Club Harlem - the storied Atlantic City venue that hosted some of the biggest names in entertainment - closed 29 years ago, but there are still plenty of people who want to keep its memory alive.

And some of those people will be doing just that at the Cape Bank Jazz @ the Point festival in Somers Point this week.

The festival will pay tribute to Club Harlem and the legendary performers who played there.

The tribute will include Dr. Lonnie Smith, performing Thursday, and the Ralph Peterson Unity Project, performing Friday, at Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro in Somers Point.

Ralph Hunter, the founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, is assisting with the jazz festival and was involved in developing the musical, "On Kentucky Avenue - The Club Harlem Revue," which was performed in March at Dante Hall Theater in Atlantic City.

And Kelsey Jackson, the co-owner of Kelsey's in Atlantic City, which hosts live jazz every Sunday and Wednesday, says his venue was inspired by Club Harlem.

Club Harlem was a world-renowned venue for black entertainers on North Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City. From its opening in 1933 to its closing in 1986, the 1,000-seat club hosted Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and B.B. King, among others. The Club Harlem building was razed in 1992. The other clubs that once populated Kentucky Avenue, including Grace's Little Belmont, Paradise Club and Wonder Gardens, also no longer exist.

"It was an institution," said Hunter. "It was an institution for entertainment on the East Coast. I think it's about time that Club Harlem is recognized."

One of the people who performed in the front lounge at Club Harlem was Smith, a jazz organist and New York native. Smith recorded his first live album, "Move Your Hand," on Aug. 9, 1969, at Club Harlem. The album cover shows Smith standing in the sand on an Atlantic City beach.

"It was much fun during that time," said Smith, 72. "It was a very popular club. Club Harlem was one of the main spots, playing there was very prestigious."

Smith said he remembers walking on Kentucky Avenue and hearing another organist, Wild Bill Davis, at Grace's Little Belmont. "When I play those songs from the earlier days ... they feel good to me," he said.

Smith will perform at Sandi Pointe on Shore Road with a guitar and drummer. His live album was recorded with a tenor and a baritone saxophonists in addition to a guitarist and a drummer.

Jazz drummer and bandleader Ralph Peterson Jr., a Pleasantville native, said among his earliest memories is watching his father, former Pleasantville mayor Ralph Peterson Sr., subbing on the drums for the late Chris Columbo at Club Harlem. He would help his father pack his drums and equipment, he said, and his father would sometimes take the whole family out for a night at Club Harlem.

"Seeing live music inspired me to want to be a musician," he said. "Hearing great bands live is probably only second to playing music myself."

Peterson recalls seeing the soul vocal group the Spinners, jazz vocalists Arthur Prysock and Gloria Lynne, jazz alto saxophonist and flautist Sonny Fortune and jazz pianist and Davis at the Club Harlem. Peterson's early gigs were in the East Orange and Newark organ circuit, which was an outgrowth of the Atlantic City, Philadelphia and Trenton organ clubs.

Peterson's quartet will be filled out with a trombonist, a trumpeter and a 24-year-old organist when he performs at Sandi Pointe.

Doors and the marquee from the old Club Harlem, along with numerous black-and-white photographs ,will be on display from Thursday through Saturday inside Sandi Pointe's main ballroom. People attending the jazz festival can see a little bit what the defunct club was like. Hunter, the founder and president of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in Atlantic City and Newtonville, Buena Vista Township, supplied the materials to decorate the ballroom.

Hunter, now 77, came to South Jersey in 1953 from Philadelphia.

"Every weekend, we were there. We went to see the shows. We couldn't afford to go in, so we would stand outside and listen to the music," said Hunter, who was the Atlantic City co-producer of the "On Kentucky Avenue" musical. "The only people who could do even better than us was the Cotton Club in New York. We had the shore taken up for the entire summer."

Jackson is the co-owner of Kelsey's restaurant on Pacific Avenue. He recalls being a preteen during the 1970s, when he would pass the Club Harlem, feel the vibe outside of the place and see people from all over. It influenced him in opening Kelsey's.

"That was an important part of history, an important part of Atlantic City, and a lot of people forget about it," said Jackson. "We weren't allowed on the Southside (of the city). We were allowed on the Northside. So my thing is when the opportunity came to take over this, I had a gut feeling that this is what the city really needed. We need to go back to our roots and recognize where we come from and our culture."

A former Club Harlem act, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, will perform at Kelsey's on June 20.

Contact Vincent Jackson:


Jazz festival

Cape Bank Jazz @ the Point includes a tribute to "Club Harlem" at Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro, 908 Shore Road, Somers Point. Dr. Lonnie Smith Organ Trio will perform 7:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday. The Ralph Peterson Unity Project will perform 7:30 and 8:45 p.m. Friday. Tickets for Thursday and Friday are $25 and $30, respectively. Tickets to attend all jazz festival events are $85. For a complete lineup or to purchase tickets, go to or call 609-927-6677.

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