Featured Project

ML King Boulevard: Bringing the Music Back


Imagine the sound of jazz piano, played from the top of flatbed trucks, and neighbors gathering on warm July nights to dance and sing. Imagine a street lined with lively nightclubs that feature top blues and jazz acts, a place where community plays out in a swaying celebration of music. In the not too far distant past, this was the reality of Chattanooga’s Big Nine. From the early 20th century into the early 1970’s, 9th street, known affectionately as the “Big Nine” though now called M.L. King Blvd., was once a Southeastern hot spot for African American music and entertainment. Thriving nightclubs teamed the street, showcasing local household legends such as the Blues Shufflers, Four Roosters and A Chick (whose band members included Fred Cash and Sam Gooden who later formed the Impressions), and the Papa Stubbs Band, to name a few. National performers of the time traveling through town included Muddy Waters, James Brown and Ray Charles, legends who would walk down to the Big Nine to hear the local acts play. The neighborhood’s reputation reached the country’s far corners.The Empress of the Blues herself, Chattanooga-bred Bessie Smith, used to perform on 9th Street alongside her brother, as a way to make a few extra dollars. Valaida Snow, Jimmy Blanton, Lovie Austin, Yusef Lateef and Llenal Glass. Our city’s cultural legacy is rich with blues and jazz.It is easy to think of the Big Nine’s heyday nostalgically, though to idealize this past would be to ignore the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow south. In many ways, the Big Nine neighborhood was a direct response to enforced segregation, serving as a powerful example of human creativity and dignity in the face of repression and open hatred. With the 60’s came the Civil Rights Movement, and the sit-ins in downtown Chattanooga would shine a nasty spotlight on a culture of deep-seated racism. Desegregation, as it would play out, would cause the initial coming apart of the Big Nine. Free to work and perform in other parts of the city, business owners sought better opportunity elsewhere, and nightclubs were abandoned. At the same time, the continuing practice of disinvestment and discriminatory housing policies contributed to decreased wealth in the surrounding neighborhood. The Big Nine disappeared, and the street became quiet.

Drive down MLK today, and the picture is starkly different. Businesses and restaurants are re-opening, UTC students are making the neighborhood their home, older houses are being restored, and beautiful murals cover the old brick walls. There is a resurgence happening here, reminiscent of the resurgence that played out on Main Street over the last decade. Benwood has been and remains committed to working collaboratively with cross-sector community partners to help animate and develop Chattanooga’s urban core and surrounding neighborhoods. .Presently, there is a special emphasis on the M.L. King District, which is experiencing a wave of growth led by the neighborhood’s long-time committed leaders. While there is excitement for the neighborhood’s resurgence, there remains the friction that comes with gentrification, and so multiple neighborhood stakeholders are working together in an effort to preserve the neighborhood’s unique historical past while also shaping its promising future. In the fall of 2016, a group of five community partners approached Benwood to fund a new opportunity that would support this district’s growing momentum through the power of free, live music.Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, Jazzanooga, Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, Bessie Smith Cultural Center and the City’s Office of Multicultural Affairs partnered to apply for the “Levitt AMP [Your City] Awards” grant program. Made possible by the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation, this national program awards 15 small- to mid-size cities with $25k in matching funds to bring 10 to 12 consecutive weeks of diverse, high-caliber music programming to underutilized public spaces that are easily accessible to diverse communities.The goals of the Levitt AMP grant are to amplify community pride and a city’s unique character; enrich lives through the power of free, live music; and illustrate the importance of vibrant public places.

After months of a competitive judging process with fifty-three applicants, Chattanooga was selected as one out of fifteen cities to be awarded the 2017 Levitt AMP grant.Starting in August, 2017, there will be ten consecutive weeks of free concerts, held on Thursday nights, at the lawn of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. The series will highlight a diverse set of genres featuring exceptional local, regional and national talent.

The partners chose the lawn of the Bessie as the location for this music series because it serves as the physical and symbolic gateway to the central business district and MLK neighborhood. It is within close proximity to the bus line and bike share with ample parking surrounding the venue, making it easily accessible for all patrons to attend.

The founding partners have a set of important goals for the music series, including: ?

  • To help support the lawn of the Bessie as a thriving social destination that draws residents and tourists once again to the MLK neighborhood to experience live music and learn about the cultural heritage of the Big Nine.
  • To drive community engagement with today’s MLK businesses.
  • To catalyze further investment in a neighborhood with historic significance and bright future.
  • To break down the barriers that prevent people from mixing in social settings and more deeply integrate the people of our city to promote mutual understanding and empathy.

Through the power of live, free music, we believe the Levitt AMP Chattanooga Music Series will support a deeper understanding of accessibility, diversity, and inclusion. Chattanooga remains segregated both by income and geography, and the socioeconomic divisions that exist today underline enduring divides along racial lines. While a music festival can’t change these entrenched issues on its own, the series does provide an opportunity for people of all backgrounds to come together and enjoy music together in the heart of our City. . Let’s celebrate the legacy of the Big Nine, and continue to build a more welcoming future for this neighborhood that is on the rise.