.

(Editor’s note: The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum mounted a special exhibit in 2006 called “Night Train to Nashville” that examined Jefferson Street’s musical history. It won a Bridging the Gap Award from the Nashville chapter of the NAACP for promotion of interracial understanding. That story got new life in 2023 when the hall of fame and museum unveiled an online exhibition, “Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970.” Access is free.)

Trip-planning resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available on

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