ON A SUNDAY afternoon earlier this year about 700 persons filled the Panorama Room on the ground of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Southeast for a six-hour jazz program. Blacks outnumbered whites easily 10 to one and the age spread was from the twenties to the sixties. Tenor saxophonist Buck Hill's quartet was halfway through a steamy set when a middle-aged black man strode out onto the stage. He was as thin as a fence post, and his brisk carriage and erect stance called to mind the stereotype of the country preacher. But not his clothes: His dark suit coat was a double-breasted rectangle and his beige trousers held knife-edge creases. A Panama hat shaded his eyes from the klieg lights, and steel-rimmed spectacles lent him a bookish air.
"I am a way of life," declaimed bluesman Nap Turner in a voice that was as deep as a well and as slow-paced as a horse-drawn cart on a country road. "I am the blues." He leaned forward and gestured with the now hand-held hat. "Don't forget the blues -- the blues is a cultural resource all of us can utilize."
Nap Turner's history, from his West Virginian boyhood to his recovery from heroin addiction around 1970, is a tale of such suffering that the blues seem natural for him. The "habit" that he struggled with for more than two decades put him into prison, sent him to the federal drug rehabilitation facility in Lexington, Ky., and caused his commitment to St. Elizabeths Hospital. It broke up his marriages, separated him from his children, converted him from a church-going youngster of solid middle-class morals into a liar, a thief, even (briefly) a pimp.
Turner relaxes with a glass of cognac and a plastic-tipped cigar in his apartment in Adams Morgan. He settles back to tell his life story, an account that stretches over 10 hours of interview sessions. A bookshelf behind him contains histories of the blues and jazz, studies of black culture, and records -- the collection he draws from for "Don't Forget the Blues," a three-hour program he hosts every Wednesday morning on WPFW-FM. Beginning Dec. 9, he will be singing with his quartet at the Sabbatical Leave Restaurant, a new jazz venue, on Thursdays through December.
"I was born in Tams, West Virginia, on March 4, 1931, an only child," he begins. "My father was a coal miner and approximately 30 years older than my mother." Tams, in the District of Slabfork, Raleigh County, was a typical coal mining town: The miners bought food, clothes and household items from a company store, paying for it in script. Turner remembers clearly the three-room house he grew up in with its front and back porches, smokehouse, chicken coop and outhouse , and small garden along the side of the fence. Naturally, the family heated and cooked with coal.
"My old man used to bank the fire at night, and I can remember being in my bed hearing the radio and watching that fireplace. It was like going to all kinds of movies, man, everything from musical comedy to mystery and horror movies."
When Turner was 3 or 4, more family arrived in the area, settling in nearby Cooktown. Among them was a blues-singing, guitar-playing aunt who presented the young boy with his first experience of "real rural kinds of blues."
This extended family cushioned the shock of two severe blows that befell Turner before he was 9. First his mother and father separated and Nap and his mother moved to Cooktown. Hardly a year had gone by when his father died. "After my mother and he split up he just gave up, man, lost his job and was living in a little shack on the side of the mountain. He got sick, had pneumonia or something -- might have been tuberculosis or black lung."
Turner moved to Washington to live with his great-uncle, Jimmy Dean, an ordained minister who had investments in real estate, ran two shoe repair shops, and encouraged his teen-aged great-nephew to learn about business.
"He was telling me about how you need education to deal with bank presidents so that you don't have to go in and take your hat off and use the ways that niggers always use on white people when you go in and want some money; so that you can get it based on what he's goin' to judge it on anyhow, you know, your collateral. He taught me, taught all my cousins, taught his son."
But it wasn't long before the family discipline, the shoe-shop work ethic and the Sunday school moral teachings began to fall apart, in Turner's words, "quick, fast and in a hurry."
"I used to get out of school at 3:30 and I had to be in the shop by 4 o'clock. I didn't get off 'til 7 o'clock, and then I had to go home and if there was any dishes that needed to be washed or if my shirts was dirty I had to wash and iron them and put starch in 'em -- I ain't talking about no spray starch -- and that was goin' on since I was 10 or 11."
And it wasn't long before Turner was breaking away on Sundays to park cars at the baseball games at Griffith Stadium. "People from out of town would bring their cars in, see, so you say, 'Mistah, lemme park your car right here.' What you'd be telling him in effect was, 'I'm gonna watch your car' . . . After all, average guy comes from suburbia, all these little kids lookin' mean in this slum area, he'd rather have his car protected.'Wamme watch your car, Mistah, I'll wash it, too, additional price?' Making as much money on Sunday as I was makin' all week in that shoe shop.
"The drinkin' thing started in the last year of junior high school and it got progressively worse," he recalls. "By the time I was in Armstrong High School I was goin' to house parties and doin' the belly rub to Avery Parrish's 'After Hours' and Edmond Hall's 'Profoundly Blue.' It's what you 'spos to do if you're gettin' to be a grown-up, right? You 'spos to emulate the behavior you see all around you, right?" he says with a laugh. "Or emulate that behavior that's grooviest to you, know what I mean? 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 remembers a particular Saturday night in his mid-teens. He was badly hung over from partying the night before but there was a notable band performing at Turner's Arena, in the 1300 block of W Street NW, that night.
"It was a big, hip band and we had to go, man. There were high bleachers behind the bandstand where all the vipers habitual users of marijuana and hipsters used to hang out, and underneath these bleachers was dressing rooms and the band room and musicians movin' back and forth. They wore berets and be-bop glasses and cardigan jackets that didn't have collars. Dizzy Gillespie -- it might have been his band there that particular night -- had a goatee. This was the late '40s, you know, after the zoot suit age -- I mean, it was the new thing comin', right?
"I dressed like a man and wore a big $40 Borsalino hat cocked acey-deucey and pulled low over my eyes with my coat collar -- I wore a cashmere overcoat -- turned up and a little mustache painted on and long pointed toe shoes that in those days probably cost $30. You know what I mean, nice threads and dressed to kill and talkin' with the same timbre in my voice as now -- it used to kill the broads.
"So this fellow says, 'Hey, how you doin'?' He was hip to reefer and we started telling him how bad we felt. He said, 'Man, you ought to quit f------ with that ignorant oil liquor and get high. You ain't goin' to have no hangover with reefer.'
"So it was one of those things with me and my buddy: 'I'll try it if you'll try it.' And I wanted to be hip, too, and I definitely didn't want no hangover," he says, laughing, "so I figures, we surely wouldn't die from one joint. I liked it, liked the reefer, man. So the consumption of the alcohol went down and the consumption of marijuana went up. And I had become interested in music and was hanging out with musicians who liked be-bop."
"And they were also having afternoon jam sessions at Little Harlem, a club at Seventh and T. When we found out about that we started hangin' around. There was so many clubs: starting at the corner of Seventh and T you had Clore's and the Offbeat, where they would have comedians and shake dancers and an after-hours joint; Old Rose, down the street, where Art Tatum used to go; there was a hot dog stand that had all the hit records; and around the corner was one of those real get-down-gut-bucket beer gardens where you get that funky stuff, the dudes with them knives and blackjacks and brass knuckles, guys who could start a fight and break chairs and bottles. Right up the street was the bootleggers."
Turner recalls U and 14th streets of the late 1940s as "a bright, neon-lit strip with music everywhere." Besides the dance halls there were nightclubs like the Club Caverns (later the Bohemian Caverns) with its chorus line, the Dunbar Hotel with two music rooms, the Club Bali, where Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker often played, and the Bengasi, where Turner first heard saxophonist Charlie Ventura. "It was like Sunday every day," Turner says. "People paraded up and down the street all hours of the day and night."
At the center of it all, musically, was the Howard Theatre, where both black and white big bands were the major attractions: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and others. Although the area was the heart of black D.C., whites were welcome everywhere. But during the early 1950s, Turner points out, "They started lockin' people up, and the whites I think started being afraid to come uptown -- if you were a white person and you were caught there, somethin' was wrong with you." By 1955 or so, he says, "the strip started dyin' and clubs just started to fail -- not just the nightclubs, though, a lot of small businesses, too, and business just moved downtown. By the time that the riots came in '68 there were no clubs.
"By this time I'm into the music heavy and got me a real ax -- my uncle Jimmy had bought me a bass -- and was goin' in and out of all the joints and playin' five nights a week." By then, Turner had developed a dependency on marijuana, "but I felt like reefer didn't do what people had said it would do to me; the guys that was messin' with heroin seemed like they was gettin' higher and havin' more fun."
One night the teen-aged Turner and several of his friends ran into a cab driver named "Ace" who "was hip to drugs and was snorting dope. 'It won't hurt you . . . you don't have to use no needle. You ain't goin' to be no junkie.' And we snorted some heroin and got sick as a dog. But I was also higher than I had ever been in my life."
For a while Turner was just "chipping," not using heroin on a regular basis. "It was a social thing. You did it now and then." Looking back, he realizes how easily "one can skip into it before he realizes what is happenin'." So it wasn't long before he was using a needle and before very many months had elapsed he was hooked.
"The first time Earl Cargins and I met Charlie Parker he was at the Club Bali and staying at the Dunbar. We went to his room and somehow he got it out of us that we was truckin' with dope, and he gave us a very hip lecture. He admitted that he used drugs but he let us know that he was not satisfied, that if he was good now, he could be much better if he didn't do that kind of thing. And he gave Earl one of his old reeds, complete in the case. Imagine, a young boy walkin' around in school showing off an honest-to-goodness authentic Charlie Parker reed."
But Parker's counsel went unheeded. "The drug behavior took over," Turner says. "Pretty soon it got to the point where no one would hire me, so I pawned the fiddle. Then I learned to steal, taking money out of the cash register in my uncle's shoe repair shop. All he would be sayin' was 'Boy, what's the matter with you? If I knew that gettin' that bass fiddle was gonna cause this kind of whatever it is that's wrong with you, I wouldn't have done that.' But he knew. He just didn't want to admit it." STEALING FROM department stores and breaking into parked cars earned Turner his first felony convictions in the early 1950s. In and out of prison for the rest of that decade, he went through withdrawal from heroin during each incarceration and regularly returned to his habit upon release.
"One time I went to work for a shoe store and damn near broke the company. I got in with the trash man, who would take a case of shoes out if I would give him a pair. And gigs were hard to come by because musicians wouldn't mess with me."
In 1955 a D.C. court committed Turner (as a public nuisance) to the federal institution for drug rehabilitation in Lexington. During his drug treatment years, he came into contact with eminent jazz musicians like Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and Red Rodney.
On release, Turner came back to Washington, "started playin' music, got strung out again. Then I got busted again." He had stolen some television sets from a store in Frederick, Md., returned to the District and sold them: "went and copped some dope, got in the car and was heading out to Northeast. When we got to 13th and U, man, the police swarmed around us like we were sumpin' good to eat. We had the door locked and the windows rolled up. They had the guns pulled out and I had the dope, must have had 20 or 30 pills. And I just sat there and ate the dope. And I was fresh out of Lex, man.
"So they busted us and carried us downtown and searched us and I didn't have nothing on me. They held me for three days, stayed overtime to beat me. Stood on my chest, man, put a phone book on my head and beat it with a stick. I was sick and they took dead advantage of me, man, tryin' to make me snitch.. This other dude, supposed to be a federal man, said, 'Come here, boy, roll your cuffs down.' I turned my cuff down and a pill fell out. And the man said, 'We got you now. That's possession.' I knew I had to get at least five years." Turner copped a deal that led to the arrest of the dealer.
" 'Course it wasn't four months later before they busted me on three counts--possession, sale, violation of the Harrison Narcotics Act." Turner got 16 months to four years and served almost the full four years. "They put me in the old D.C Jail in the same cellblock with the dude I had snitched on, and one day in the exercise yard he come up behind me with a baseball bat, broke my arm in two places and busted my head open. Finally before they shipped him away, we came to some kind of understandin' and in a way him hittin' me in the head gave me some relief, man, because that was wrong, snitching on him, and I still pay a lot of dues for that because I know that I let the system use me, the system and my own larceny. Don't wanna pay the piper, don't dance. Right?" THE BLUES, long a presence in Turner's musical consciousness, became his constant companion during these prison years. After he recovered from the baseball bat attack he was put in solitary confinement for nine months. "I guess maybe I was crazy 'cause I was spittin' in the police's faces. That's when I really started to singin' the blues. I had just lost my family -- my first wife had left me and taken my babies with her. By that time I'd made it to the kitchen and I used to feed everybody on death row.
"They had a little band in the jail, and once I got off that segregated treatment unit I could participate. The bandleader was a friend I had known for a long time, Little John Anthony--he's been dead quite a while now -- and he was a blues singer. He was tellin' me about how music can help to make the time in jail much easier. So that's when I started practicin' singing and doin' it.
"It was a metamorphosis, being able to accept the blues as a way that I could express myself and not be ashamed of it. My background was strongly Baptist, fundamentalist Baptist, and although I had been hearing the blues all my life, the blues did not have the status in the community where I was raised as it has now. And learning to sing the blues was a part of that same metamorphosis that happened all across my life, because it was during this period that I really started trying to change my behavior. It took me a lot of years to do it, but as I became more in control of my own life, the easier it was for me to accept without any shame the fact that I liked the blues."
Out of jail and on the street again in '59, Turner hooked up with "a top-flight thief who used to like to steal furs and designer originals." Addicted again, he became a dealer to support his habit and was "catchin' airplanes, flyin' back and forth to New York. Ironically, when I got busted for this they sent me to St. Elizabeths. They said I was not guilty by reason of insanity." The St. Elizabeths confinement, 1962-64, was pivotal for Turner, although there were instances of recidivism in the half-dozen years after his release. Intensive therapy, both individual and group, afforded him the opportunity of self-scrutiny.
Upon release Turner married a nurse (they were later divorced), went to work as a dishwasher, became active again as a bassist and got a position with the United Planning Organization, an antipoverty program. During this period, Turner helped establish Reliables Incorporated, an ex-addicts group. "We were instrumental in setting up the first drug program that was community-oriented. Of course, by the time the program got off the ground, all of us was hooked again, some back in the penitentiary."
Turner's seemingly endless traffic with drugs finally ground to a halt at the beginning of the '70s when he went on methadone and worked as a resource person with the Narcotics Treatment Administration. "I became a project monitor, the first project monitor for what they called 'Model Cities Drug Treatment Program.' I was using the program as a vehicle for my own cure, as a means of tryin' to get my own thing together. And thank God that somehow, man, with the methadone I finally got off heroin.
"Then I got hooked up with some consultin' firms where I was goin' out in the streets and findin' junkies, doing a follow-up study, and I impressed these people, became a supervisor of street interviews, developin' all kinds of techniques. Couldn't everybody do that -- go out on the streets and find an active dope fiend and get him to consent to an interview in the shootin' gallery or in your car. But I was doin' that and it was excitin'.
"By this time I wasn't usin' any illegal drugs and I was functioning. I woke up one morning and it was a blizzard outside. The only way I could get my methadone was to go to the clinic. And I just got tired of the fact that I had to go in there every day. I decided that I wasn't going to be on that methadone too long. It took me about a year, finally came off the methadone." Turner is now a narcotics program specialist with the D.C. Department of Human Resources.
"And that brings me up to where I am now. Fifty-one years old and I want to be involved in music and workin' in the drug field." TURNER WAS getting little work as a bass player in the early '70s and so was out of practice on the instrument. Toward the end of the decade he turned to singing the blues and soon found that he had created a demand for his voice. Concerts, club dates and benefits have been keeping him busy these past four or five years. In May he performed at the Kool Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center, and in July he vacationed in Montreux, Switzerland, and attended the jazz and blues festival there. He was invited up on stage to join in the finale of the blues show with such international stars as Koko Taylor and Luther Johnson Jr. On top of that, he landed a three-day gig at a sidewalk cafe a couple of blocks away. "It was just a beautiful experience.".
Nap Turner mounted the bandstand recently at the Quarterdeck Lounge in District Heights, Md., and faced his intent audience in the small club. His demeanor was serious, even stern, and his gestures were preacher-like as he jabbed a finger at those below him. His barrel-deep voice intoned an introduction he frequently uses in performance.
"It came to me that a culture is not learned, it's passed on from one person to another -- the blues are an underdeveloped resource . . . " CAPTION: Picture 1, Nap Turner; by Akmal, Copyright (c) 1981; Picture 2, Turner at his graduation from Shaw Junior High School, 1946.