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Exhibit highlights jazz venue’s golden era

Posted: February 7, 2018 - 12:20am

It wasn't a jazz mecca, but a venue in North Augusta drew some of the hottest names in jazz in the 1930s and 1940s. An exhibit that opened Jan. 18 at the Arts and Heritage Center of North Augusta pays tribute to the Palmetto Park and Pond.

Artists including Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performed at the venue, which was located off Carolina Springs Road. It's now privately owned.

The entertainment and recreation site was for African-Americans during the age of segregation. There was a swimming area with slides as well as a dance hall, barbecue pit and a stage for the artists.

The exhibit originally debuted in 2009 with Milledge Murray and Don Rhodes spearheading the effort.

"We did some additional research," said volunteer Andrea Spano. "I wanted to add more photographs of the individual artists."

Spano said augmenting the photos was difficult even in the digital age. For some artists, such as Lil Green and Tiny Bradshaw, she only found one or two pictures.

The exhibit features a collection of panels with photographs of newspaper advertisements as well as photographs of the venue in its heyday. There are detailed biographies with pictures of the artists who performed there, including one of North Augusta's own, Arthur Lee Simpkins.

Simpkins performed at the venue in 1934.

He was born in North Augusta but moved to Augusta as a child. He worked as a porter for the Georgia Railroad Bank during the day but at night, he sang. He was a featured performer at Augusta's Lenox Theatre and was discovered by big-band director Earl "Fatha" Hines, who hired Simpkins as his lead singer.

Simpkins became quite famous. Las Vegas stars Liberace and Joey Bishop opened for his shows, and in 1953, he represented the United States at Queen Elizabeth's coronation.

Included with the historical documentation are four paintings by Margaret Estep.

"These are interpretive paintings of what it might've looked like," she said.

One of the paintings shows a couple dancing while the other shows the audience listening to one of the performers sing.

"There were certain times when they couldn't dance," said Estep.

Dancing and drinking alcohol were both against the law on Sundays.

Two other paintings represent Cab Calloway, who performed there in May 1941, and Louis Armstrong, who performed there in September 1941.

The exhibit is in the Arts and Heritage Center's balcony gallery. In the center's main gallery are works by Alicia Cully and Robert Lyon.

The exhibits will be on display through March 4.

 

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