Bringing Back the Turf Club: Preserving Cultural Heritage in Asbury Park
By Eric Lippe
As part of Monmouth Arts' 50th Anniversary, we're taking time to showcase some of the nonprofit groups that form the foundation of our creative community. Today, we're looking at the Asbury Park African-American Music Project (AP-AMP), which recently received grant funding from Monmouth Arts. We checked in with Jennifer Souder, the organization’s board president, to learn more about the group’s efforts to preserve the Turf Club, the last standing music venue on Springwood Avenue, in the center of Asbury Park's African American community.
For those unfamiliar with the Asbury Park African-American Music Project, tell us about your organization.
We’re a volunteer-led, community-driven nonprofit that celebrates the stories of Springwood Avenue, which is the heart of Asbury Park's African American community. Since 2017, we’ve been gathering stories about the Turf Club, the lone music venue left on Springwood Avenue. In January 2022, we purchased the Turf Club building, and we’re working to transform the former jazz club into a community spot for music and culture while preserving its unique sense of place.
What’s the history of the Turf Club?
Since the late 1950s, music had been a mainstay of the Turf Club, offering local and nationally recognized jazz and R&B acts. After closing its doors around 2000, the Turf fell into foreclosure in 2002. In 2006, the building was purchased by a man who planned to convert the building into a laundromat. He removed the roof to begin repairs (there had been a fire in the building), but the laundromat never opened. In 2012, the building was purchased by Vince Gifford, but it remained vacant — until recently. In 2020, AP-AMP partnered with community members and organizations to revitalize the structure. Through a collaboration with Springwood Avenue Rising, artist Larry Walker painted murals on the exterior, which includes images of local musicians, some of whom played the Turf in its heyday. As part of the restoration, the interior of the building, which had become overgrown with vegetation, was cleaned out.
In the summer of 2021, we started a series of open-air concerts inside the Turf Club called “Tuesdays at the Turf.” These concerts featured many local musicians who had once played there, such as Al Holmes, Vel Johnson, Bill Carter, and Bob Lee. “Tuesdays at the Turf” marked the first time live music had been performed at the Turf Club in decades.
A few months later in January 2022, through the generosity of our community and our partnership with Vince Gifford, the Asbury Park African-American Music Project was able to purchase the Turf Club.
What is it about Springwood Avenue that is so significant to the culture and heritage of Asbury Park and Monmouth County?
Asbury Park is a diverse shore community with a thriving tourism scene known for music and entertainment, but the narrative shared about our town still reflects the profound impacts of systematic racism. Asbury Park is racially divided with train tracks that separate the east and west sides. The west side has historically been the home of the African American community and others who provided service to establishments along the beach, contributing to the legacy of de facto segregation, redlining, and discrimination, which remains to this day. It was along the west side’s Springwood Avenue that a thriving African American entertainment/commercial district developed. In 1970, civil unrest and a period of disinvestment devastated the avenue.
"We believe that if the Turf Club is lost, there is no tangible connection left to the musical legacy [of Asbury Park]."
The Turf Club is the only surviving venue that housed Springwood Avenue’s music scene. Framed within the genres of gospel, jazz, and R&B, Springwood thrived as an enclave of African American musical expression. All along Springwood, one could hear the music of both local talent and icons like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. It was part of the Chitlin’ Circuit (a network of venues that catered to African Americans) and lined with music venues, businesses and homes, many of them Black-owned and several cited in the Green Book.
There is an urgency to save the Turf Club because of the music history of Springwood Avenue and as a cultural center for the African American community. We believe that if the Turf Club is lost, there is no tangible connection left to the musical legacy.
This spring the Asbury Park African-American Music Project was awarded a Renew 2022 grant from Monmouth Arts to support live arts events and performances in Monmouth County. How has this infusion of funding benefited your organization?
The Renew 2022 grant has enabled us
to offer the 2022 Tuesdays at the Turf series for free! We are committed to providing fair compensation for the musicians, which is something that the grant has allowed. Renew 2022 has also allowed us to provide some funding for audio support that has been provided completely pro-bono from Asbury Audio since the start of the Tuesdays at the Turf series.
It would be unfair to ignore the elephant in the room – how has COVID-19 affected the project?
Although our team is very excited about a recent grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which will enable us to move forward with the construction of a roof for the Turf Club, the team is also grateful that the Turf Club has been “open-air” in 2021 and 2022, as it has somewhat reduced concerns about COVID exposure. Of course, we continued to follow COVID-19 protocols at our events. Like many organizations, our ability to raise funds has been impacted over the past several years, having been more difficult to hold fundraising events, network, and raise awareness about the organization and our programs.
What does the future, both immediate and long-term, hold for the project?
Each of the 2022 Tuesdays at the Turf events has been magical – bringing together music, musicians, community, and friends in the historic Turf Club. We look forward to moving ahead with the design process for the rehabilitation of the Turf Club and hope to begin construction on the new roof by the end of 2022 so we are ready to host 2023 Tuesdays at the Turf!
We are committed to continuing to document and share the stories of Springwood Avenue and restoring the Turf Club into a community music and cultural venue. When renovations are complete, the Turf Club will be a place for people of all ages to experience live music and engage with the cultural heritage of Springwood Ave.
Can you share an interesting anecdote or something about your nonprofit that would surprise people?
Our team’s “magic sauce” is a shared passion for documenting and sharing the stories of Springwood Avenue so that the history of Asbury Park’s historic African American community is central to the story of this city. A few fun anecdotes: We operated primarily out of the kitchen of a team member until COVID moved us to Zoom format. We grew from an idea discussed at Creative Asbury Park in 2017. Mr. Cliff Johnson, an amazing saxophone player, AP-AMP friend, and one of our first interviewees (he happens to be 96), shared with us that he performed in every venue on Springwood Avenue.
How has the community responded to your organization’s efforts?
The community has been extremely supportive, and we would not exist without members of the community being willing to share their stories and their music. We are also committed to sharing these stories across generations and with residents who are newer to Asbury Park and those visiting.
Monmouth Arts has a great network of arts supporters, how can our members and readers support the Asbury Park African-American Music Project?
You can help AP-AMP restore the Turf Club by donating, volunteering, and sharing your Turf Club memories. We’re always seeking volunteers who would like to become involved in research, events, administrative activities, and fundraising. There are many ways to become involved. We also invite community members who have photos, stories, and music to share about Springwood Avenue to reach out to us!
Where can people find out more about Asbury Park African-American Music Project?
Photographs courtesy of Conni Freestone
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