The Betsy Hotel has been honoring Overtown's history and legacy for nearly a decade through its annual Overture to Overtown Festival. This year, the event will be held virtually to keep the celebration alive during the pandemic, with four Monday night presentations in September.
The Betsy's Overture to Overtown 2020 online festival program features 14 performing jazz artists, four poets and five scholars focused on keeping the Overtown aura alive by sharing its history, legacy and future promise.
With the second event set for Sept. 14 at 7 p.m., audiences are invited to prepare for a truly immersive experience while events are carried live into patron's homes via The Betsy’s Facebook Live link on its Facebook page at facebook.com/thebetsyhotel. Visit thebetsyhotel.com/calendar for details on each event’s speaker and topic and to RSVP.
Each live event will allow time for an audience Q&A. To ensure audio excellence, musical and spoken word performances will be prerecorded at the hotel.
“At The Betsy Hotel, we have a passion for building community through the arts in ways that we believe cannot be achieved through a standard approach. Working with Carole Ann Taylor as a community curator and project strategist made this year's program planning experience richer than ever before,” said Deborah Briggs, co-curator of Overtown to Overture and vice president of the Arts Program at the hotel. “Together with our private and public sector partners, we are all working together in a very intentional way to tell this important story because as Duke Ellington said, ‘There is no music without intention.’”
Marking the history of a quietly iconic enclave
The Miami neighborhood being celebrated by the festival holds an important place in the arts for Black American history.
In its heyday, Overtown was often referred to as the “Harlem of the South” because its story mirrors that of NYC's Harlem. Musicians on the national jazz circuit often played in both locations as they made their way from one club to another, crisscrossing the country. Legends like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker would perform in the Miami area but then spend the night in Overtown because of segregation laws in Miami and Miami Beach. Unable to stay the night after a gig, they went "over town" to hotels owned and operated by Black proprietors.
The talents of so many cultural icons fostered such world-class entertainment venues in Overtown as the Lyric Theater and Knight Beat. Over the years, distinguished African American intellectuals also visited, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston and Thurgood Marshall. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali frequented the area, as did so many other African American luminaries.
An acclaimed lineup of local artists
The work of legacy Overtown poets will be acknowledged through recitations of prose written by Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Ali, presented by Geoffrey Philp, the project's Community Poet in Residence. Poets Octavia Yearwood, Marcus Blake and Butterfly will also appear.
Participating jazz musicians include Roxana Amed, Tom Lippincott, James Ousley, Carole Ann Taylor, Brenda Alford, Nicole Yarling, Jim Gasior, Melton Mustafa Jr., LeNard Rutledge, Nikki Kidd, Leesa Richards, Wendy Pedersen, Nicky Orta and Allen Paul.
During the closing moments of each event, historic photographs of Overtown jazz greats will be shared from the recent publication “Sounds of Freedom,” selected and annotated with the words of legacy jazz musicians by Miami-based “artivist” Leonor Anthony.
“What happened in/to Overtown?” with special guest Timothy Barber, executive director of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida and the Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater.
“Lessons Learned” with special guest Dr. Marvin Dunn, FIU Department of Psychology, founder of the Dr. Marvin Dunn Academy for Community Education and the author of “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century.”
“Overtown Rising” with special guests Neil Shiver, executive director of the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, and Dr. Graylyn Swilley-Woods, executive director of the Overtown Children and Youth Coalitions and a senior consultant for Multicultural Tourism Initiatives.
Preserving culture and community
The Betsy Hotel and the FIU College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts | Miami Beach Urban Studios (FIUMBUS) were the first cultural presenters in Miami-Dade County to convene and present a virtual salon series in response to stay-at-home mandates necessitating the cancellation of live events. The Overture at Overtown Festival is the embodiment of their work.
The FIUMBUS partnership champions next-generation jazz musicians studying in the FIU School of Music @ FIU on their way to promising careers as jazz educators and performers. A number of this year’s festival performers are also on the faculty of FIU's jazz program and are regular draws in The Betsy's long-running nightly jazz slate.
A committed collider for people and ideas in arts, design, technology and the sciences, MBUS serves as a creative space for students and the community in the heart of one of the most vibrant artistic urban centers in the world.