One Square Mile: Freddy Cole and Sweet Auburn’s evolution

Freddy Cole
Photograph by Melissa Golden

Sweet Auburn

Freddy Cole sits at a table in a back corner of Sweet Auburn Seafood restaurant. The linens are crisp, the decor modern: shimmering tile, high-backed benches, cream-padded walls—all unmarked by smoke or time. This place is a welcome sign of slow resurgence in this historic part of town. When Cole first moved here from New York in 1972, he’d hear live jazz blasting from doorways and windows up and down Auburn Avenue. Cole himself often played piano across the street at the old Royal Peacock, which once hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. By then the Connector had already split the neighborhood in two, and people had begun to flee, leaving crime and blight and abandoned storefronts behind. As it did in black communities in cities all over the U.S., the music stopped. Cole played on. The baby brother of Nat “King” kept recording, was nominated for three Grammys, hit the road and hasn’t stopped. Two weeks ago, he was playing in Japan, where they’re wild for American jazz. He returned to a country and a city that is starting to reclaim its birthright. “Black communities are coming back,” he says. “They have self-esteem, and they’re starting to realize that jazz music is black music.” Tonight the restaurant is packed with patrons, black and white, dressed up to mark the business’s one-year anniversary. Cole is celebrating, too: Tomorrow he will turn 84. As evening falls and light fades from the plate-glass windows, Cole’s grandson arrives to escort him to the front of the room. As he passes, each table stops him to say hello, to ask for a photograph. By the time he settles into the seat at the Steinway, his voice is hoarse from all the greetings. But when he pulls the microphone to his lips, a bell-clear baritone rings through the stilled audience. His fingers glide across the keys, tapping out standards: “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening,” “Long, Long Ago,” “I Remember You.” I remember you/You’re the one who made my dreams come true . . . A sound, a person, and a place out of time, yet somehow of the moment.

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.