The city of Kinston, NC, was built on agriculture, specifically tobacco, the golden leaf. During periods when no tobacco auctions were held tobacco warehouses in the city were key stops for jazz and rhythm and blues bands making their way up and down the east coast. The warehouses were typically divided by a rope delineating black and white sections, often ignored as the hour grew late and the dancing brought the crowds together. Kinston became a musical mecca for Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Count Basie, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
At the NC Arts Council I led the implementation and park construction for the downtown Kinston African American Music Park. The city of Kinston, its history, musicians, and the park are key assets of the NC Arts Council’s African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina, an economic development strategy for this struggling part of the state. The park and the public art were designed by the team of David Wilson and Brandon Yow of Raleigh, NC. The landscape plan was developed by Terry Naranjo of Brooklyn.
The stories were begging to be told, especially the role that local musicians played in developing the funk sound of the James Brown Band in the 1960s. Such luminaries as the band’s musical arranger Nat Jones and lead saxophone great Maceo Parker cemented funk as a driving force in American popular music. But the story also includes jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel. Young area musicians are adding hip-hop, electronica, and rap to the narrative.
As we implemented the park it became clear that we had missed some of the richness of the story. Most importantly, while we were honoring the regional, national, and internationally known touring musicians of Kinston, the community told us that the park needed to more specifically honor the music educators who kept and continue to keep the tradition alive.
We paused and brought the musical community back together to hear how they wanted this part of the story honored. Money was raised, the park artist team was brought back in, and new elements added to the park. The community’s commitment to the park has made it a more compelling public art-based asset to Kinston and the region.
For 10 years the NC Arts Council worked with the Kinston Community Council for the Arts and the Kinston African American community to document its musical story. The Kinston African American Music Park is dedicated to the living legacy of the music and the musicians that have made Kinston special. The overall renaissance in downtown Kinston accompanying the project is also a testament to the potential for the arts as an effective strategy for creative placemaking, economic development, and community healing.