Soul of the South: D.C. Downbeat

From the clubs of Washington D.C.’s historic U Street, to the grand stages of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, jazz fills the nation’s capital.
James T. Black

If Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald magically returned to Washington, D.C., today, the jazz legends wouldn't have any trouble finding U Street. All they'd have to do is listen.

That's because the downtown district, once known as Black Broadway, still moves as easily to a jazz beat as it did when they played there. Musicians take the stage in legendary places such as the restored Lincoln Theatre and Bohemian Caverns and at new venues such as Twins Jazz, where sisters Kelly and Maze Tesfaye combine Ethiopian and Caribbean cuisine with classic American swing.

"We originally planned to open only as a restaurant," Kelly says. "But the place we bought used to be a jazz club. So the musicians kept coming by wanting to play."

Musicians have been coming to play at Bohemian Caverns for more than 80 years. Originally housed in a drugstore basement and called Club Caverns, the venue hosted greats such as Ramsey Lewis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The recently renovated club continues to attract a new generation of fans.

The all-American music fills theaters and clubs in other parts of the city too. Named for the Congressional resolution that designated jazz as "a rare and valuable national American treasure," the HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz & Blues offers music classes, lectures, and live performances. Set in an 18th-century brick carriage house, Georgetown's Blues Alley packs them in with smooth sounds and Creole cuisine.

Jazzy Women
Even The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts knows how to jazz it up. In addition to offering concerts and performances, the center also hosts a variety of jazz workshops and special events. Up-and-coming female stars compete, teach, and entertain May 10-12 during the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.

"The festival brings together some of the most talented women in the world," explains Dr. Billy Taylor, the center's artistic advisor for jazz. "I'm delighted we can highlight such artists."

Capital Cool

 

"Soul of the South" is from the April 2007 issue of Southern Living.