Music

New music series brings live jazz home to the Historic Lyric Theater

Written By Deborah Ramirez
March 28, 2024 at 6:32 PM

South Florida singer LaVie headlines the Lyric Theater’s new jazz series, SJO 1st Fridays Live at the Lyric, on Friday, April 5.  Above, LaVie performs at the 2019 “Sit, Sing, and Swing” event in Hollywood. (Photo courtesy of Ulysses Photography/Se LaVie Music)

Every first Friday of the month since the new year began, jazz and history take a bow at Overtown’s Lyric Theater.

Miami’s oldest working theater now hosts “SJO 1st Fridays Live at the Lyric,” its first live music series since reopening a decade ago.

Presented by the Sunshine Jazz Organization (SJO), the new event aims to showcase local artists and promote the community’s emerging cultural life. For the series’ creators, it’s about remembering an Overtown that once was and envisioning what it could become again.

“It was really quite an honor because Overtown has had a rich history of jazz well over the years,” says Keith Valles, SJO president, who is on a mission to restore Overtown’s jazz legacy.

His organization has championed jazz and South Florida musicians for nearly four decades.

At the most recent Lyric jazz series show, Ladies of Simone paid tribute to Nina Simone on March 1. From left, Courtney Mickens, Ja’Nia Harden, Toddra Brunson, and Sarah Gracel. (Photo courtesy of Leesa Richards/SJO)

“The Lyric is so historic and the area is growing. It’s a wonderful thing that’s going on in Overtown and we wanted to be part of that,” says Valles.

“SJO 1st Fridays” is now part of what’s happening in the historic Black community on the edge of downtown Miami. The most recent jazz concert, in March, showcased Ladies of Simone with a tribute to singer Nina Simone.

Moving forward, LaVie headlines the next concert on Friday, April 5.  Haitian-American and Miami native LaVie is a constant presence in the local music scene and has been a staple at the Jazz in the Gardens series, performing in 2016 and again in 2023.

On Friday, May 3, the lineup continues when the Yvette Norwood-Tiger Quartet and special guest, multi-Grammy award winning violinist Federico Britos take the stage. Norwood-Tiger is a veteran performer and nominee for the South Florida Indie Awards 2022 as Best Jazz Vocalist. The Uruguay-born Britos has fostered a career that spans jazz and classical music and has performed with artists like Charlie Haden, Bebo Valdés and Israel “Cachao” López.

The Yvette Norwood-Tiger Quartet, takes the stage at the Lyric Theater on Friday, May 3. Norwood-Tiger is shown performing at the 2021 Palm Beach International Jazz Festival. (Photo courtesy of Jacek Gancarz Photography)

The live music series will be composed of 85 percent traditional jazz, along with other styles that include blues, progressive jazz, Latin jazz, popular ballads, and a Motown tribute, explains Valles, adding that the series will run through December and likely into the new year.

This is not the Lyric’s first encounter with jazz since it officially reopened in February 2014. For the past nine years, every February, the iconic theater has hosted the Melton Mustafa Jazz Festival, honoring the memory of local Miami jazz musician, composer and educator Melton Mustafa.

For those involved, however, the time felt right to bring a permanent jazz presence back to the neighborhood, says Kamila Pritchett, executive director of the Black Archives-Historic Lyric Theater – the group that owns and manages the venue.

“I wanted to create a year-round atmosphere where people would know they can come to the Lyric Theater for real jazz and that’s what we’re trying to do with the partnership with Sunshine,” says Pritchett.

The series’ organizers say their goal is to shine a light on Overtown’s emerging cultural revival. They reminisce about an era when Overtown was the place to find late-night music and the majestic Lyric was its crown jewel.

The Historic Lyric Theater at 819 NW 2nd Ave. is considered Miami’s oldest working theater. (Photo courtesy of BAHLT)

In 1913, Black entrepreneur Geder Walker built the 400-seat Lyric Theater, inspired by the grand theaters of Europe he had admired during his travels. Over the years, the Lyric hosted Black luminaries such as scholar and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, and legendary entertainers like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker.

During its heyday, the area around the theater flourished. Celebrity sightings were common: Dionne Warwick making a grand entrance into a late-night lounge or Sammy Davis Jr. leading the Rat Pack on a night of club-hopping. Pritchett recalls an Overtown where people of different races came together for their shared love of music.

“Back then, world-famous Black entertainers could perform on Miami Beach, but they couldn’t stay there. So, after finishing their show, they would head to Overtown – and bring their friends with them,” says Pritchett. “Overtown was the first iteration of Miami’s melting pot.”

For Valles, he grew up hearing stories about the community’s swinging nightlife from his father, Miami radio host Charles L. “China” Valles. The senior Valles would visit the neighborhood’s music scene after ending his late-night radio show, his son recalls.

Sunshine Jazz President Keith Valles is on a mission to revive Overtown’s jazz legacy. (Photo courtesy of Jerome Louden Photography/SJO)

“When my dad first came to Miami, Overtown was the place to be,“ says Valles. “It was sort of like the Village in New York because you had all these little hotels and they all had clubs. You could go club hopping in Overtown back then. It was a vibrant community. That’s before they ran I-95 through it.”

The Black Archives organization has devoted years and resources to documenting the impact that the construction of Interstate 95 and 395 in the 1960s had on the neighborhood.

“Overtown was a thriving community, rich with arts, culture, entertainment, active engagement in social and civil rights issues and a self-sustaining economy,” says Pritchett.  The highways that cut through Overtown led to “significant changes and challenges for its residents.”

The Lyric Theater also declined. It shut down between the late 1960s and the 1980s, escaping demolition thanks to the efforts of Black Archives founder Dorothy Jenkins Fields.

“Dr. Fields worked to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988,” recalls Pritchett, adding that “several neighboring buildings were demolished to make way for parking facilities for the Miami Arena.”

“I feel like the state of the Lyric Theater echoes the state of our community,” she adds. When it was abandoned and dilapidated, it echoed a community starved of resources. When our lights are on, it indicates the energy in the neighborhood.”

At the helm of Black Archives-Historic Lyric Theater, Kamila Pritchett promotes Overtown’s rich cultural heritage. (Photo courtesy of BAHLT)

That energy is palpable in the area’s changing landscape. Condos and high-rises have popped up, bringing new residents and businesses. The Lyric now sits across from Red Rooster Overtown, an eatery owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. The Brightline MiamiCentral station is two blocks away.

“The Lyric is so historic and the area is growing. You’ve got the snowbirds, the young professionals, and the retirees. It’s a wonderful thing that’s going on in Overtown and we wanted to be part of that,” says Valles, referring to SJO’s new live music series. “Us being there is like bringing back the good old days and mixing it with the new era of today.”

It’s also about preserving Black history and culture amid redevelopment and gentrification, adds Pritchett.

Black Archives contributes to the effort through events that educate, and, they say, entertain. In February, it installed the photo exhibition “Echoes of Overtown: A Legacy Preserved,” at the Brightline station – and hosts similar events in the community.

In 1913, Black entrepreneur Geder Walker built the 400-seat Lyric Theater, inspired by the grand theaters of Europe he had admired during his travels. (Photo courtesy of Javalin Lovett/BAHLT)

Additionally, this year it began a culinary series, “Date Night at the Lyric,” on the second Wednesday of the month. The intimate experience takes place on stage – 20 diners are seated at tables for two. It includes a chef-curated three-course meal, open bar, live music and talkback on food and Black heritage.

“It’s become more popular than we expected,” says Pritchett.

The jazz series, however, is the icing on the cake. It’s how the theater welcomes the month and opens its doors to visitors. Pritchett hopes it will change perceptions about what Overtown has to offer.

“People can now plan an evening around what we have in Overtown . . . so they’re not just driving through the neighborhood to get somewhere, but making it a destination.”

WHAT: SJO 1st Fridays Live at the Lyric featuring LaVie and the Yvette Norwood-Tiger Quartet with Federico Britos.

WHERE: The Historic Lyric Theater, 819 NW 2nd Ave., Miami

WHEN: 8 p.m., Friday, April 5 and Friday, May 3

COST: $30 and $40

INFORMATION: 305-710-2555, sunshinejazz.org

RELATED EVENT: Date Night at the Lyric, 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 10; on the 2nd Wednesday of the month, $150 per couple. For information, 786-708-4610 or bahlt.org.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com

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