Nap Turner, Mixing Sunshine With the Blues
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004; Page C01
Nap Turner, who died yesterday, had a phrase between his names, a past that turned him old and a voice that kept him young.
On the radio, he was Nap "Don't Forget the Blues" Turner, an ocean-deep baritone that told the stories of Langston Hughes over the music of a generation of black Americans who sang so as not to shuffle. On the bandstand, he was a bassist who played with some of the greats, imitating their success in jazz and their failure from drugs.
Nap Turner was 73 when he died, and he had done hard drugs, hard time and a hard road back. Born in West Virginia, son of a coal miner, he was a near-Washingtonian, a graduate of Armstrong High School (alma mater of Duke Ellington and a thick catalogue of jazz legends), the Howard Theater, the D.C. Jail, St. Elizabeths Hospital and the city's endlessly generous employer of last resort, the District government.
He studied music informally -- hanging out with the "vipers," the reefer guys who loitered behind Turner's Arena when the big bands were playing in the '40s; listening to Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie from back corners and outside alleys as they played their D.C. gigs in the '50s; learning from a National Symphony Orchestra bassist who would drop by St. E's as part of Turner's therapy in the early '60s.
Turner played jazz and blues in Washington clubs, after-hours spots and occasionally on tour with big names. He played the bass until he grew uncomfortable with the quality of his music and then he switched to singing the blues, something he'd heard his aunt do back in Tams, W.Va. He sang in a bold, rich, swinging voice, proud and clear.
And then, in his last two decades, when he took his act onto the radio, on WPFW (89.3 FM), he added a thicker, smokier storytelling voice and a collection of tales, personal and drawn from literature, that attracted a loyal and wide audience.
"Every time Nap got a gig, on the radio, on stage, he'd bring all his friends," said Jamal Muhammad, a longtime friend of Turner's and a fellow jazz broadcaster. "He gave a lot of musicians, a lot of people, their starts in this town."
Those who listened to Turner on the radio heard a bit of the backwoods (plenty of country phrases such as "God willing and the creek don't rise"), some recitation set to music (he had a habit of reading "Wedding Pledge," a poem by Frederick Douglas Harper, while the tune "When a Man Loves a Woman" played in the background), and the occasional tune of Turner's own composition (such as his "Good Morning Blues," which says, "I am a soulful scream and a moan as one, I'm a personal expression. I am the blues").
Turner in his last years seemed to be everywhere, singing at U Street clubs, serving as a kind of den father to a generation of musicians who rarely got out anymore, showing up at the weekly Jazz Night performances at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington on Fridays to connect old jazzmen to the new kids on the block.
"There were angels and demons in the pasts of so many of these guys," said the Rev. Brian Hamilton, minister to the city's old jazz community. "It took Nap a lifetime to battle his demons, but in the end, he was an angel."
In the beginning he was enraptured with the idea of getting high and making music. He started drinking in junior high school. "I thought that in order to grow up and all, that you had to act certain ways, smoke cigarettes, drink whiskey, say bad words. That, to me, was freedom," Turner told jazz journalist W. Royal Stokes in a series of interviews in 1982.
So Turner put on his $40 Borsalino hat, "cocked acey-deucy and pulled low over my eyes," added a cashmere overcoat, painted on a little moustache and headed out to Seventh and T, hoping for a glimpse of Ellington, a glance from the ladies, or, ideally, both.
It was possible in those days for a smart young man to latch onto the great visiting musicians and get a view into another world. One night in 1953, Charlie Parker was playing the Club Kavakos at Eighth and H streets NE, and Turner and a Washington cabbie who served as Parker's chauffeur in town tagged along. The doorman informed the legendary saxophonist that his black companions were not permitted to enter the segregated club. "Parker said, 'If they can't come, I don't play,' " said Muhammad. "So they let Nap come in and sit close to the kitchen and listen to Bird."
But while Turner learned his art, he also learned about the higher high of heroin, and despite a "Don't do what I do, do what I say" lecture from Parker himself, Turner was hooked. Before long he pawned his bass and then he learned to steal. He lifted from department stores and broke into cars and got himself caught. He did four years in the D.C. Jail, where a bluesman named Little John Anthony taught him how singing could make the time move faster.
Back on the street, he became a regular at after-hours clubs such as the Villa Bea on 19th Street NW, the kind of place where jazz mixed with the numbers game and women for hire. Before long, Turner turned back to thievery and dealing and this time he was sent to the mental hospital, where he spent three years in the therapy he would later credit for turning him around. It wasn't until the '70s that Turner went on methadone and found work as a statistician at the old Narcotics Treatment Administration; he would work as a drug counselor for the city for many years thereafter.
Finally clean, Turner was able to land gigs at the Kennedy Center, in Italy, and in just about every venue in the Washington area. "He was a local phenomenon, but he was of vital importance to the Washington music community," says Stokes.
In his last years, Turner was best known for his midday Saturday radio show, "The Bama Hour," which he took over from the late Jerry Washington in 1994. Washington's show had been by far the most popular on the station, and his selection of blues, jazz and standards as well as his down-home storytelling drew together the separate cities of Washington -- GOP political operative Lee Atwater and former mayor Marion Barry, Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham and Secretary of State Colin Powell were all listeners, as were thousands of people whose names never appeared in bold print.
Turner took over the show and made it his own. "He played the blues, and then he added jazz, and then the Langston Hughes stories," Muhammad said.
"He had an aura about him," Turner once said of Ellington. "We were all so impressed by his elegance." Many in his audience would say the same of Nap Turner.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Bluesman Nap Turner enjoys an album release party in 1996.
(Courtesy Of Right On Rhythm)