Jazz in DC - Past or Future?
This is my second blog post in a row that talks about jazz, but April is Jazz Appreciation Month, so I couldn’t think of a better topic to focus on. In my Harlem Renaissance in DC walking tour, I focus on the early glory days of jazz, which for me are the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. This is the era in which the early trailblazers rose to popular fame. DC connections to this era abound, from Duke Ellington to Cab Calloway (his sister used to run Crystal Caverns!), Billie Holiday to Pearl Bailey. However, the last several years have been hard for the DC jazz scene. COVID decimated the nighttime music and club industry. There is constant competition for people’s attention. One not only has to be a stellar musician, but also a mini-wiz when it comes to social media and turning out constant content. Gentrification continues its determined march across the city, bringing with it higher rents and different musical tastes. So what is the current state of jazz in the District? In the past year, I’ve noticed a spike in the number of venues offering jazz. As someone who likes to get out to shows as often as my schedule and budget allows, I find it increasingly difficult to keep up with new jam nights. This is a problem I am happy to have, however, because it leads me to believe that there is hope that jazz is still going strong in DC. I spoke with a few current gigging artists, and some longtime stalwarts too, to get a their opinions on where jazz in DC has been, where it is, and where it's going.
DeAndrey Howard – Trumpeter, drummer, and longtime local musician
DeAndrey Howard is the manager of Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society in NE DC, and a lifelong DC resident. He grew up in the east part of the city, near RFK Stadium, and went to Easton High School. He comes from a musical family, and his brother Joe was a jazz drummer who experienced decent success in the industry, playing with the likes of Shirley Horne and Charlie Hampton. When I interviewed him, he talked about how Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters would come to his house and jam when they were in town. DeAndrey himself has been playing music professionally since he was 15 years old. He started out playing rock and roll, progressive rock, and funk. Eventually he turned from funk to jazz, his last funk gig being with the Godfather himself, Chuck Brown. He modestly recalled that when he was making that transition, learning jazz was a whole new game. It took him some time to be accepted by the established musicians. He recounted a night in which Charlie Hampton was playing at Moores’ Love and Peace, an old juke joint at the time. They let DeAndrey get on stage. After hearing him play for a song or two, they kicked him off. Shirley Horn, who was there that night, told him, “lil bro I hear what you’re trying to say, but you can’t say it yet.” By his experience, if you’re going to be any good it will take fifteen years to find your voice.
So what was his inspiration was for Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society? It's essentially a row house that doesn’t serve food or alcohol, just quality jazz. He said that since he was twenty-seven, he wanted to open a non-alcoholic jazz club. He’s no teetotaler, but he wanted a space in which the emphasis was on the music, not on the bar scene. That thought would come back to him when he met Dr. Alice Murray Jameson. Alice, the namesake of the place, in fact owns the property. She’s an avid jazz fan who used to see DeAndrey play at Westminster Church. One day she approached him about wanting to open a nonalcoholic jazz club. He felt a sense of kismet in that moment. He offered to fix up a building that she had bought, and got it performance ready over the course of four years or so. It’s now been running as a unique place for jazz aficionados and casual enjoyers to gather. It was closed for over two years due to COVID, but recently had its first night of music on April 24th!
I asked him how the scene has changed over time. He said that there were more small juke joins back in the day that would only fit maybe around 100 people, but he enjoyed that closeness, the intimacy of a dark room with the smooth sounds emanating throughout the place. There are larger venues that have embraced DC’s jazz tradition, including the Kennedy Center, but in his opinion jazz belongs in small venues. Some of the places he fondly remembers are The Wise, the Pig Foot, Moore’s Love and Peace, and a more recent club, Utopia. All are now closed. Today he plays occasionally at Takoma Station, Alice’s, and the occasional gig in both funk and jazz.
Nowadays, as someone who is a local celebrity he laughingly said he just gets tired of being accosted in restaurants by enthusiastic fans. He’s happy that there seem to be more and more venues where jazz is popping up. He enjoys slow jazz though, as opposed to the New York style that you mostly find today. “Music was made to romance the soul,” he said. I could not agree more.
Maija Rehman – Singer, Organizer
Maija Rejman was born in England and has lived in DC for 60 years. I met her several years ago through the Brazilian music scene, and she currently curates music acts for Groove Thursdays at Mr. Henry's in SE. She's been singing music since her teens and describes herself as a "dyed in the wool" jazz singer. She got her start singing at Bohemian Caverns with Bobby Timmons (pianist) at the age of 18. She did that as a side gig but left to go to school and “lead a different life” for a while. She recalls that when she was at Bohemian Caverns, the “In Crowd” was recorded by Ramsey Lewis and that was the "heyday" of U street. She was always drawn back to music though and has been connected to the DC jazz scene on and off for the last 48 years. She found Brazilian music through her friendship with Wayne Wilentz, another stalwart DC musician who is now living in Los Angeles, California. Working with Wayne Wilentz, Maija fell even more in love with Brazilian music. After the 4-day period of riots after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, jazz nearly disappeared. However, the scene rises and falls along with the opportunities presented by venues or supporters.
I asked her what she sees as positive developments in the DC jazz scene recently, and she remarked that in the last several years many universities have been investing in their jazz programs (Howard, UDC, and George Mason University). The result has been a whole new generation of “young lions” coming in. In addition, the audiences are younger. People still appreciate live music, especially now in the era of COVID. When they hear the sound of a live band emanating from a club, they are drawn in and leave wanting to hear more. Not to be neglected, are the die-hard long timers who have been attending and playing jazz shows for decades. Those are the pillars of the jazz community, without whom the traditions would be lost.
Back to the rise and fall of things, Maija believes we are going into a boom period for jazz again. There are countless young players on the scene, bringing new energy and leaders to the jazz community. Contributing to this is also the increasing number of local jazz festivals, such as the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, DC Jazz Festival, and the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation. However, like DeAndrey, Maija is also of the opinion that jazz is that it is best appreciated in an intimate setting. There is nothing wrong with having large settings like the Anthem, Kennedy Center, or Pearl Street Warehouse, because they give artists access to larger audiences. However, she prefers the small clubs.
The important thing is connecting people within the jazz community and providing the new talent with opportunities to learn and grow. One thing that is wonderful about the jazz community, she said, was that the more experienced players give young players a "leg up." That’s what many of the small clubs do, giving young "cats" the opportunity to get connected to the long-time players, as well as each other. In contrast to the cutthroat, money-making world of pop music, in jazz the tradition is to mentor and nurture new musicians. Jazz itself is a national treasure, and it’s one of the most significant historical developments in our country. Jazz has become an international language. Maija pointed out something that I’ve observed myself in other artistic areas. When she drops into a jazz club in a foreign country, she knows that other musicians will know exactly what to do with certain common signals. It is similar in the dance community, there are norms and traditions that cut through language barriers. You will never be alone once you find that community of artists.
Julian Berkowitz - Drummer, Organizer
Julian Berkowitz hails from Easton, Connecticut. He moved to DC in 2013 to attend George Washington University and pursued a degree in political science. He had been playing jazz since he was in 6th grade, but wasn’t serious about it until college, when he discovered that GW had a weekly jazz jam with members of the faculty. Julian stumbled upon an audition group and ended up playing in a combo. He wasn’t planning on a music career, but then decided to make music his minor. Since graduating, he's become a full-time musician, music teacher, and organizer of jazz gigs.
As a younger member of the jazz scene, I asked him how he felt connected to DC’s long history and traditions. He said that at first didn’t feel that connection, didn’t know that much about the history. He gradually learned about the big name musicians of the past, especially drummers such as Jimmy Cobb, and Dennis Chambers from Baltimore. Are the roots of DC jazz are still being discussed amongst the new generation of musicians? He thinks that anyone who is serious about the music is respectful of its traditions, and also new innovations.
Reflecting on how the scene has changed in recent years, he stated that it is definitely growing. There are more and more musicians than ever, so many that they are being more proactive about created their own gigs and finding venues that will embrace them. He’s optimistic about the future of jazz in DC. The audience is expanding, there are more young people in the audiences than ever. Are current events affecting how people look at jazz? Yes, they do. Issues that drive music, including racism, still exist today. It’s still all related, people feel that the music is relevant in reflecting what is going on in the communities. Baltimore, for example, has become very creative with its music scene, its own particularities and traditions. Music and community are irrevocably intertwined.
Julian has been driving forward with looking at new venues for jazz nights, and has been leading weekly jam sessions at Library Tavern (Sundays), Green Island (Thursdays) and Right Proper (Fridays).
Christian Clark - Drummer
Christian Clark (#gingerwithsoul_music) moved to DC seven years ago, and received his Masters degree in jazz studies from the University of Maryland. His first gig was in 2015 playing at Columbia Station, a jazz club that used to stand next to what is now Green Island in Adams Morgan. He started working with longtime DC jazz artist Peter Edelman, and has also accompanied singer Landon Paddock. As an enlisted Marine, he plays with their Drum and Bugle Corps.
What recent changes in the jazz scene has he observed? He's seen that certain instruments are being embraced by students and audiences. Interestingly, he highlighted base players. There are four brand new base players who have won gigs with the Marine players, for example: Grant Lee, Alex brown, Ben Thomas, and William "Mobetta"Ledbetta (#mobetta_bam). The latter is the most animated bass player I’ve personally ever seen, and he is definitely bringing a different energy to the instrument. The George Mason University-based scene has also been evolving, including vocalists like Dominique Bianca and Connor Holdridge. There has been a lot of support from organizations like the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, which has been running jams for seven years. Before COVID there had been standing room only at these jams, but it's slowly coming back. He also observed that there is a growing number of of jazz musicians under the age of 30, and he credits organizers like Julian Berkowitz for that trend. He again highlights George Mason University for cultivating a cadre of new musicians. There is also JazzMob (#jazzmobdc), put together by critically acclaimed local saxophonist Elijah Balbed. JazzMob (like FlashMob) would organize impromptu gigs in different parts of DC, in the mid- to late afternoons, in which any musician was welcome to come at a certain time or location. These were basically tip-funded activities, though there is now grant funding run through JazzMob that helps pay the musicians for their time. I personally thought that DC lacked in street performances, so I hope these spontaneous outdoor performances come back. Christian mentioned another way in which the scene has changed, and that is how people tip. The way of cash tips is now obsolete. The virtual tips are just as real and that has helped musicians earn money by removing the excuse that they don’t have cash on them (hint - always tip the band, especially if there is no cover).
He sees the future of jazz and secure in DC. People who have lived through the pandemic are more apt to appreciate art and that is reflected, as also observed my Maija, by more people coming in from off the street when they pass a jazz club. The sound of music, and life, draws them in. He also thinks that people compare this era to that of the romanticized “roaring 20s” period. So there is a lot of positive associations with the start of the golden era of jazz. On the downside, there are many more music venues offering your standard range of pop music and other acts that are open again, creating more competition.
Westminster Presbyterian Church
As a final spotlight, I want to highlight a dedicated jazz venue that has been running longer than any other in the city (save for Blues Alley, which now offers a variety of music). The Westminster Presbyterian Church on 4th and I Street SW has been offering Friday night jazz performances since its current minister, Brian Hamilton, started it as a way to keep the DC jazz tradition alive at a time when it was struggling (the dead period of the late 90s/early-aughts). Hamilton and his wife moved to DC from Detroit to take over the ministry of the church in the late 90's. He has been a long-time jazz fan and musician, and saw the opportunity to bring together music and community. The Friday Jazz Nights have a dedicated local following that skews to an older crowd, but these are folks who enjoy a traditional sound, more mellow and conversational than the speedy bop that is mostly played around the city today. The emphasis here is "Straight-forward jazz", without the electronic bells and whistles but an emphasis on musicianship. The church features primarily local talent deeply rooted in the DC community, as well as big jazz names from the outside. When I finally made the pilgrimage there not too long ago, I was delighted to find that a home-cooked buffet dinner including fried fish, chicken, sides, and a variety of desserts for a very inexpensive fee is offered in the church's kitchen in the basement. It's truly a homey night out and I loved talking to the organizers and people who have been coming to the church for years. Hamilton said that the importance is consistency. Before COVID, the church had only missed 4 nights, all due to dangerous weather. They closed in March 2020 along with everyone else. Then they attempted re-opening last summer, but that became untenable with the Omicron outbreak. Finally, Friday Night Jazz began again on March 13th of this year. If you want the traditional jazz of DC where you can feel the spirit, this is the place. If you're a blues fan, they also have regular Monday Blues Nights. A tradition worth supporting indeed.
Based on these interviews, and what I myself have observed in the past several months of attending dozens of shows, talking with numerous musicians and audience members, I share their optimism that DC jazz isn’t going anywhere. It’s asserting itself in its rightful place as an intrinsic part of what makes DC a musical destination, albeit a perpetually under-recognized one. Today you can find jazz somewhere in the city every night of the week. Though the scene is no longer concentrated around U Street Corridor, the upside is that it is accessible by people in all neighborhoods across the city. Here is an incomplete list of regularly occurring jazz nights, and the headline artist. If there is anything I missed, my profound apologies to the venues and artists, but please feel free to write me with corrections and I'll edit it!
Mondays- The Artemis - Dave Manly and Mouro Mir (#musicmauromir)
St. Vincent's Wine Bar - Joe Brotherton
Tuesdays - Tonic - Andrew Musselman (#the_musselman)
Wednesdays - Capital Hill Jazz Jam at Mr. Henry's 8-11pm
Peter Edelman (#peteredelmanjazz) at Green Island
St. Vincent's - Various Artists
Jojo's - Various Artists
Alice's Jazz and Cultural Society - Various Artists
Thursdays - Green Island - Julian Berkowitz (#julianberkowitzdrums)
Bossa - Elijan Balbed (#ejbjazz) and Fiesta Mojo
St. Vincent - Various Artists
Mr. Henry's - Groove Thursdays w/Various Artists
Fridays - Green Island with Peter Edelman
JoJo's with Joe Brotherton
Westminster Presbyterian Church - Various Artists
Saturdays - Jojo's - Various Artists
Sundays - Jazz Brunch at Tonic - Andrew Musselman
The Library Tavern - Julian Berkowitz
Sunday Singers Jam at Mr. Henry’s, 2nd and 4th Sundays.
Alice's Jazz and Cultural Society - Various Artists
If you desire to honor the past jazz traditions of DC while it's still Jazz Appreciation Month, my last Harlem Renaissance in DC tour in April is this Saturday the 30th, at 2pm. Tickets available here.