Washington D.C.

by W.A. Brower

Click for photo credit.Any remembrance of Washington D.C.'s "lost jazz shrines" must begin with a reflection on the singular importance of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington and with the cultural mapping of the city's historic entertainment district for African Americans whose main stem, the U Street corridor, was once known as "Black Broadway."

Duke Ellington is to Washington what Louis Armstrong is to New Orleans or what Charlie Parker is to Kansas City. D.C. has the bragging rights to Duke, even though most of the sites that can be associated with Ellington have to do with his youth and early career, when his seminal role in the evolution of jazz could hardly have been divined. Ellington is so important in jazz, however, that any site which can be reasonably argued to be the first place where he experienced or did something musical, or which he frequented with regularity, ought to be considered an Ellington shrine. Most of the Ellington shrine sites are concentrated in the community that radiated from Black Broadway.

We can begin with Ellington's birth place at 2129 Ward Place, NW, and the family residence at 1703 8th Street, NW. Then there is the Poodle Dog Cafe, once at the corner of 7th and Florida Avenue, NW, an establishment linked with Ellington's first composition, variously known as the Soda Fountain Rag or the Poodle Dog Rag. Pianist Claude Hopkins, another important early jazz musician from the Washington area, also played the Poodle Dog Cafe. The True Reformers Hall, at 12th and U Sts., NW, was one of the first venues to present Ellington as a bandleader. The personnel of Duke's Serenaders was fluid, but on occasion it included saxophonist Otto (Toby) Hardwick and trumpeter Arthur Whetsol, both Washingtonians and contributors to Ellington's early New York bands.

In Ellington: The Early Years, Mark Tucker writes, "By 1920 the Howard Theatre had become a focal point of activity for Washington musicians." Ellington and his Serenaders joined in and apparently won their share of regular band competitions. Ellington began his relationships with several future Ellingtonians, including banjoist Elmer Snowden, trombonist Juan Tizol and drummer Sonny Greer, at the Howard. The Howard Theatre was also a source of inspiration for Ellington. "Sidney Bechet," wrote Ellington, "was one of the truly great originals. I shall never forget the first time I heard him play, at the Howard Theatre in Washington around 1921. I had never heard anything like it."

According to trumpeter Rex Stewart, another great Ellingtonian, "...Washington, DC in 1921 was the right time and place for me to hear music. I don't think there were many towns with more dance halls than Washington, excluding only maybe that fabled New Orleans scene."

One of the most favored of Washington's dance halls was located across the street from the True Reformers Hall. In the '30s'40s, end '50s, the Lincoln Colonnade was awhirl with the social life of Washington's black middle-class who danced and were entertained by the elite swing bands, instrumental stylists and singers. Ellington, of course, was a favorite, but so were bandleaders Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Tiny Bradshaw, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine. The occasions were debutante ball and the annual social extravaganzas of the city's connected African-Americans. Some of them like the annual President's Birthday Ball even attracted powerful whites.

The Lincoln Colonnade was located underneath the Lincoln Theatre, a first-run movie and vaudeville house that opened in 1922 and was one of the anchor institutions of Black Broadway which at its zenith included the Howard, the Dunbar, the Booker 'T' and Republic theaters. Many of the same jazz artists that performed at the Colonnade also played the Theatre.

Lost Jazz Shrines.Today the historic Lincoln Theatre, a registered landmark, is once again an important venue and community resource as the U St. corridor is in the midst of an economic and cultural revitalization. The Theater's completely restored interior provides an elegant setting for the return of classic and modern jazz to U St.. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Randy Weston, and Cassandra Wilson have all performed at the Lincoln since its reopening in 1994.

Another important lost shrine along Black Broadway was known multifariously as The Jungle Inn, The Jungle Club, The Music Box, and The Blue Moon Inn. Its claim to fame, or to infamy, is that Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans' self-proclaimed "Originator of jazz and swing", held court there during the late '30s. Down Beat reporter James Higgins mused, "How old Jelly is I don't know, but it makes no difference because he is playing as competently and expressively as anyone in the business." It was during that period that Morton reminisced about the beginnings of jazz with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Other early jazz and swing era venues of note include Louis Thomas' Capital City Clef Club, the Dreamland Cafe, Murray's Casino, The Paradise Cafe, and the Industrial Cafe, all located in the vicinity of Black Broadway.

Washington's dance hall culture was not confined to the glamour of its Black Broadway. In his memoirs, Rex Stewart recalls the Eye Street Hall, located in Southwest Washington's red light district; Stack O'Lee's in Foggy Bottom; the Odd Fellows Hall in Georgetown; and Woodman's Hall in Anacostia.

Washington's Black Broadway of the '30s and '40s nurtured several artists who were to make significant contributions to modern Jazz, beginning with the bebop revolution of the '40s and continuing through the '50s, '60s and '70s. It was from a band led by Washington drummer Tommy Myles that Earl Hines plucked trombonist Trummy Young, arranger/saxophonist Jimmy Mundy and, most significantly, a modern-thinking vocal stylist named Billy Eckstine.

Both Eckstine's pioneering bebop band, and the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band that followed in its wake, employed Washington musicians, including saxophonists Leo Parker, Charlie Rouse, Leo Williams, and Frank Hess, bassist Tommy Potter and arranger/pianist John Malachi. All of these players, and more, developed in the clubs that replaced dance halls as the principal entertainment venues of the U St. corridor, which for self-evident reasons, was advertised as You St., as well as in clubs along 14th St. and 7th St.

Like the Jelly Roll Morton shrine, the best known of the modern You St. venues has had a succession of names, each appropriately resonant of a particular era. Located at 11th and U Sts., the site last functioned as a disco and was known as the Cave. In its previous incarnations, the club was known as the Club Crystal Caverns and then the Bohemian Caverns. In its early days, the Caverns presented a variety of entertainment, including jazz, in a floor show format. Those were its crystal days. Willie Bryant was its foremost master of ceremonies and Blanche Calloway was among its managers. Alantic Records mogul-to-be Ahmet Ertegun "discovered" Ruth Brown there.

But it was under the guidance of Tony Taylor, a jazz guru/entrepreneur and something of a legend himself, that the Caverns achieved its status as a reknowned jazz joint. Rechristened as the Bohemian Caverns, the club is memorialized in recordings by Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann. As much as Lewis and McCann captured the fervor of the Caverns, it is the appearances by bandleaders Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy that are remembered as defining moments in the life of a club whose final chapter was writ in the massive civil insurrection that marked the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Evidence of the club's impact on developing jazz musicians can be heard on recordings made by the JFK Quintet, a group comprised mostly of Howard University students and alumni. Among them, saxophonist Andrew White has garnered recognition both as a player and as a transcriber of John Coltrane's oeuvre as a soloist and Walter Booker is a much in demand, well-traveled bassist.

The Caverns wasn't the only place where Washington modernists were groomed in the age of bebop. Another important scene was the Little Harlem, on 7th St., around the corner from the Howard Theatre. Benny Golson, while a Howard University student, frequented Little Harlem, which marketed itself as a "Modernistic Cocktail Lounge." Little Harlem's alumni include pianists Sir Charles Thompson, John Malachi, and saxophonist Leo Parker; and later drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Nap Turner, saxophonist Carrington Visor and trumpeter Webster Young.

The Howard Theatre was also largely the reason that jazz club life thrived on 7th St., into the '50s. Other notable venues in the area were the 7th and T Lounge, where saxophonist Buck Hill ruled and pianist/vocalist Shirley Horn confronted male skepticism with her music; Cecilia's, where the greatest hung out; Abarts, owned by two brothers Abe and Art; and Odessa Madre's after-hours spot. Besides the Caverns, U St. had the Republic Gardens (reborn as an acid jazz emporium); the Casbah, another "modernistic" bar; and the Club Bengasi whose roster of bookings included trumpeter Cootie Williams, singer Pearl Bailey, bassist-bandleader John Kirby, guitarist Al Casey, and violinist Stuff Smith. Note U St.'s penchant for exotic club names.

In the '50s, the Lincoln Colonnade offered the likes of the James Moody Orchestra with singer Eddie Jefferson, saxophonists Gene Ammons, Stan Getz and such Washington modernists as saxophonist Buck Hill and trombonist Snooks Riley as an antidote to the rising tide of rock 'n roll. Following in that line was the Club Bali or New Bali, around the corner and down a few blocks, on 14th St. The Bali's bookings were even more impressive - the legends Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Eddie Heywood and Charlie Parker.

A key point of departure for Washington's remembrance of Lost Jazz Shrines will be the recently restored Lincoln Theatre. The programming is being shaped by America's Jazz Heritage (AJH), A Partnership of the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and the Smithsonian Institution. Plans include public programs and musical events featuring artists and musical themes associated with jazz in Washington, DC intended to elevate the esteem in which Washington jazz sites or memories thereof are held. These programs will involve younger and older community members and will include oral history and memorabilia identification.


W. A. Brower is a native of Toledo, Ohio. A graduate of Antioch College, Brower relocated to Washington, D.C, in 1971. The twin and intertwined forces of blackness and politics drew him to what the activists of the time blithely termed "the last colony. " Around 1975, he made a career change, deciding to pursue a life in jazz rather than to pursue jazz as an avocation. That is pretty much, with various digressions that always seem to ultimately feed his mainstream, what he has been doing for the last twenty plus years, with writings appearing in numerous publications, including Down Beat and American Visions magazines. Brower is also an active concert and events producer and technician whose work has included the Jazz At Lincoln Center series, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as well as the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in Washington.


Recommended Sounds

John Coltrane, Interplayfor 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors, Prestige
Dizzy Gillespie with The Orchestra, One Night in Washington: Featuring The Afro Suite, Elektra Musician
Ramsey Lewis, The Greatest Hits, MCA-Chess Records
Jelly Roll Morton, The Library of Congress Recordings, Volume 1~, Rounder
Lester Young, "Prez," Volume 1-3, Pablo

Vinyl Rarities

Andrew White, The JFK Ouintet: New Jazz Frontiers from Washington, Riverside
Harold's Rogue & Jar Series I: A Portrait of Jazz in Washington, D.C.
Dick Morgan, At the Showboat, Riverside
Leo Parker, The Late Great King of the Baritone Sax, Chess Vintage
Webster Young, Plays the Miles Davis Songbook, Volume 1-3, VGM