From 1932 to 2011, Green Pastures was the place to hear live jazz and blues music in the Southern Tier of New York while enjoying some of the finest fried chicken, potato salad and collard greens in the region. An African American business owned by Beatrice Johnson, known affectionately as Ms. Bea, and her husband Richard, Green Pastures was situated in the heart of Elmira’s Eastside neighborhood, a multi-ethnic neighborhood where the majority of the city’s African American community lived. In the 1930s, Howard Coleman, a young boy living across the street from Green Pastures, began working alongside Ms. Bea, eventually becoming manager.
Howard Coleman shares his early memories of Green Pastures at its original location at 5th and Dickinson.
I worked at Green Pastures all my life. Even as a kid. 670 Dickenson Street. Where Ernie Davis Center sits now. Where the gym is, that’s where Green Pastures sat right on that corner. Across the street was the neighborhood house. On the other corner was a grocery store. I started working when I was eight years old. When I was nine I was tapping beer kegs. Doing the grocery shopping, then I did the banking. I did the money, the bookkeeping, I hired the people that worked there.
Ira Heyward an Elmira-based jazz saxophonist and drummer shares his recollections of Ms. Bea, Howard and an extraordinary afternoon in the club as a young man.
Mrs. Bea Hodges was the original owner of Green Pastures. If there was a band there on the weekend, I’d go there, stand outside and listen and go on home, because I knew my mom would want me home. What I like about Ms. Bea, she had a nice voice. She had a great love for children. I’d come in there, she’d sit me in the corner, she’d give me a glass of orange juice and apple pie with a piece of cheese on it. I knew Howard because he was the bartender for Ms. Bea. As a boy that was great. One time I went in on Thursday night. Jimmy Smith Band was playing before he was famous. His drummer was late, but the set was set-up. Mike was there talking to Howard. Band was ready to start, but no drummer. Mike said, “Let that kid play.” It was the first time I played a real set of drums. I was overwhelmed. The guy said “Let me hear you play.” He kicked that organ off, and I fell right into it as a drummer. I had no real drum experience. I went home and told my mom what I had done. She was overwhelmed. She said, “You played with them?” I said, “Yeah, Mom. it was great.”
Jimmy Smith wasn’t the only big name that played Green Pastures. Green Pastures was a well-regarded stop for what later became giants of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Max Roach, Joe Venuti, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Cobb, Jimmy Heath, Hank Jones, Larry Young and many, many more. Howard describes how the club developed a reputation amongst musicians as a place with receptive audiences, great food and exceptional hospitality.
Most of the musicians that we hired here were Black. But there were some white musicians who would sometimes come and play with them. Back in those days when we had an act or a show or a band or a group, they stopped in Elmira on their way to New York to polish up their act and get it ready for New York. Green Pastures had music six nights a week. We had a fellow by the name of Gordon Ashford. The Ashford Brothers. Gordon and Jerome Ashford. And Gordon was the bassist. They called him Gordon “Bass” Ashford ‘cause he played the bass fiddle.
See when Bass Ashford came up that’s how we got into traveling bands. Because Bass Ashford would tell people, “You got to go to Green Pastures. They got a dynamite club and it’s only 9 to 1. You don’t have to be up all night. You live upstairs and Howard feeds you”. And then he would tell this guy, “Where you going?” “I’m going to Green Pastures. Tell Howard to give me a call ‘cause I’ve got these dates open.” So, it got to the point where I didn’t have to call. They would call me and tell me open dates. They’d call, “I understand Clarence and the Cyclones are there. Well I’m following them in Cleveland then I’m coming to Elmira.” And that’s how they would come.
Green Pastures opened doors to talented young players in the community and broader region. It was a place for area musicians to gather, learn from one another and perform. Howard Coleman describes the communal aspect of the club for local musicians
We used to have on Mondays in the Green Pastures it was called Blue Monday. That was the day that most musicians in the area were off. We would come to the Green Pastures from Ithaca, Binghamton, wherever and assemble and they would play in sets.
In 1958 after I came home from the army, one of the things Alvin at that time had a Mercury with a sunroof. We’re driving around singing and harmonizing. Lee Said, “We ought to put a band together.” I thought they were kidding. We put that band together, and we were practicing in the Neighborhood House, Ms. Bea came over and made her statement, “I’ve had men coming in town from Philadelphia, Buffalo and so forth, and you guys are as good as them.” Green Pastures was the first place I ever played. It was a legend. To be able to say you played there, man you did something. You were exceptionally well. With the beginning of Mrs’ Hodges and Green Pastures, it opened a door for us. And we immediately took off.