Happiness and the Hipp: RJMFest and the legendary Hippodrome
It’s been 10 years since the very first Richmond Jazz and Music Festival, and for the last nine of those years, “Homegrown at the HIPP” has opened the weekend. As a party like no other, RJMFest’s opening event takes place at the Hippodrome, Richmond’s most historic performance venue. Over the decades, jazz legends have paced the stage there, including the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and an array of other acclaimed artists. In order to understand why the Hippodrome is an integral facet of The Richmond Jazz and Music Festival (and why it’s a Richmond staple in general), we need to take a deeper dive into its past.
The Hippodrome has quite the history. Located in Jackson Ward--once dubbed the “Harlem of the South” for its historic reputation as a prosperous and predominantly African-American neighborhood--the Hippodrome has withstood the test of time. The venue originally opened in 1914 as a vaudeville/movie theater, and up until the mid-1940s, it was one of Richmond’s esteemed nightlife attractions.
Here’s where things take a drastic turn: the original building caught fire in 1945, possibly due to a short circuit in the theater’s wiring (although it was never confirmed). Renovated and reopened two years later, the new and improved Hippodrome was better than ever, featuring state-of-the-art technical equipment and central air conditioning--a novelty at the time. Architecturally, the new building was stunning and could accommodate up to 2,500 people. For the majority of the 1950s, everything seemed to be going well, as the newly-renovated Hippodrome served as a popular movie theater.
The Hippodrome survived a fire, but more powerful forces were about to lay it low. Jackson Ward itself was cut in half by the construction of the new Interstate 95, and the Hippodrome wasn’t spared from the trauma. The building closed and reopened under several owners between 1960 and 1980--even serving as a church for several years during the ‘70s. It’s as if The Hippodrome was stuck on a rollercoaster ride for 20 years and couldn’t get off. Fortunately, the venue has gained stability and remained open since the ‘80s as a movie theater/performance venue.
In 2011, the Hippodrome’s current owner, Ron Stallings, completed a multi-million dollar renovation, bringing the exterior and interior into its current incarnation and helping ensure that the Hippodrome can make memories for another century.
Nothing can match the Hippodrome’s musical history. It’s a living, breathing reminder of jazz’s golden age that’s always been an escape for Richmond locals, particularly African-Americans. It exudes class: someone can dress up for the occasion, experience a movie or live performance in an intimate setting, and have a fun night out on the town. And the headliners you’ll see at the Hippodrome bring something different to the table: a different style, a different voice, or something that’s not your typical club show.
For 2019’s edition of “Homegrown at the HIPP,” we’re featuring Grammy-winning singer-songwriter PJ Morton. Hailing from New Orleans, Morton has worked with a variety of artists, most notably as the touring/recording keyboardist for Maroon 5. As a solo artist, Morton has released multiple EPs and albums since 2005, including his latest Grammy-nominated albums Gumbo and Gumbo Unplugged. He earned his first nomination in 2014 and was nominated twice in 2017, winning for his live studio performance of the classic Bee Gees ballad “How Deep Is Your Love”.
His Grammy for best traditional R&B performance puts him in an exclusive class, with past winners including Beyonce, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Prince, Al Green, John Legend, and RJM Fest alums George Benson and Anthony Hamilton.
Morton’s unique combination of indie, pop, R&B, and soul stems from his Louisiana roots, his profound admiration for Stevie Wonder, and his desire for personal authenticity in his music. With millions of views accumulated on YouTube from his NPR Tiny Desk performance, Unplugged sessions, music videos, and recent performance on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, PJ Morton has climbed his way up through the music industry. More impressively, he’s managed to do so without compromising who he is, which is difficult to accomplish in this day and age.
Get ready for a party like no other in Richmond’s most historic venue with an artist destined to be a household name. Don’t miss PJ Morton perform live for “Homegrown at the HIPP” on August 8 at the Hippodrome!