White on Black

Suddenly I feel something, as if a roach or a spider were crawling up my neck. As I turn my head toward the creeping offender, I'm blinded by a mass of long hair. One of the dancers has leaned against the back of my chair, her hands planted on either side of my shoulders, her butt gyrating in the air for the benefit of the two men sitting behind us. After a couple of minutes, she accepts her tip and methodically combs the room for her next customer.

It was the search for more customers that convinced the owners of Club Rolex to convert the club from a disco to a nude bar in March 1990. "With regular clubs, you have a lot of teen-agers, a lot of violence," says manager D.C. Gold. "They use the clubs as a gang meeting place where they'd fight. The only way to eliminate that was to look at the clientele. With a nude club, you have to be over 21, so we get a more mature clientele. We get lawyers, accountants, schoolteachers, cops - cops from Broward come down." And although the club is frequented mostly by black men, Gold says the occasional woman or nonblack also drops in. "We have husbands bring in their wives, just to check it out," he says. "On birthdays a sister brings in her brother, you know, like a present. We have bachelor parties. We get blacks, whites, Hispanics, Indians from the reservations. They don't come here to mess with nobody. Everybody's respectful of each other."

I return to Studio One 83 and its Jazz Room with Bill Perry, former president of Miami's NAACP and inveterate jazz lover. It might be a bit of an awkward moment: the association's annual dinner, held this year at the club's banquet hall, has just ended. Perry, who is now the principal of C.O.P.E. North, a Dade high school for teen-age parents, did not attend. "I guess you might say I was pushed out," he says with a laugh, describing a rift with the organization that dates back to Perry's 1982 "buy black" campaign that was rejected by NAACP national president Benjamin Hooks. "I had been thinking about resigning," Perry says. "But [Hooks] sent me a letter saying I'd been suspended."

Nevertheless, Perry's personal relationship with current members seems not to have been affected, and he greets his ex-colleagues without a trace of discomfort. "People here are cordial," he says afterward. "It's a good mix. There's a sense of kinship that you don't find in other clubs. It's not elitist. When I walk into other places, I don't know anybody. The difference here is when I walk in, I'm looking for someone I know. I don't have a country club. This is my country club." For the past five years, he's regularly made the half-hour trek to the club from his home near Jackson Memorial Hospital. Perry says the recent news that Studio One 83, although managed by blacks, is actually owned by a white attorney, took him by surprise. "I feel suckered," he says, adding that he's since contemplated taking his jazz money elsewhere. "But where else can we go? I've got to go somewhere. But I'll go with reservations."

The club itself is a cool, dim room reminiscent of small New York jazz joints - minus the smoke. Tonight the sole source of smoke is a four-piece band and its sultry-voiced female vocalist. As she rolls into the opening bars of "I Want to Feel the Fire," the party at the next table responds with approving shouts. "You don't find this in other clubs," says Perry, "the talking back to the band, saying, `Bring it on down!'" The singer's voice rises to a heavenly, raunchy pitch, her movements and those of the audience punctuated by palms waving skyward, capturing a bit more of the spirit.

For years Miami's white and black communities reveled in the legendary jazz and blues clubs of Overtown. Before desegregation and the urban surgery caused by the construction of I-95, when headliners such as Sam Cook, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Sammy Davis, Jr., played the major hotels on Miami Beach, they had to go to Overtown for accommodations. There they'd spring into spontaneous jams at the Mary Elizabeth Hotel, the Lyric Theater, the Knight Beat, the Harlem Square Club. "Whites would go to the Overtown clubs," explains Lavan Smiley, a Jazz Room habitue and a born storyteller with a temperament to match his name. "It used to be that the black man was afraid of the white man. Now the white man has become afraid of the black man. It's like keeping a dog chained up for years, beating him, abusing him. Then all of a sudden you remove the chain. After a while, the white man starts fearing that the dog is going to attack. So he doesn't come into our community."

Not everyone views the separation between the races as unnatural or undesirable. "White folks never said they wanted to integrate into black society," says the Urban League's T. Willard Fair. "So why should we place the responsibility on them? We're the ones who raised the whole issue of integration. We didn't say we want white people to come to Liberty City. We said we want to be able to go to Coral Gables. We didn't say we wanted white people in Booker T. Washington [Middle School]. We said we want to be able to go to Miami High. We didn't say, `Ya'll come to the Satellite Lounge [in Liberty City].' We said we wanted to go downtown. Now we've done that. Whether you go or not is not the issue. It would concern me only if white people said, `I'm not going there because there are niggers there.'"

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