When drummer Tony Day invited me to sit in on a Sunday night at Kelsey’s in Atlantic City, I didn’t know what to expect. The last time I’d sung in the casino city was way back in the day when musicians could still get regular gigs there. Not so anymore. The casinos are barely hanging on. But I wondered if there could be a musical renaissance happening outside the slot and roulette scene.

Kelsey’s, at the corner of Pacific and Kentucky Avenue (the historic street of jazz and black entertainment in Atlantic City from the 1930s to the 1960s) is a soul-food restaurant owned by Kelsey and Kim Jackson. Kelsey, chef and menu wizard, and his wife have created a spot that is an oasis from the glittering gambling traps along the boardwalk. There’s music seven nights a week, with jazz on Sundays from 6pm to 10pm, hosted by Tony Day and his Across the Globe Band.

Where AC is still jumping

I brought a few friends to the restaurant with me, including my guitarist Tom Glenn, and an aroma of barbecued spareribs, sweet yams, and corn bread immediately wrapped me up. This soul-food bouquet led me by the nose to one of the few remaining open tables. This joint was certainly jumping.

Tony Day has led the Sunday jams for more than seven years. That night, a rhythm section to die for was on stage, with bassist Cedric Napoleon, a founding member of the group Pieces of a Dream; keyboardist Adam Faulk, a journeyman pianist who toured with the late Aretha Franklin and saxophonist James Carter; and, topping off the band, alto saxophonist George Bussy Jr., a mainstay of the Tramps.

Day, who blew into Atlantic City in 1989 from Los Angeles with the Platters tour, stayed in town. “Atlantic City was poppin’ and jumpin’ at the time. A lot of work for musicians. I knew guys who had two or three gigs a day!”

On first and third Sundays of each month, he fronts an organ band with Newark vocalist Pat Tandy, organist Dan Kostelnik, and saxophonist James Stewart. Second and fourth Sundays, Day experiments with different musicians and singers. “From time to time we encourage young people to come and give them a chance to be on stage and do what they do.”

Everything right with the world

One celebrity in the audience was a good friend I hadn’t seen in years, trumpeter Michael Ray, who’s constantly on the road with Kool and the Gang but is mostly known for his work with the Sun Ra Arkestra and his own band Cosmic Crew. He brought the house down stretching a standard Miles tune to the moon and back. When I was called up to sing, Michael’s wife, Laranah Phipps-Ray, jumped in on my second tune and we traded fours scatting all the way home. This ended the evening. My spare ribs were waiting for me along with a chardonnay and everything was right with the world for a moment.

Remembering Kentucky Avenue

When anyone mentions “Kentucky Avenue,” a kind of nostalgia washes over people within earshot. Those who were there sigh and smile in remembrance of a very special time and place in this seaside city. For those who missed that era, like me, there is a yearning and a wish that something had been preserved besides a few posters and promo photos.

“I remember seeing Amad Jamal at the Wonder Gardens at two or three o’clock in the morning,” reminisces Henrietta Shelton, 76, president of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation.

People would be walking the streets like it was the afternoon. They would go to work, go to sleep, and then get up and come out around ten at night. Two o’clock in the morning, Kentucky Avenue was packed! Jam-packed! People of all colors, just walking up and down. It was just like New York, but our story was never told… The entertainers stayed right on the north side, so we got to see famous people up close…People were always dressed up. You couldn’t go out of your house unless you were dressed to the nines. I wore a mink stole to see Gloria Lynne, and I was not overdressed.

More music, maybe

Several times, Atlantic City movers and shakers have promised to bring the famous avenue back, but the casino industry has always taken precedence over history. Walk down Kentucky Avenue now, from Kelsey’s to “Ky and the Curb,” where the avenue meets Arctic and where Club Harlem used to stand, and all you’ll see is a plethora of parking lots devoid of life, music, or people. But maybe, just maybe, Kelsey’s can start a rebirth of an authentic time of blue notes and happy folks, as the casinos in Atlantic City stumble with their sputtering slot machines all tuned to the key of C.

Originally published by Broad Street Review January 2019

Writer, historian, jazz singer-songwriter, PhD American Studies. Authored 6 YA history books and the play “Last Call at the Downbeat”

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