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This driving tour is part of the New York Back Story tours developed by folklorists and cultural ethnographers who know you want to hear from local storytellers.
The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes sponsored this tour. The ARTS Council provides a full range of services to artists and arts/cultural organizations of all disciplines and at all stages of their careers in Steuben, Schuyler and Chemung counties and beyond.
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If you enjoy this tour, check out all the New York Back Story audio tours: Elmira Back Story, Mohawk Back Story Tour, East End Back Story, and Niagara Frontier Back Story.
In addition, you can find other tours in New York State and NYC, or wherever your travels may take you at TravelStorys.com. Every place has a story.
For more content, click the "Explore this Tour Remotely" button below.
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Narrator: Welcome to New York Back Story where you can hear stories about local traditions. From 1932 to 2011, Green Pastures was the place to hear live jazz and blues music in the Southern Tier of New York while enjoying some of the finest fried chicken, potato salad and collard greens in the region. An African-American business owned by Beatrice Johnson, known affectionately as Ms. Bea, and her husband Richard, Green Pastures was situated in the heart of Elmira's Eastside neighborhood, a multi-ethnic neighborhood where the majority of the city's African American community lived. In the 1930s, Howard Coleman, a young boy living across the street from Green Pastures, began working alongside Ms. Bea, eventually becoming manager. Narrator: Ira Heyward, an Elmira-based jazz saxophonist and drummer shares his recollections of Ms. Bea, Howard and an extraordinary afternoon in the club as a young man. Mrs. Bea Hodges, she was the original owner of Green Pastures. If there was a band there on the weekend, I'd go there, stand outside and listen to them and then I'd go on home, because I knew my mother would want me home. What I like about Ms. Bea, she had that nice voice. She had a great love for children. I'd come in there, she'd sit me in the corner, she'd give me a glass of orange juice and a piece of apple pie with a piece of cheese on it. I got to know Howard because Howard was the bartender for Ms. Bea. As a boy that was great. One time I went in on a Thursday night. Jimmy Smith Band was playing before he became very famous. His drummer was either late getting in, but the people that set it up already had the set set-up. The band was ready to start. And Mike said to them "Let that kid play." It was the first time I played a real set of drums. I was overwhelmed. The guy said "Let me hear you play." He kicked that organ off, and I fell right into it as a drummer. I had no real drum experience. When I got through it, I was so tickled. I went home and told my mom what I had done. She was overwhelmed. She said, "You got a chance to play with them?" I said, "Yeah, Mom. it was really great." Narrator: Jimmy Smith wasn't the only big name that played Green Pastures. Green Pastures was a well-regarded stop for what later became giants of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Max Roach, Joe Venuti, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Cobb, Jimmy Heath, Hank Jones, Larry Young and many, many more. Green Pastures also opened doors to talented young players in the community and broader region. It was a place for area musicians to gather, learn from one another and perform. Howard Coleman describes the communal aspect of the club for local musicians. On Mondays in the Green Pastures it was called Blue Monday. That was the day that most musicians in the area were off. We would come to the Green Pastures from Binghamton, Ithaca wherever and assemble and they would play in sets. So you would say okay, Harold, you play tenor, Bryce you play piano, I'll play trombone, you play the drums. We got the next set, and while our group was playing, another guy would say "we got the next set", they would get their group together. At the end all the musicians would get on the bandstand and play together, what a time that was. Narrator: Ira Heyward shares what a transformative experience it was to play Green Pastures as a young local musician. In 1958 after I came home from the army, one of the things Alvin at that time had a Mercury with a sunroof. We're riding around in the car, singing and harmonizing. Lee said, "We ought to put a band together." I thought they were kidding. We put that band together, and we were practicing in the Neighborhood House, Ms. Bea came over and made her statement, "I've had men coming in town, other bands from Philadelphia, Buffalo, New York and so forth, and you boys are as good as some of the bands I've had here." Green Pastures was the first place that I ever played. Green Pastures was a legend. To be able to say that you played at Green Pastures, man you did something. You were exceptionally well. Mrs' Hodges and Green Pastures, it opened a door for us to become musicians. And we immediately took off. Narrator: In 1971 Green Pastures moved to its second location at 723 Madison Ave., after the 5th and Dickinson location was bought and demolished by the Urban Renewal Agency of Elmira to make way for new developments. During this era much of the thriving African American community that made up the East Side was displaced throughout the city, and many of the physical landmarks of the community were destroyed. At that point, Howard Coleman became the owner of Green Pastures and stewarded the club until its closure in 2011. From then on the club continued to be an inspiring place for musicians of multiple generations and backgrounds to come together and build a tight-knit musical community.