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Originally published August 14, 2011 at 8:51 PM | Page modified August 15, 2011 at 8:21 AM

Vision for Hendrix Park as vibrant as namesake

Since his death nearly 41 years go, Seattle has struggled to find a way to fully honor Jimi Hendrix, one of its most famous sons.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Since his death nearly 41 years go, Seattle has struggled to find a way to fully honor Jimi Hendrix, one of its most famous sons.

How the city should honor Hendrix has been a complicated, at times turbulent affair that on occasion has descended into accusations of racism and, on the other side, questions about why the city should memorialize someone who many associate with drugs.

But if all goes as planned, sometime in 2012, ground will be broken for some rather remarkable Hendrix-influenced structures at the 2.3-acre Jimi Hendrix Park next to the Northwest African American Museum.

It's not a done deal.

Right now the Central District park exists as mostly lawn where the parking lot used to be for the old Colman School on South Massachusetts Street.

The cost for developing the site is estimated at nearly $2 million, says Carver Gayton, a member of the Jimi Hendrix Park Foundation and one of the prime movers behind the park.

At 72, he is a former state employment-security commissioner, Boeing executive, FBI agent and from 2004 to 2008, head of the African-American museum as it sought funding.

About Hendrix, who has been called the world's greatest guitarist, Gayton says, "He has not been properly honored here. He is an international icon."

The park has received nearly $650,000 for development, with the biggest chunk being $500,000 from the city's Parks and Green Spaces Opportunity Fund. The figure includes some $51,000 in donated time and materials to move the design along.

That still leaves $1.35 million to be gotten through donations. Gayton is known for his networking abilities.

"That's the advantage of having been around the city for a long time," he says.

To commemorate Hendrix, up to now there has been Paul Allen's Experience Music Project (EMP), of course, with its vast Hendrix collection. But it's a private enterprise and you pay to get in.

Buried in Renton

And if you want to drive out to Renton, as tens of thousands have done, there is the Jimi Hendrix Memorial, a massive granite structure at Greenwood Memorial Park cemetery.

Hendrix was buried there, originally with a modest grave, because his father, the late Al Hendrix, couldn't afford any other cemetery.

But as for his hometown of Seattle, there are only three public places that honor Hendrix:

There is the mosaic walkway and a plaque commemorating Hendrix at the Woodland Park Zoo.

There is a privately funded statue placed on a Capitol Hill sidewalk.

And there is a bust of Jimi Hendrix in the library at Garfield High School, which Hendrix attended. The bust was donated in the mid-1980s by his family. Even that memorial had problems gaining acceptance.

Jeff Day, the Whidbey Island sculptor who did the bust, remembers that his agent, who contacted the school about receiving the gift, had trouble getting Garfield to accept it because of "how Hendrix died."

Gayton says, "Oh, my gosh, if you think about great performing artists, and painters, and so on, and you started looking at whether they drank or smoked or used drugs as far as recognizing them, there wouldn't be a whole lot of folks that'd be recognized."

For Charles R. Cross, the Seattle author of "Room Full of Mirrors," a best-selling Hendrix biography, creation of Jimi Hendrix Park is long overdue.

"It's an insult that it came so late. I encounter people all the time from other countries, who, when they think of Seattle, Jimi Hendrix is one of the top two things," Cross said.

"If Jimi Hendrix had played for the Mariners, they would have had a street named after him."

"Wall of Sound"

The design plan, unveiled Wednesday by the Seattle and Portland landscape-architecture firm Murase Associates, will feature a 30- to 40-foot concrete "Wall of Sound" that will have speakers for piping music and places to plug in an instrument.

Two seating areas that look like pods are based on a drawing by Hendrix.

Another wall, in the park's northeast corner — made of perforated steel and totaling 150 feet in length — will have cutouts that include one in the shape of Hendrix playing his guitar.

The public can walk through the cutouts.

There will be a stage that could be used for musical performances.

And plenty of Pauwlonia trees, as they produce purple flowers, a color always associated with Hendrix after his hit "Purple Haze."

With such a park, maybe the city will finally make its peace with the legacy of one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived.

Even when he was alive and world-famous, Hendrix didn't exactly get an enthusiastic greeting when he was a guest at a Garfield High School assembly in September 1968, the day after a concert here. Hendrix had dropped out of Garfield in 1961 to join the Army.

In his book, Cross writes that Peter Riches, who photographed the event, recalled that kids heckled Hendrix. Said the photographer, "Many obviously had no idea who Jimi was."

Cross writes that some of the hecklers were African-American students, unaware of Hendrix's music, which wasn't played on black radio, and that many thought his style of dress was inappropriate.

The book quotes a student who was there; "At the time Garfield was highly politicized and the Black Power movement was blooming. To have this strange, hippie musician come along bothered kids."

In a story for this paper, rock critic Patrick MacDonald said that one student asked Hendrix, "How long ago did you leave Garfield?"

Hendrix replied, "About 90 million years ago."

The first effort to publicly honor Hendrix was started in 1980 by rock radio station KZOK, 10 years after Hendrix died at age 27 in 1970 in London after choking on his vomit from a mix of alcohol and sleeping pills.

Norm Gregory, the station's general manager, and Janet Wainwright, the promotion director, launched a fundraising campaign by having the station sell Hendrix buttons for $2 each. Eventually, some $30,000 was raised.

There was no interest from the city in honoring Hendrix, remembers Wainwright.

"It was hell dealing with the city. We tried everything. Naming a street, one of those little pocket parks you see at the end of some streets. Nobody was interested," Wainwright says.

"I was met with the most vehement objections, including from Walter Hundley, head of the Parks Department, who sat me in his office and basically said they were not going to memorialize a drug addict."

She remembers the station getting hate mail "like you wouldn't believe ... death threats, people saying Jimi Hendrix was Satan."

But Hendrix had a fan in David Hancocks, then director of the Woodland Park Zoo. Space for a memorial was found near the African Savanna Exhibit.

To some, the location seemed inappropriate.

Says Cross, "To me, it seems unbelievably misguided. It does seem racist, and if not racist, certainly culturally insensitive."

But Wainwright says Al Hendrix was happy with the zoo memorial for his son. She says he told her, "Jimi loved animals."

The zoo memorial was finally dedicated in June 1983, with Al Hendrix in attendance.

The design had a "hot rock" in the center that was heated and was meant to symbolize Hendrix's music. But, says the zoo, the heating element inside the rock hasn't been working for years.

The Jimi Hendrix Park is to open in 2012, when Hendrix would have turned 70.

Carver Gayton remembers the first public meeting seeking ideas for the park, back in January 2010.

Plenty had changed in Seattle attitudes since three decades ago.

"It was one of the great experiences," says Gayton about hearing from people about honoring Hendrix. "Overwhelmingly, folks thought it was overdue."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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