To honor the District’s legendary blues singer Nap Turner, city officials held a ceremony last week naming an alley for him. It’s a strangely appropriate location.
The block-long, graffiti-marked stretch between U Street and Wallach Place NW used to be a notorious haven for drug users. Today, Nap Turner Way is part of a revitalized 14th Street corridor. Along with the graffiti there’s a large, colorful mural of Afro-Colombian life in South America. On another building are bold black and white letters that read “BLACK BROADWAY.”
Turner used to be among the heroin addicts who hung out around that alley in the early 1970s. But after going through painful withdrawal, he, too, was revitalized. By the time he died in 2004, at age 74, Nap had risen to become one of the city’s most accomplished blues and jazz singers, frequently performing in clubs near the alley that now bears his name.
A tip of the hat to Gloria Turner, Nap’s widow, and Wayne Kahn, a longtime champion of D.C. music. In a city that has nurtured many outstanding artists, too few have received the honors and memorials they deserve. How Turner and Kahn spearheaded the street sign for Nap is instructive.
To request an alley name in the District, you have to live in the ward where it is located. Turner lives in Prince George’s County. But Kahn, a longtime friend of the Turners, lives in Ward 1 — where 14th and U streets NW are located.
Kahn had frequently recorded Nap’s performances for his music label, Right on Rhythm, including Nap’s immensely popular baritone-voice readings of Langston Hughes’s “Simple” stories. His wife, Claudia Schlosberg, knew Jim Graham, who, at the time, represented Ward 1 on the D.C. Council.
It would take more than a year to see the bureaucratic process through.
“We wanted to have a street named for Nap, so we had to take the bull by the horns,” Gloria Turner told me.
For years, there has been talk of creating a “Walk of Fame” along U Street, once heralded as the Black Broadway because of all the nationally renowned musicians and singers who performed there when the city was racially segregated. But I believe our locally beloved artists are more deserving of stars along such a walk. We could start with the late Shirley Horn, Laura Pettaway, Mary Jefferson and Buck Hill, just to name a few.
It’ll take more than talk, however. Just bemoaning the loss of black culture in the District won’t cut it.
Graham was instrumental in getting the request before the council. And the Kahns were not reticent about getting their elected official to work on their behalf. “Some people just seem to know how government works and how to get things done,” Turner said.
A lot more of us need to know, too.
There is more work to be done on Nap Turner’s alley signs. What’s missing is his signature line, “Don’t forget the blues.” The saying is essential to who he was. Nap, who was born in 1931 and was the son of a West Virginia coal miner, came to Washington in the 1950s. A bass player, he performed with tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt and trumpet player Webster Young, among others, and never missed a chance to see alto sax player Charlie Parker when that troubled genius came to town.
Somewhere along the way, Nap got hooked on heroin. He was frequently arrested for drug-related offenses. But he could always count on his mother to bail him out. During her last visit to the D.C. jail, she told him, “I’m leaving you in the hands of the Lord.” And with tears in her eyes, she walked away.
“It was sink or swim time for Nap,” Gloria Turner recalled.
He chose to swim, got clean and stopped stealing. For the last 25 years of his life, he was dedicated to music, mentoring and helping other addicts get into treatment. During his many years hosting a blues show on WPFW (89.3 FM), Nap provided interludes that were soulful, sorrowful and funny about why the blues should be remembered.
If you overcame adversity, Nap would say, don’t forget the blues — lest you make the same mistakes that caused such pain. Don’t forget the strength you summoned to shake off the blues, either. And always reach back to give those who still suffer a helping hand.
That was Nap Turner’s way.