Danny Simmons is known primarily as an artist but it is as a poet that he will appear at the Princeton Public Library this Sunday, December 7, to read from his latest collection of prose and paintings, The Brown Beatnick Tomes.
As an American abstract painter, he’s been lauded for “meticulously rendered and decoratively impressive” work, which hangs in the Smithsonian Institution and is owned by the likes of music industry executive Lyor Cohen and actor Will Smith.
In addition to an impressive portfolio of what he calls “neo-African Abstract Expressionism,” Mr. Simmons also originated and co-produced the hit HBO series Def Poetry Jam. The Broadway version of the show earned him a Tony Award.
According to a recent article in the International Review of African American Art, the Queens, New York native is number three on its list of movers and shakers in the African American art world.
Along with his equally famous brothers, music mogul Russell Simmons and hip hop legend Joseph Simmons (aka “Rev Run”), Danny Simmons co-founded the Rush Arts Gallery and serves as vice president of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation which provides arts exposure and access to the arts to disadvantaged urban youth.
Mr. Simmons holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from New York University, a master’s in public finance from Long Island University, and is the recipient of an honorary PhD from Long Island University. Currently a resident of Brooklyn, New York, he comes to Princeton at the invitation of Taneshia Nash Laird, founder of the newly formed Baker Street Social Club (BSSC), which is co-sponsoring the event with the Princeton Public Library. His visit is the second such event from the BSSC, which was formed to promote African American art and artists in the Princeton area. The Club is an event-driven initiative focusing on music, theater, art openings, and film premieres.
Originally from White Plains, Ms. Laird lived in Brooklyn with her late husband Roland Laird until moving to the Princeton area. She lived in Trenton for some eight years and in West Windsor for about the same amount of time. Today, West Windsor is where she’s raising her two young daughters, Naima, 4, and Imani, 8.
Baker Street Social Club
Named for the Baker Street that was once part of the African American neighborhood in downtown Princeton until it was removed in 1929 to make way for the expansion of Palmer Square, the Baker Street Social Club aims to honor past history by supporting fine arts and film from the African Diaspora.
Ms. Laird acknowledged Princeton’s rich African American community and the writings of the influential Trenton Central High School (TCHS) teacher Jack Washington as inspiration for her founding of the Club. Known as “a keeper of the African-American legacy,” Mr. Washington has taught American history at the TCHS Chambers Street campus for decades. HIs books include In Search of a Community’s Past: The Black Community in Trenton, New Jersey, 1860-1900 and The Quest for Equality: Trenton’s Black Community 1890-1965.
The BSSC, said Ms. Laird, will also support black artists in nearby Trenton, which has a resident population that is predominantly African American and Latino, as well as the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick. Membership in the club in its first year is free.
“Our goal is to group like-minded individuals who not only share a love of black arts, but a passion for uplifting the community. In the future, we anticipate trips to the African American Museum in Washington, D.C., the Studio Museum in Harlem, Philadelphia African American Museum, and wherever black arts can be found,” said Ms. Laird, who is a trustee for the Art Pride New Jersey Foundation and the Advocates for New Jersey History. She is a Senior Fellow in the Eastern Regional Network of the Environmental Leadership Program and formerly served as director of economic development in the Douglas H. Palmer administration and later as the executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association.
In 1997, with her late husband, she co-authored Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans. The book was updated and re-published in 2008.
“My late husband had created My Image Studios (MIST), a 20,000 square foot, $21 million entertainment center in Harlem that focuses on cultural offerings–including film, live music, and theater — from the African and Latin Diaspora. He co-developed MIST with real estate developer partners Carlton Brown and Walter Edwards.”
A week after MIST opened officially in January 2013, Mr. Laird died in the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro just two days after his 52nd birthday.
“The mission of the BSSC, to support fine arts and film from the African Diaspora, aligns with the type of programming we do all year round at the library,” said Library Program Coordinator Janie Hermann, whom Ms. Laird credits for helping to get BSSC events off the ground.
“After I had taken my daughters to the Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibition on the African American Presence in Renaissance Europe and to the Princeton Symphony’s performance of a piece inspired by the work of Jacob Lawrence, I wanted to do something to put my arms around what was happening locally and bring it all under one umbrella,” recalled Ms. Laird. “Janie Hermann at the Princeton Public Library has been a fantastic help.”
“I first met Taneshia in March 2009 when she and her late husband Roland gave a reading at the library of their book Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans,” said Ms. Hermann. “We kept in touch over the years and when Taneshia approached me with the idea of having the library be the first venue to co-sponsor events for her fledgling Baker Street Social Club I knew immediately that we would be able to create unique programming that would fill a much needed gap in town.”
“I didn’t want to have to take my kids all the way to Philadelphia or Manhattan for cultural activities so I thought it would be great to develop an audience for African American related material and bring African American artists to the Princeton area,” said Ms. Laird. “This event marks my second collaboration with the Princeton Public Library as part of the Baker Street Social Club and I am thrilled that Danny Simmons is able to be here.” said Ms. Laird. “I have found a lot of support in Princeton and I look forward to bringing some stellar speakers, artists and performers here.”
Mr. Simmons will read in the Library’s Community Room between 3 and 5 p.m. Admission is free.