Bronxites Look to Godfrey to Help Turn Jazz Singer's Home into Museum
MORRISANIA — Famed New York comic Godfrey and a group of jazz fans could be collaborating to transform the vacant former home of a legendary singer into a cultural center honoring the history of jazz in The Bronx.
The comedian, whose real name is Godfrey Danchimah, currently owns the South Bronx house at 818 Ritter Pl., where jazz singer Maxine Sullivan lived for more than 40 years in the mid-20th century.
Godfrey purchased the building in 2006 and said it still contained remnants of Sullivan's successful music career, namely a worn old piano in the middle of the living room.
He made some renovations to the place but ended up returning to Manhattan fairly quickly, he said.
"About six years ago, my girlfriend decided this is too much work. It’s back to Manhattan in an apartment," he said. "I’m in an apartment right now living in Hell's Kitchen, so the thing is up for sale."
A group of Sullivan fans noticed the "For Sale" sign on Saturday when they gathered by the house for a ceremony to co-name Ritter Place "Maxine Sullivan Way."
They saw this as an opportunity to transform the now empty building into a cultural center honoring the borough's contributions to jazz music, which tend to get overshadowed by a focus on its contributions to hip-hop and Latin music, according to Mark Naison, an African-American studies professor at Fordham University.
"What an opportunity to publicize the forgotten jazz history of this neighborhood to a new generation of people," said Naison, who is helping spearhead the effort to turn the house into a museum.
"You know, if this was a museum and cultural center, you could easily see school groups coming there."
Godfrey, who has appeared in acclaimed comedy shows including "Louie" and "30 Rock" and recently voiced New York City icon Al Sharpton in the TV series "Black Dynamite," said he was enthusiastic about the idea as well.
"A museum and culture center? Hell yeah, man, I’m down with that kind of stuff," he said. "I love history. I like that. Especially African-American history. That’s like my thing."
Backers of the project stressed that the cultural center would not just focus on her life and career.
Rather, it would encompass the lives of several jazz greats with connections to The Bronx, such as Thelonious Monk and Henry "Red" Allen, according to Bob Gumbs, another supporter of the project.
"That area has been so productive in terms of jazz and culture," he said.
Turning Sullivan's old home into a cultural center would also help assuage some fears about gentrification coming to the neighborhood, according to Naison.
"Seeing that historic house with a 'For Sale' sign created worries that maybe some people with no connection to the community would buy it," he said, "and that some of the things that were starting to happen in Harlem and Bed-Stuy and even in southern portions of the borough would hit the neighborhood."
Sullivan started her singing career in Pittsburgh and recorded her first songs in 1937, including a hit version of the Scottish folk song "Loch Lomond."
She moved to Ritter Place in 1945 and founded a non-profit on Stebbins Avenue in the early 1970s called The House That Jazz Built, which provided children with music lessons and gave space to local arts groups.
Godfrey said he was open to working with the group to make the project happen.
"That sounds like an awesome thing, you know?" he said. "I’m into African-American history, man. Seriously, I’m like that dude."
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