by David Cecelski
Today I took a friend who is a jazz lover to explore John Coltrane’s childhood world in High Point. The great jazz saxophonist and composer lived in the city from soon after his birth in 1926 until he graduated from high school in 1943. We visited his family’s old house on Underhill Street, his grandfather’s church on Leonard Avenue, and his alma mater, William Penn High School, onWashington Drive. We also saw his momma’s piano at the High Point Museum—Coltrane composed on that piano—and we took photos next to his statue in the city’s furniture market district.
Washington Drive, once the heart of the city’s black business district, was just a few yards from Coltrane’s house. The street’s heyday is long past, but we could still imagine him there. We wandered down the street all the way from the Toussaint L’Ouverture Masonic Hall to Nannie Kirby’s old hotel, a local landmark, now boarded up. Legend has it that Coltrane played his sax on the hotel’s back steps.
The only restaurant on Washington Drive now is a wonderful little soul food café called Becky’s and Mary’s. It wasn’t there in Coltrane’s day, but I feel pretty sure he’d have relished a plate of the Ingram sisters’ fried pork chops, sweet potatoes, collard greens and cornbread. It’s definitely the place to go if you’re touring his neighborhood.
Becky and Mary Ingram moved to High Point and started their restaurant nearly 40 years ago. A lovely woman who just turned 70, Ms. Becky visited with my friend and me after we finished our dinner. She told us that she moved to High Point from rural AnsonCounty. There wasn’t much work back home after she graduated from high school, she said, “and I knew I didn’t want to pick any more cotton.”
Country life gave her an appreciation for good food, though. On the farm, she enjoyed fresh peaches and a big vegetable garden. She wandered the woods and picked wild muscadine grapes and spicy mustard greens.
Now, seven days a week, she and her sister watch over this flourishing soul food café. They serve fresh vegetables when they can—Ms. Becky says she cooks fresh collard greens all winter, when they’re tender. And the whole place feels like family. The Ingram sisters and their staff seemed to know everybody who walked in the door. Half the time, they also seemed to know if their customers wanted dark meat or light, link sausage or liver pudding, cornbread or a biscuit.
If you’re new to Washington Drive, the Ingram sisters will make you feel at home, too. They’ll feed you well and then, while you sip a glass of their special mix of lemonade and iced tea, they’ll sit a spell with you and tell you about this place that gave the world John Coltrane.