Technically, the end of February marks the end of Black History Month. But it’s only in the Gaston family that he’s a year-round reminder of the impact Black entrepreneurship had on Bloomington-Normal.
The Gastons are now third generation business owners in Bloomington. Patriarch Robert ran a downtown barber shop for many years. His son James now runs the music club Jazz UpFront downtown. James’ niece Shayla now runs a salon in Bloomington.
James Gaston said in WGLT’s Sound Ideas, “I want everyone, not just black people, to provide a little more support to minority-owned businesses.” Black and brown businesses. Spend a little money, know the people… Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people support minority businesses, but we always need more.”
James Gaston was born and raised in Bloomington. He is one of his 12 siblings.
Gaston said one thing he learned about business from his father was persistence.
“He was a force to be reckoned with,” said Gaston. “He handled his own business. I remember seeing him on the phone. I was sitting right there. He would get things done. He would call the bank.” He would call the car dealership, he would call the doctor, and no matter who he spoke to, he would get the results he wanted, and I always admired him.
His father, also known as Gat, had previously worked for GE in Bloomington but “didn’t feel he was moving up in the business”. I decided to do – to become a barber. After getting a haircut in my neighborhood, I moved and opened my own shop.
“He couldn’t actually rent a building in town because he was black. A white gentleman, a friend of his, said, ‘Bob, I’ll take that.’ He leased my dad’s first store, which he sold for a dollar,” Gaston said.
Gaston’s dad ran the store, called Gaston’s Uppercut, with his son Gary for about 40 years. is actually Gary’s daughter, Sheila Gaston.
James himself has been busy with Jazz UpFront, which finally opened in 2015 after years of planning. For the past six years, he’s also been planning the Front Street Music Festival in downtown Bloomington each August. This is big business.
“We’re hanging in there, man. Love of business is more important than business profit. If you’re a business person, most people will think that’s crazy. But what you do “I don’t think I’ll be rich, but I love what I do,” Gaston said. “I’m happy, and that’s the key. To hear Chuchito Valdes, Samara Joy, Briana Thomas, Gary Mohammad, Preston Jackson come to my club and hit that first note, I’m in heaven
James has been in the music business since the 1970s.
Early in life, he was an active musician. One of his biggest acts he was with was Band X, which he joined during his sophomore year of high school, circa 1967, along with a number of other “talented local cats.” His one of those cats was Delmar Brown, his would-be acclaimed jazz and R&B pianist.
Gaston got his first job at the Red Lion Inn, once a famous music venue in Bloomington. It featured Big His acts such as REO Speedwagon, Cheap He’s a Trick, Woody Herman’s Thundering Hard, Little Richard and “Chaka Khan before he became Chaka Khan”. Gaston said.
As a child, Gaston’s dad sent him to the Bel Air Club (now Skate and Place on Morris Avenue) owned by Dick Bell, another formidable black businessman from Bloomington-Normal. I took him.
“I was sitting on the balcony watching the music, and I fell in love with the music. The potential to be the guy who brought that kind of talent and music to the community – that’s what I wanted to do.” So as soon as I got the chance to do my thing, I did it.”
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