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The Capital Swings: Jazz in the District
“Wait. I hate to do this, but we gotta start over.”
Allen Jones is playing his first gig as the leader of his own group. Seconds after dropping his drumstick from the ride cymbal, he and his fellow musicians launch head-on into “Diamond,” one of the 18-year-old’s original compositions. Despite the false start, the crowd at The Dunes receives him warmly.
It’s a clear day, and yellow rays of evening sun beam sideways through the windows at this small, airy art gallery in Columbia Heights. This is the D.C. Jazz Loft, a monthly event organized by CapitalBop.com, a blog dedicated to promoting jazz music in the District. To walk into here is to be instantly immersed in the city’s hip, creative class. Young people in skinny jeans and tribal patterns and older folks in their Sunday best lounge on the square sofas or swill drinks in the back of the room. Everyone is quiet, except for the occasional whoop or “yeah!” when a musician plays a good lick.
Two other veteran local groups, the D.C. Jazz Composers Collective and the Lyle Link Quartet, round out the event, and the audience swells throughout the night as they perform. Both the D.C. Jazz Loft and CapitalBop.com are new additions to the jazz scene, according to website founder Giovanni Russonello.
CapitalBop.com started up in September 2010, and began presenting its own shows in December of 201l. Since the beginning, their goal has been to reach a unique audience—as Russonello put it, “students like [the Voice’s] readers, young people, and generally audiences that haven’t been as involved with the scene as they might like to.” Now the shows serve as low-cost options for D.C. jazz fans and as an opportunity for local musicians to cooperate and improvise in a low-pressure environment.
While the Jazz Loft may be a recent addition to the scene, the District has a long and storied history with the quintessential American genre. Besides being the hometown of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, whom many consider America’s finest composer of all time, the D.C. scene also includes the country’s longest continuously operating jazz and supper club, Blues Alley, along with the historic Bohemian Caverns, to name just two influential spots.
Georgetown History and African-American Studies professor Maurice Jackson has enjoyed jazz in D.C. for over 40 years, and said that the scene decades ago was comprised of events similar to Capital Bop’s Jazz Loft. “In the ‘70s there was a different jazz scene,” he said. “It was during the stage of free jazz. It was a loft jazz scene.” In particular, he mentioned a spot on 7th and F Street near the Verizon Center.
“And then of course the One Step Down was right in Georgetown, right between Georgetown and GW, and that was a thriving scene,” Jackson added.
The District’s status as a government town also provided musicians with work at high-society parties—government balls and the like, where Ellington plied his trade as a youngster. “You do have a tradition of jazz being played in clubs and at ‘society functions,’ which obviously are a huge deal in D.C.,” Russonello said. “So there’s always been a lot of opportunities for jazz musicians to get work, and for them to trade their talents and their innovations.”
Although the U Street corridor is a focal point in the jazz scene today, Jackson says this wasn’t always the case. By the ‘70s, the area “had sort of died down as a jazz scene, but there were [other] places,” he said. Many of the well-known clubs on the drag, like Twins Jazz or U-topia, had not yet opened, and Bohemian Caverns closed down after the 1968 riots swept the area and did not reopen until the economic revival of the late ‘90s.
But even without its traditional U Street anchor, the District’s jazz scene was still populated with talented and innovative musicians. Local colleges—led by Howard University and the University of Maryland—churned out performance-ready musicians looking for work, while high schools like the Duke Ellington School of the Arts inaugurated new generations into the music. Russonello says that these institutions have always acted as “built-in supports” for jazz in the city, even during economically lean times.
The jazz scene has not been impervious to the District’s overall changes in demographics and economic breakdowns over the decades. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, D.C. “was still considered a sleepy, backwater Southern town,” Blues Alley Executive Director Harry Schnipper said. But, as the city acquired more government and professional jobs throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the growing white-collar crowd brought new, affluent listeners to the District, and new institutions opened to serve them.
“In the last 15 years, I think the jazz scene has really revived itself, along with the resuscitation of U Street and of a number of other areas that have become a lot more trafficked,” Russonello said. “People have really been opening up a lot more live venues and incorporating jazz into the greater entertainment scene.”
While this influx of listeners brought about more venues, the costs of attending these clubs have often proven prohibitive for lower-income residents. Some of the biggest names around the city, like Blues Alley, Bohemian Caverns, and Twins, routinely charge cover fees well over $40 for their most popular shows, plus drink minimums and surcharges.
“Blues Alley, fuck it, man,” Russonello said. “You’re gonna pay the $30, $40, $50 to get in, you’ll pay the $2.50 surcharge and then you’ll have to buy at least $10 in drinks… And then there’s Twins and they’ve got at least $10 cover and $10 [drink or food] minimum.”
Not everyone thinks the price is too steep. “I don’t consider Bohemian Caverns or Twins expensive,” Jackson said. “You can’t expect to pay less than that.” Schnipper said that Blues Alley’s prices are not determined by their clientele, but rather by what the musicians want to charge. With only a limited number of seats, he says that high prices are a necessity when big names are playing, so that the club can pay the performer his or her asking price and still turn a profit. “The pricing structure is based on whatever the artist’s agent is demanding… People will say ‘Why don’t you bring [legendary trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis back?’ And I say I can, but it’ll cost you $250 a ticket,” Schnipper said.
The proliferation of these higher-cost clubs has also given rise to a vibrant underground scene, including the D.C. Jazz Loft. The club asks only for a $10 donation, which goes directly to the musicians. Other low-cost options include jam sessions at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest, shows at HR-57 on 8th and H Street, and Latin jazz at Bossa Bistro in Adams Morgan, along with a number of bars and clubs that play jazz on occasion. Even some of the bigger clubs offer cheap shows. Bohemian Caverns boasts the District’s only resident big band, the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, which plays every Monday night for seven dollars.
The unique sound of jazz in D.C. is best found at these smaller venues. As the city remains a stopping point for the biggest names in American and international jazz, and because these artists bring in the biggest crowds, high-profile club space is usually reserved for them. More importantly, smaller venues and jam sessions allow musicians to stretch out and explore new musical avenues.
The musicians at the D.C. Jazz Loft almost exclusively played their own compositions, whereas musicians at larger clubs will often fill sets with covers of standard tunes. Anthony Pirog, an experimental jazz and rock guitarist, says that the lack of financial pressure allows him to do his own thing at underground gigs.
“The jazz lofts—I enjoy the concerts there…they asked me to put together a group and just do kind of a free improv kind of thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it at Twins, but there, in that setting, it has a very free feel to it. There just isn’t a certain pressure to show up with a certain kind of group.”
While the music played at these smaller clubs varies widely on the surface, Russonello insists that there is a distinct brand of jazz on display in the underground scene.
“It’s very rooted in jazz as an extension of the blues lineage in the era of small-group playing,” he said. “But the point is…the experimental scene has a fluid membrane with the jazz scene, so there’s a lot of exchange back and forth.”
Artists like Pirog contribute to this conversation—his style incorporates elements of indie rock, classical, folk, and experimental music in addition to jazz. The dialogue also features a healthy roots influence. “They mixed the stuff like jazz, blues, rock-a-billy—all this stuff into an Americana, roots-based music,” Pirog said.
According to Russonello, jazz in the District is also infused with the hyper-local brand of funk known as go-go. Heavily influenced by R&B, go-go has essentially stayed in the District since its development in the 1970s.
“People are using go-go influences because there is the occasional jazz musician who is really from D.C., who plays in go-go bands as well, or at least hears them,” he said. “Nowadays, the most common manifestation of the blues lineage is in hip-hop, so you have a lot of people who are bringing that influence into their jazz playing.”
The church has proven important as well. Besides providing steady weekly gigs for musicians and a place to meet and work with other artists, gospel music lends to much of D.C.’s earthy, hard bop-influenced style, and offers an opportunity for artists to gain exposure in the community.
Not everyone finds the experimental side of the D.C. scene so alluring.
“I don’t know if it’s so much ‘jazz,’” Jackson said. His opinions echo those of many other classical jazz fans around the globe, who see jazz tightly bound to its roots in swing, blues, and bop. But this is the nature of jazz in D.C.—respectful and true to its roots, while simultaneously pushing those boundaries by incorporating musicians and ideas from other genres and backgrounds.
Even though the District has a rich jazz history and is home to some important musicians, it is almost certainly destined to remain a second-tier scene. New York has long been the global mecca for jazz, and it continues to exert that influence today. Many of the District’s most talented musicians have relocated to the Big Apple, at least temporarily, to try to make it big. Historically, this has included the likes of Duke Ellington and bassist Butch Warren, a legendary sideman during the hard-bop era.
The trend continues today with musicians like D.C.-born bassist Ben Williams, who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2009 and relocated to New York thereafter. However, many of these artists keep their D.C. influences long into their careers beyond the metro area. Ellington never let go of the colorful phrasing and intricate chordal arrangements he concocted so he could play under the voices of statesmen at high-society capital parties while still performing interesting music. Similarly, Ben William’s latest album State of Art carries go-go influences all but unknown to non-Washingtonians. It seems you can take a jazzman out of the District, but you can’t take the District out of the jazzman.
Even if it is a smaller, less prestigious scene, D.C. has certain elements that New York lacks. “There is a lot of truth to the idea that in New York people are just playing chops all the time, and trying to sound all wild and out and on the next thing when they’re really sort of on their own thing,” Russonello said. “Whereas in D.C., it’s like, ‘Alright, what can everyone get together around? What can we all connect with?’” New York may have a reputation for more innovation in the music, but the D.C. scene offers “music that is both for the musicians and the audience.”
The sense of community in the District jazz scene also distinguishes it from its New York counterpoint. Where bigger scenes are cutthroat and careerist, the comparatively uncompetitive nature of the District means the true assets of the music—communication, dialogue, respect, and love—can take center stage. This friendly atmosphere was evident at the D.C. Jazz Loft. Not even out of high school at Duke Ellington, Jones was welcomed with open arms by the veteran musicians at the event. “Beautiful music, man,” one artist offered after his set. “It sounds good!” one of the audience members yelled at him after a solo.
Perhaps this communal nature is the most important element of the D.C. jazz scene, as it encourages not only comfortable collaboration and exchange between musicians, but also the opportunity for new artists to enter the scene.
“If you come in and you’ve got the ability, and you jive with cats, yeah, you can make it into the scene,” Russonello said. “But, being that it’s a community, you learn the names, you learn how to play with everybody… and you’ll get taken under a wing.”
That certainly seems to be what happened with Jones. “He [Russonello] asked me to play for the first Jazz Loft actually. There was a group called the U Street All-Stars, and I got into that because I was playing on U Street at the time at Utopia,” Jones said. As for his first time leading a group, he said, “I enjoyed it. I always like playing my compositions because it’s always a different experience, because I always use different people.”
The D.C. Jazz Loft embodies a feeling that may be the one aspect that unites all jazz in D.C., whether it is a ritzy show at the Kennedy Center or a jam session at a local church—a happiness and respect for the music and those who play it, and a recognition of its significance for the District community.
“There’s never any negativity on this scene,” Russello said. “It’s a good place to learn and be a part of it, but what I also want to emphasize is that it’s a great place to listen. It’s music that’s made for the listener.”