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Culture Comforts | So Socal

All That Jazz

September 01, 1996|Emory Holmes\f7 II

It was just a typical Friday night on West 43rd Place and Degnan, but it certainly looked like an event. The glowing cultural hub of Leimert Park was crowded with cars and limos and the tables on the sidewalk in front of 5th Street Dick's were filled with couples and friends sampling coffees and sharing sock-it-to-me cake or sweet potato cobbler. Incense merchants and pamphleteers worked the pliant crowd that flowed up and down the broad aisle on their way to Marla Gibbs' Vision Theatre Complex or Ben Caldwell's KAOS Network. At the tables nearest the curb sat a phalanx of chess players, steely-eyed and inscrutable. Around the combatants stood a thicket of admirers in T-shirts or suits, mudcloth or shorts, oohing and ahhing or talking trash, some waiting with chessboards under their arms, while jazz rained down from the band upstairs at Dick's.

Richard Fulton, 52, emerges from what he likes to call his "coffee company" in a casual, pigeon-toed gait and joins a group of revelers at one of the tables. T-shirted, rumpled-trousered and bear-bellied, he blends with the assortment of poets, artists and jazzmen who frequent his joint. He bums a Camel from a passerby and lights up discreetly. The group is discussing real versus wannabe success. Like any seasoned raconteur, Fulton listens as well as he talks, and after taking in a long round of stories, he strokes his snow-white goatee, expels a final plume of smoke, squats forward in his beat-up chair and begins.

"One night I had some people come down here, look around and say, 'Is this all there is?' " He now plays the role of the tourists, throwing out his arms and glancing around with pained looks of disgust. "Humph," Fulton continues, "folks like that have climbed so high up the corporate ladder they've run out of oxygen. Now they've become some kind of nitrogen-breathing animal pressed so hard against the glass ceiling their minds are as flat as a 32-cent postage stamp." This gets a laugh that Fulton acknowledges with a disinterested shrug.

The tourists were half right. This is all there is: the chairs, battered; the venue, small; the scene, quaint and low-key. Yet for all gathered here, 5th Street Dick's, which Fulton opened in 1992, is an unqualified community resource and success. Fulton's combination newsstand, chess bar, jazz club and coffee emporium is enclosed in a space deep and wide as a corridor--what they call in the country a "shotgun flat." On the right, a shadowy queue of patrons faces the buttery light of the kitchen. To the left, a narrow staircase leads to the frenzied jazz in the loft.

"For 30 years, I have seen this place in my mind," Fulton says. "My father owned one of the biggest jazz clubs in Seattle, the Heritage House, but I wanted something small, a speakeasy-beatnik-espresso-jazz place that was intimate, multicultural."

Fulton's newest venture, the Great Negus Wordsmith & Roots Empire, has just opened down the street. "Great Negus will give our poets and performers a place to work in," he explains. "Places like these bring rhythm to a community and give it voice."

"Damn, Richard," one of the poets breaks in, "you are like some kind of community hero or something."

"Naw, naw, naw," Fulton says, dropping his head. The spiraling nubs of his smoke-grey dreadlocks conceal, for an instant, his mahogany face and hangdog smile. When he looks up again, he's still smiling.

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