DC’s U Street is heavily gentrified, with lots of luxury condos and lots more on the way. But a few short decades ago, U Street – then known as Black Broadway – was the cultural soul of Chocolate City. It got a little of its luster back with a street naming for Napolean “Nap” Turner on Friday, which Mayor Muriel Bowser proclaimed “Nap Turner Day.”
Turner, who died in 2004, was a musician, singer, poet, actor and mentor to the young. He was also, despite coming to radio relatively late in life, a legendary host on WPFW 89.3 FM, where he was known as Nap “Don’t Forget the Blues” Turner.
Shortly after WPFW went on air in 1977, a 46-year-old Turner showed up to volunteer, intrigued by the “big sound” coming from such a small, community radio station. “I thought something was wrong with my radio,” he said. “They were playing these Charlie Parker tunes and nobody was saying anything. And finally this guy comes on and says, ‘This is WPFW, your listener-funded radio.’”
At the station, Nap learned from WPFW’s all-time great, Jerry “The Bama” Washington, whose midday Saturday program attracted listeners of all types, from Marion Barry to Colin Powell. When Washington passed in 1994, Nap took over “The Bama Hour,” which he hosted for twenty years, until shortly before his passing.
Nap Turner was born in 1931 in West Virginia to a coal miner. As a child his family moved to DC, where he attended Shaw Jr. High and Armstrong High School. As a young man in the 1950s he jammed with the likes of Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Webster Young.
“On the bandstand, he was a bassist who played with some of the greats, imitating their success in jazz and their failure from drugs,” Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher wrote in an obituary of Nap. When he died at 73, Turner “had done hard drugs, hard time and a hard road back.”
After getting clean, Nap helped others to do the same as a counselor for many years with DC’s Narcotics Treatment Administration. Nap’s longtime friend and boss at NTA, Clifton Mitchell, said the agency won awards mainly due to one thing: “It was Nap’s mind.”
Nap’s story serves as an “inspiration,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. Nadeau’s predecessor, Jim Graham, who introduced the resolution for “Nap Turner Way,” also spoke. In addition to honoring Nap, Graham said the naming of the alley just off U Street was part of the fight “to keep the heritage, the culture and the history of U Street, and indeed of the District of Columbia, alive.”
Both Graham and Nadeau joined Nap’s wife, Gloria Turner, in unveiling the sign for “Nap Turner Way” just outside Twins Jazz, one of the venues where Nap used to play. “I’m pleased that this type of recognition is being given to someone who not only loved the Blues,” said Ms. Turner, “but loved this city, especially U Street, where he played his bass and sang the Blues for many years.”
Around 60 people gathered on U Street under threatening skies for the unveiling. Among them were a number of longtime WPFW programmers. Bill Wax, who emceed the event, is one of WPFW’s popular Saturday programmers who carry on Nap’s legacy. Ida Campbell is one of the hosts of the noontime weekday program Don’t Forget the Blues, which is named for Nap. Roach Brown hosts Crossroads, a show on prisoners’ issues. Brown himself was locked up, including with Nap, before receiving a presidential pardon.
Two of Nap’s “grandbabies,” as he called them, Nicole and Steve Turner, spoke at the unveiling. Nap used to bring Steve on his radio show to give a sports update. “The thing that he gave me that I cherish every day… [is] a love for the youth,” said Steve Turner, who’s now head basketball coach and counselor at Gonzaga High School. “His thing was always being able to give back.”
* For more pictures of the event, see The Washington Informer’s photo gallery
(This piece was written by Pete Tucker, who serves on WPFW’s Local Station Board and assisted fellow board members Gloria Turner and Tony Norman with organizing the “Nap Turner Way” street naming. Special thanks to Nap’s longtime friend and producer Wayne Kahn, who came up with the idea for “Nap Turner Way.”)