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Bassist, singer, radio personalityby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins
For forty years Nap Turner was a beacon to D.C.'s black community, playing bass, singing and reciting poetry for adoring audiences while rarely making much headway beyond the city's streets. As jazz writer W. Royal Stokes remembered Turner, "he was a local phenomenon, but he was of vital importance to the Washington music community." After a long, rough life of troubles and redemption, Turner died on June 17, 2004, at the age of 73.
Born the son of a West Virginia coal miner in 1931, Turner and his family came to Washington, D.C. in his youth. He learned to play the bass at Armstrong High School, the alma mater of jazzmen like Duke Ellington and alto saxophonist Rick Henderson, who preceded Turner in death by a month. He and his friends hung around the stage doors of the city's jazz clubs, taking what lessons they could about jazz and life. Turner had already started down a hard path, taking up drinking in junior high and cigarettes not long afterwards. As he told writer W. Royal Stokes in 1982, "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."
In 1953 Turner met Charlie Parker, who managed to wheedle admission for the young man into the segregated Club Kavakos. Parker's music was titillating bliss for Turner, but the saxophonist's words about the dangers of drug abuse fell on deaf ears. Soon Turner was hooked on heroin, pawning his bass and committing crimes in order to get his next fix. He served four years in jail for theft, during which time he learned about singing the blues from a fellow inmate, Little John Anthony.
After his release Turner went back into music, often playing under Rick Henderson at the Howard Theatre. And once again, he fell prey to the illicit temptations of the business. He ended up in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a mental ward where he spent three more years straightening out his life and improviing his bass skills. In the 1970s Turner finally began receiving methadone treatment. He worked for the city's Narcotics Treatment Administration, first as a statistician and later as a rehab counselor. Along the way he developed his talent as a blues singer and eventually set the bass aside. Refreshed and cleaned up, Turner began his career anew with a string of gigs: Lincoln Center, Europe, and all of D.C.'s finest spots.
In the 1980s Turner began his broadcasting career on WPFW 89.3 FM, and in 1994 he took over the well-established "The Bama Hour" from DJ Jerry Washington. He spun jazz and blues recordings, told stories, and narrated poems by Langston Hughes and other black writers over background music. He became known as "Nap 'Don't Forget the Blues' Turner" and drew a huge listening audience from all over D.C., Maryland and eastern Virginia. He acted as a father figure to younger jazz musicians, helping them network among the pros whenever they came to town.
(Thanks to W. Royal Stokes for his contributions.)^ Top
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.