Local artist Karen Kurycki has installed five art pieces on traffic boxes Downtown that celebrate Jacksonville’s rich but often overlooked music history. The art was commissioned from Phase II of the Downtown Investment Authority’s (DIA) Urban Arts Project, with funding from the City of Jacksonville and JEA, and administered by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.

Titled “The Sounds of Jacksonville”, each traffic box honors the contributions of Jacksonville musicians to specific musical genres. Musicians with local ties such as James Weldon Johnson, Ma Rainey and Pat Chappelle along with homegrown bands such as the Quad City DJs, The Allman Brothers Band and The Classics IV are recognized on each work.

While Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and the Mississippi Delta may claim the blues, the first published account of blues music being sung on a public stage happened during a performance in Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood on April 16, 1910. Appearing in the Indianapolis Freeman Stage under an article entitled “Jacksonville Theatrical Notes”, the reviewer states that Prof. John W. F. Woods, a ventriloquist, and his doll Henry “set the Airdome wild by making little Henry drunk.” He uses the ‘Blues’ for little Henry in this drunken act. We can be fairly certain that visiting vocalists had adopted this style elsewhere and carried it into these theaters, but nevertheless LaVilla’s contributions to the blues is unmistakable. While the neighborhood is referred to as the “Harlem of the South”, in reality the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s was simply the more celebrated account of what had already been taking place in Jacksonville before many of its black intellectuals and talents, such as Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, A. Philip Randolph, and Ma Rainey left the South and Jim Crow in search of a better life up north. Perhaps it is better to describe Harlem then as the “LaVilla of the North”.

The Stanton High School band performing on LaVilla’s famed West Ashley Street. The legendary performance venues Manuel’s Tap Room and Genovar’s Hall can be seen. Image courtesy of the Ritz Theatre and Museum.

Until recently, Jacksonville’s musical history has not been properly celebrated. That may be slowly beginning to change. The Jaxson’s partner WJCT reports that a new PBS miniseries being produced by First Coast Films LLC and Jacksonville-based Pine Ridge Film and Television will celebrate Jacksonville’s distinction as the birthplace of southern rock. The television series titled “The Soul of Southern Rock” is based on a soon-to-released book by Michael Ray FitzGerald titled “Jacksonville and the Roots of Southern Rock”, published by University Press of Florida.

Gregg Allman performs in 1974. Gregg and brother Duane formed The Allman Brothers Band in Jacksonville in 1969. Image courtesy of John Lynskey via Savannah Magazine

The Sounds of Jacksonville is one of four public art projects being installed in Downtown’s The Elbow entertainment district. The remaining three projects will include the installation of sculptural bicycle racks, 2-D art and outdoor sculptures.

The Urban Arts Project is responsible for such things as these murals (above) affixed to Skyway columns along Hogan and Bay Streets, and this sculpture (below) along Laura Street.

A map of Phase 1

The DIA’s Urban Arts Project was one of the first capital improvement projects identified during the formation of the DIA’s Community Redevelopment Plan in 2015. The placemaking initiative sought to address streetscape aesthetics with functional and interactive public art with the aim of enhancing street-level engagement, promoting walkability, and improving the perception of safety. Completed in 2017, Phase 1 of the project included work from six artists, ranging from murals along the Skyway columns, the installation of artistic street furnishing in Hemming Park and the placement of a sculpture outside of the vacant Snyder Memorial Building along Laura Street.

Click NEXT to see more pictures and hear from the artist about the inspiration for The Sounds of Jacksonville.