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Four performers (vocalist, upright, bassist, saxophonist, and trumpeter) playing in a room of a house. Drummer is out of frame.

Jazz performance at Rhizome DC

Photo by Mike Maguire

  • Jazz in Flux: Community Building in D.C.’s Jazz Venues


    As a band member at the DC Jazz Jam yelled the name into the audience, a teenage boy who had been eating at the table next to me hopped up onstage and sat down at the drums.

    At DC Jazz Jam, a weekly Sunday night jam session at Haydee’s Restaurant in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, performer-audience swaps like these are commonplace. Every Sunday, founder Will Stephens invites all to join onstage and play or munch on crunchy fried plantains served with beans and sour cream while basking in the jazz.

    I chose to sit back and enjoy the music one Sunday evening. Before I had even looked at the musicians on stage, I was struck by the constant movement of the audience in between songs; people of all ages came over, hugging old friends, and laughing. Photos of historic jazz musicians and a myriad of countries’ flags lined the brick walls. I felt as though I had walked into the jam on its first day, in all its anticipatory and hopeful energy. It became increasingly clear that most people in the space knew each other; the night felt like a casual jam session between (immensely skilled) friends.

    While the band continued engaging with the audience throughout the night, the musicians were also in constant unspoken dialogue with one another. Band members onstage smiled with glee as the saxophone player began an improvisational solo, the rest of the band matching his lead as they quieted down and followed his rhythm. Using each other’s hand movements as signals, the drum player would suddenly change tempo, the other players quickly following suit, just as audience members were growing accustomed to the calming rhythm of the music. The dynamic music at Haydee’s was far from what many think of as “elevator jazz.”

    Having grown up in the Washington, D.C. area, I attended my fair share of jazz performances as a kid. I frequented institutional jazz performances such as those at the Kennedy Center or the National Gallery of Art’s summertime Jazz in the Garden. And I loved it. But I grew up thinking these formal performances and jazz spaces were the epitome, and quite possibly the only facet, of D.C. jazz. When I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, for college, I began to attend smaller, local jazz performances. It soon became clear to me that I had a blind spot for these types of venues in D.C.

    I wanted to explore these smaller jazz venues grounded in local communities, ones that I knew existed but had never ventured toward. Having observed the extensive gentrification that pervades D.C. neighborhoods throughout my life, I expected to find local jazz as a victim of this intense gentrification. And I did find a bit of that. But as I explored and talked to more musicians and club owners directly involved in the scene, it became apparent to me that local jazz is a source of joy and hope for D.C. residents, an ever lively and vibrant community.

    Early History of Jazz in D.C.: The “Black Broadway”

    DC Jazz Jam is part of a long and rich jazz culture in the D.C. area. Jazz originated in New Orleans, specifically in Congo Square, where enslaved Africans in the nineteenth century would congregate and make music inspired by a fusion of Black influences and sounds: ragtime, blues, and spirituals, incorporating the syncopated and swinging rhythm. As time went on, the music evolved into the sound we now recognize as jazz. Because jazz was born directly from the Black American experience, D.C. was a vital location in the early jazz movement due to the city’s large Black population.

    In the twentieth century, when D.C. was deeply segregated, jazz was largely confined to areas whose residents were mainly Black. During the Prohibition Era, underground speakeasies were the means through which jazz began to increase exponentially in popularity.

    U Street, which became known as the “Black Broadway,” emerged as the capital’s standout jazz area, lined with jazz venues, bars, and performance areas that burst with creative energy. From the 1920s to the 1940s, venues like Bohemian Caverns and Club Bengasi were popular among almost all D.C. jazz musicians. There was an unmistakably exciting energy about jazz; famous musicians like John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Shirley Horn were known to jam until dawn, popping in and out of different venues lining U Street.

    Thirteen Black men pose on stage with instruments. Twelve are in light-colored suits, and Duke Ellington in front wears black. Black-and-white photo with Duke’s signature in blue over it.
    Duke Ellington and his orchestra, 1935
    Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

    Jazz continued to be a large part of the D.C. music scene for decades, but the uprising in the spring of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., wreaked havoc on the genre’s mainstay institutions and venues. The uprising caused fires that devastated many D.C. neighborhoods, including the U Street area. Building that were not damaged by fire felt the economic impact the uprising continued to have on the area long after ’68.

    Home to many Black-owned small businesses, including beloved jazz venues, U Street and its residents were left without many of their major economic sources. Many residents moved out due to the social and economic blight that ensued, and the once-bustling business street was left economically and emotionally devastated. When the U Street area did eventually recover economically, it was at the cost of current residents, as rents began to rise and new businesses owned by white non-locals trickled in. Jazz began to fade away from the Washington, D.C., music scene.

    The Scene Now: D.C. Jazz Dispersed

    Today, the D.C. jazz community is a sonic and visual embodiment of the diverse and multifaceted legacy of the area. Entrenched in complex histories of gentrification and whitewashing, yet also a vibrant sense of musical joy, the jazz community is alive and pushing forward; musicians are establishing and defining their own community, grounded not only in the music but in the people.

    In contrast to the jazz scene of the twentieth century, which was occupied by singular venues that were hubs for all players and fans, the scene now is dispersed and made up of smaller, more localized venues. What makes the current scene particularly special is the sheer quantity of small venues that have gathered a significant following and fostered a deep sense of community over the years. It is at these places where music can be a vehicle toward connection.

    “For D.C.’s size, we have a relatively robust jazz scene,” Stephens told me. “It’s partly the history. You retain that from back in the ’20s and ’30s, but also there’s a lot of folks who are ready to appreciate music, and so that presents the opportunity for a lot of small venues to host jazz.”

    For Takoma neighborhood residents, Takoma Station Tavern is open almost every day showcasing straight-ahead jazz, a jazz subgenre that does not incorporate fusion or rock sounds, sticking instead to the swinging drum rhythms. Rhizome DC offers more avant-garde jazz performances, incorporating experimental sounds that do not fit within a classic syncopated jazz rhythm. In Northeast D.C., Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society as well as HR Records, a Black-owned record shop specializing in jazz and go-go, are open for Brookland neighbors to pop by. Music erupts all over D.C., the sound almost impossible to track.

    In his lifetime, Reuben Jackson saw it all. The jazz historian and archivist passed away in February, but when we spoke in July 2023, he was encouraged by the District’s current jazz trajectory: “The continuum is present. It isn’t just some kind of nostalgia parade.”

    A Black man with graying hair and beard smirks, sitting at a microphone.
    Reuben Jackson
    Photo by slowking4 (Flickr Creative Commons)

    A born-and-raised D.C. resident, Jackson explained his career to me with a laugh: “I’ve always just been musically consumed.” In 1989, he began his work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, processing the Duke Ellington Collection. For a few years, he lived in Vermont, where he hosted a jazz show on Vermont Public Radio. Back in D.C., he worked in the Felix E. Grant Music Archives at the University of the District of Columbia and hosted a show on WPFW, the “Jazz & Justice” station. He was committed to documenting the unique abundance of jazz sounds that have come out of the city since its birth.

    “I think the city is in the midst of a profound transformation,” he told me. “And so I document the arc of the musical progression here. D.C. has changed so much, but it’s also still kind of stayed the same to me.”

    While D.C. has a deeply profound history of jazz to brag about, current jazz musicians and scenes don’t cling to that; they expand into smaller networks that grow musically. Part of this growth involves a commitment to fostering a community of musicians.

    “Any jazz musician is going to tell you that it’s important to have a Rolodex of musicians that you can reach out to help at any given date,” said Rex Little, a member of the Dave Walker Quartet, or DWQ Jazz. “A jazz musician must have a confidence in his ability that he can come and sit in with a bunch of guys that he hasn’t played with before.” Because group improvisation is inherently a part of jazz, it is important to be within these musical communities.

    Joshua Bayer, a jazz performer and music professor who has been around the D.C. jazz scene for over thirty years, told me, “This ain’t New York. There’s just this wonderful feeling of getting together and companionship and camaraderie. That’s a privilege to be a part of because it’s not like that in other places.”

    Given the intimate nature of places like DC Jazz Jam or Takoma Station Tavern, musicians can readily make these important connections that form the foundations of jazz. Not only are smaller venues the places through which jazz players can form important personal ties, but they are some of the only spaces where jazz is readily accessible to the public.

    “You don’t hear jazz on TV. It’s less than one percent of recording sales,” Jackson explained. The existence of these smaller venues, places where artists have the opportunity to spread jazz and perform in the authentic way that they please, is vital to the continuation of jazz culture.

    Rhizome DC, one such place that offers immense creative opportunities for jazz musicians, is a community arts space that opened in 2016 in the unique space of a house. Its core mission fused beautifully with its homey exterior: to provide a place for non-mainstream art and community engagement.

    “The places where people are moving forward, that’s happening at a much more underground level,” said artist Layne Garrett, one of the six founders of Rhizome. “So the ability to have a sort of vibrant, living scene depends on smaller venues.”

    Exterior of a two-story house.
    Rhizome DC
    Photo by Gnupratchett (Wikimedia Commons)

    What Rhizome could not predict at its start was just how much local D.C. jazz musicians would need this space in the coming years. As more and more beloved venues began to shut down due to economic constraints, the venue became a refuge for affected musicians, a home where they could perform freely.

    But Rhizome, too, is now facing the threats of gentrification that so many music venues in D.C. have battled. Since 2020, a developer has had a contract to buy Rhizome’s house and lot; when they do eventually close, Rhizome will have less than six months to move out. With the consistent threat of relocation, Rhizome is planning not just to relocate but to purchase a new permanent space, with the help of a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, an government agency committed to encouraging and funding arts programs in the city. Rhizome is also counting on financial help from the community that it has immersed itself within for so many years. As an organization that keeps its doors open to lesser-known artists and sounds, Rhizome is committed to keeping the spirit of experimental music alive for its community.

    A frequent player at Rhizome and founder of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, musician Amy K Bormet was given a regular gig at Twins Jazz, a smaller, now-defunct venue on U Street towards the start of her music career.

    “It really gave me the chance to do something different,” she told me. “That’s really what these smaller spaces are for. They take on some of the risk of you presenting something that’s never been done before or something that doesn’t quite fit in a preexisting box.”

    She now attributes her success to the chance that these smaller venues took on her and her ideas.

    “I didn’t have any funding, any backing, any sponsors. I just wanted to do something for the community and for myself that would be musically satisfying,” Kormet explained. “Without these smaller spaces like Rhizome, you can’t have that kind of event that’s not backed by a larger institution. And we have great institutions, right? We have the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, Blues Alley, and they all continue to support music. But these spaces are not the incubators. It’s these smaller music spaces where you can experiment and try something really new.”

    Exterior of a three-story brick building with name in red, Bohemian Cavern, and a design of black and white piano keys around the first-story awning.
    Another of D.C.’s famed jazz clubs, Bohemian Caverns, operated under various names from 1926 to 2016.
    Photo by dctourism (Flickr Creative Commons)

    The Gentrification of Music

    What makes the D.C. jazz scene so special is precisely what makes it susceptible to deterioration. Gentrification in D.C. is growing at a rapid rate, particularly in places where residents are people of color. This means that places where jazz has historically had a rich presence have been and continue to be under threat. Beloved jazz venues that once populated the city are consistently being forced out due to development and financial pressures.

    The beloved jazz venue d.c. space, located at Seventh and E streets NW, shut down in 1991. What now occupies this space that once hosted iconic D.C. jazz artists? A Starbucks.

    d.c. space is just one of many D.C. jazz venues that have been whitewashed and replaced by more modern and commercial businesses. One of Garrett’s favorite underground jazz clubs, Union Arts, was shut down and replaced by a trendy boutique hotel. A D.C. resident for over twenty years, he said, “Living in D.C. is expensive, so of course, running a music venue here is an immense financial challenge, one that is near impossible to upkeep.”

    “I moved here in ’92 and I kind of hit the scene right off the bat,” Bayer told me. “I started playing at some pretty iconic places, one of which is no longer with us. Two of which—three of which—oh my god, they’re all disappearing!”

    “I was gone from D.C. for nine years,” Jackson said. “And when I came back from Vermont, suddenly it was gentrification on steroids.”

    The Future of Small-Scale D.C. Jazz

    Amid these pressures of gentrification, musicians are actively committed to keeping the scene alive. In thinking about the future of local jazz, Rhizome’s name itself provides us with a possible step forward. The word “rhizome” refers to a botanical structure that can produce either a root or a shoot and offers “potential to grow in lots of different directions,” Garrett explained to me.

    As the leader of the weekly Jazz Jam since 2009, Stephens has watched all the changes take place right in front of his eyes. He finds immense hope in the trajectory of D.C. jazz, specifically the progression of the audience: “The age range at the Jazz Jams has actually stayed pretty consistent over the years, ranging from college-aged kids to older, more experienced jazz musicians. It’s a nice sign that it remains a relevant art form that people want to learn.”

    “I’ve actually never been this encouraged,” Bayer shared. “I’ve been noticing more and more younger people going out to venues that I used to frequent as a younger musician. I actually think we’re on a really nice uphill climb.”

    “What attracts a lot of musicians to jazz is that opportunity to be creative and convey their music, their energy, in their own unique way,” Little said. “I think musicians are always going to continue to want to create and express their own individuality, and so I think that there is still a vibrant jazz community that enjoys going out and hearing live jazz.”

    D.C. jazz has a long history to continue and evolve from. But the survival of small venues relies on the people; it’s the community that keeps these places alive. Likewise, it’s the community that these places are trying to sustain.

    “It’s going to depend on the audience,” Dave Walker, of DWQ, shared. “The breadth of jazz is going to depend on how many people are supporting it.”

    Jackson concluded our talk by telling me that watching the D.C. jazz scene makes his “soul smile.” And hopefully it continues to do so for all of the D.C. community.

    Isabel Hohenlohe is a former writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at the University of Edinburgh, where she is studying English literature.

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