ELMIRA, N.Y. (WENY) -- The Blues and jazz has been a staple in African American culture -- influencing genres like Rock and roll and R&B. At the same time, its roots gave a voice to a group that had been silenced. But in the city of Elmira, one famous black owned jazz club Green Pastures, opened its door to many performers, and one local artist is keeping the legacy alive. 

Green Pastures opened in 1932 during the Prohibition by Beatrice Johnson and her husband Richard, alongside her brother, Ed Hodges. Originally starting as a restaurant, it quickly added a bar once alcohol was sold again.  

Rachel Dworkin, an archivist at The Historical Society of Chemung County, whose mission is to collect, preserve, and share the history of Chemung County, says the club held a vital role in the community by opening its’ doors to musicians of color.  

“It was significant because it was the only black owned nightclub in the Twin Tiers for quite a number of years and certainly at the time of its founding. And so, they were very welcoming of black patrons at a time when no one else was.”  

Dworkin shares the club had even been listed in The Green Book, a book that offered recommendations for places that had food or lodging for Black travelers throughout the United States in the early 20th century.  

Green Pastures not only offered a welcoming environment, but gave a music selection that many had not experienced before.  

Before the Civil Rights movement, cities in the U.S. that had been segregated were able to open doors for a number of Black musicians through the Chitlin Circuit – a tour of venues that allowed Black performers and bands to practice their talents and make a living. But before making it big in major cities, Dworkin says some musicians made a stop in the city of Elmira.  

"Green Pastures was sort of a proving ground for people who were on the Chitlin Circuit and wanted to take it to the larger cities like New York or Philadelphia. So, a lot of places, a lot of bands that were just sort of getting started but weren't quiet, you know, ready for prime time would come here and sort of use this to workshop their performance and make their big break.” 

Aside from the Johnson’s being known from their soul food, the club was later known for hosting bands of high caliber, influencing younger generations to a new rhythm.  

“They were hugely popular with a lot of younger people on the dance scene. There was a gentleman who used to work here prior to his passing. He was the county historian, and he would tell all these great stories of when he was in high school, going to green pastures and learning all these new dances that were popular because it was the happening place to learn new dances and to have, um, mixed race relations.”  

By the 1970s, Green Pastures, originally located on 670 Dickenson Street, was soon facing the pressures of urban renewal, leading to for the original owners to sell the venue to a new owner who relocated the business to Madison Avenue. Around that time, Beatrice had passed away and Howard Coleman had taken ownership. Dworkin says Mr. Colemans's no stranger to the establishment.  

“He had been involved with Green Pastures since a fairly young age, he lived more or less across the street from the place as a child and worked there first as a gopher and then as a dishwasher and then as a waiter and then as a cook and then as a barkeep” adding, “he was ready to take it over and he apparently brought quite a lot of the fixtures that had been in the old bar to the new bar, like all of the furniture, the actual pieces of the bar and some other things that they were able to salvage before it was demolished.”  

Coleman ran the business until 2011. However, the legacy left behind by Green Pastures is one that has been everlasting.  

“The club being in Elmira and being so popular certainly exposed Elmirans to live music and live performers of a high caliber that they would not have otherwise been able to experience. Outside of that club like they may have heard it on a record or radio, but hearing it live and being able to dance to it and being able to meet those musicians would not have happened in Elmira without Green Pastures.”  

Jeffrey Aaron, a local musician better known as “Gerard Burke” grew up in Elmira and says he recalls his time growing up in his father’s bar surrounded by Black-owned bars.  

“The Coleman family and the Aaron family had a similar vocation, which was a bar. The Coleman's had Green Pastures [and] my father had Doves and there were a couple more black-owned bars. So, there was like a little fraternity and there was a lot of, circuity going from one bar to the other.”  

Growing up on Elmira’s East Side until middle school, Aaron shares his father bought his first guitar and learned to play. It wasn’t long before his childhood band formed called “Gary and the Blazers” performing for family parties.  

“I was maybe [in] 7th or 8th grade. They were cousins [and] they needed a bass player. I borrowed a bass guitar, and we started out with me on the bass, but we switched over and I eventually switched to a lead guitar, six string.” 

Once leaving Elmira to pursue higher education at Boston University, Aaron continued to practice as a self-taught musician living in the dormitories. Still, music had a way of following him as he resided next to Berkeley School of Music and other art schools.  

“They were studying music, you know, there wasn't a lot that I could add to them, but I was a sponge from the stuff that they were giving me.”  

One day visiting his sister in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife, they stopped by a pawnshop looking for inexpensive jewelry, but a wall of acoustic guitars grabbed his attention.  

“To make a long story short, when we left the store, the jewels were still there, but I had the guitar in the back.” 

It was from that point his journey to playing the Acoustic Delta Blues began.  

“When I made the decision to go solo, I had to figure out what would be appropriate for an African American male to play solo music on a guitar. [I didn’t want to be like] Neil Young. I don't want to be like Bill Withers. Let me try Delta Blues. Why the blues? Because it was an African American originated music.”  

Aaron explains Delta Blues had originated in the Northwestern corner of Mississippi, where slaves working on the fields sang work songs as way of expressing the oppressions they were facing.  

“From there it moved on to entertainment after work. And then it moved down to ways that folks could make a little money on the weekends at the juke joints.”  

Statistically, Elmira is made up of 75.69% of White people, while Black Americans make up 10.75% of the population. For Aaron, he says it was important to play a genre that isn’t practiced as much.  

“I picked it because there was nobody else playing it. And I'm figuring, you know, if there's nobody else playing it, it would usually be just me when people wanted to get [Delta Blues].” 

He worries that if he doesn’t have more Black musicians stepping up to learn the blues, it may be an art form that is lost.  

“I was the only black person playing Delta Blues,” adding “If I don't have any help, it's going to be lost, basically, to put it simply.”  

Still, Aaron is proud to keep this music alive while he can still perform.  

“I am proud to be carrying the banner. I'm proud to be meeting the expectations of the blues fans that are in this area and who have heard me play.”