Wax, Wine and Wisdom

December 13, 2013

DJ 2-Tone Jones, right, at Puro Cafe on October 30 – Courtesy of Randall Myers for www.thedceye.com and Vinyl + Vino

When Tanya Ellis first opened the doors of her apartment for a few friends to listen to records, drink wine and celebrate turntable culture, she had no idea what it might turn into. A year later, Wisdom on Pennsylvania Avenue SE is overflowing with people packed tight for last month’s Vinyl + Vino DC event. What started as a casual group listening session in Ellis’ Edgewood home is now a full-blown scene unto itself, attracting the likes of not just vinyl enthusiasts and music lovers, but also scenesters and neighborhood randos.

For the coterie of three that got the operation off the ground, the growth of the monthly parties  is surreal.

“It’s surpassed what I thought it could ever be at this point in time. I remember the first big event we had, we were concerned with anybody even coming,” Alexis Weathers, 33, said. She and her partners are throwing their largest session yet on Sunday.

“I never thought it was going to be this big, this fast,” she added. “That’s all I can say. I really didn’t.”

Vinyl + Vino’s features DJs who are known heavies in the area. On this night in November, Sam ”The Man’ Burns, a local DJ and music historian who’s a legend in the area’s House scene, is spinning. Previous months have brought in other D.C.-based acts with plenty of years on the decks under their belts,  including Underdog and Two-Tone Jones. The vibe is far from bougie: There’s no dress code and certainly no bottle service.  “Pitch Perfect,” the 2012 goofy comedy about a university’s all-girls singing groups plays on the TV above the bar. The room has an aroma somewhere between incense and cocoa butter. There’s more natural hair than fake hair in the crowd. Some brought vinyl to be played, others wore it.

Tissa Khosla, 23, moved to D.C. from Florida with his girlfriend this year. He’s a saxophone player that takes his records seriously, and had them in tow at last month’s event.

He brought along Miles Davis’ “Water Babies”, which he picked up a year ago in New Orleans, to enter into the party’s cover art contest. It won. He also brought Duke Ellington’s “Indigo”. When he listens to this album, “I imagine they would have  played this and they would have had a ball, like an actual ball,” Khosla says. “If the world ends,” he says of vinyl, “it’ll still be there.”

But the story of how this triumvirate came together to start a group that that throws down- to-earth, vinyl-heavy, interactive parties is one that links friendship, a love of music, and personal discovery.

Jennifer Bryant was longing for an experience that reminded her of the record gathering she used to attend while living and working in South Africa. Born in Virginia, raised in Columbia, Md., and now living in D.C., she’s a local. She’s also the conceptual leader for the themes of many of the events. Her goal was to make sure that all the events, dating back to the house session beginnings, were inclusive.

“Everybody doesn’t collect vinyl. Some people just came for the music, some people just came for the drinks. … What we wanted to create was a space, for everybody,” said Bryant, 28, who runs a non-profit association in Dupont Circle. “From people that collect [vinyl] to people that just kind of want to expand their musical horizons. And I think that even if you don’t come for one of those two things, you end up kind of having done that unintentionally, so everybody really wins.”

Bryant also started the Meetup.com group DC Vinyl Lovers in December 2012 and used to have a jazz blog. She met Tanya at a clothing swap and Alexis at a DC Loves Dilla (a tribute and fundraiser for the late hip-hop artist J Dilla) concert. It’s all been pretty organic from the jump.

Weathers grew up as a musician, in Silver Spring.  Playing the violin since she was young, she’s a veteran of the Wolf Trap and Kennedy Center circuit as a performer. She played classical music mainly, but her tastes diversified as she got older.

“Growing up I listened to alternative music, and then hip-hop of course, because my brother was a little bit older than me. I was listening to what he was listening to,” Weathers, who runs a Tumblr called ‘Concert Material,’ said. “Then, I hung out with a lot of Latino people, so I listened to a lot of Latin music. My father was into blues and oldies but goodies, so all of that was just in my household.”

For her, the musical side of the experience is one that she hopes empowers DJs, many of which she knows locally, to be themselves more in their sets. “I noticed in D.C. a lot of DJ’s play what the audience wants, but to me it’s more interesting to see what the DJ can play from him or her’s own like, set. Of their own collection,” she said. “We’ve been discussing this for years, I’m like ‘oh you have that? I’m like do you ever play that? ‘Nope, nobody wants to hear it.’” I’m like what? It’s crazy, so I’m like, we actually need to do something for the DJs. They need to actually play their own music. That’s what I would love to get out of it.”

She also happens to work for a wine company. “[That's] the vino part. …Mainly, I’m a music lover, that’s my first thing, wine is going to be second for me.”

But for Ellis, 35, the expansion of Vinyl + Vino came along at a time when her personal growth was something she was struggling with. A TV and film producer by trade, event planning is something she came to after a divorce had her feeling a bit lost.

“It’s scary and exciting. I’ll never forget the very first one that we did officially at Wisdom. And was so surprised at myself, at how I almost had, like, an anxiety attack just putting out the invitation on Facebook,” said Ellis, who was born in Liberia and raised in Massachusetts. “I’ve always been interested in black culture, the diaspora. … As I’ve evolved in terms of my life and the experiences I’ve been through and the struggle that I’ve been through, I’ve really recognized that I love to entertain.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. When Bryant posted on Facebook that she was interested in an all-vinyl event, Ellis was in the process of acquiring her father’s collection that he’d amassed in the 70s. “He never used it. He never used his turntable, he wasn’t listening to his records anymore, he’d totally gone the CD route, you know, MP3 route,” she said. “I was like, well you know what, I’m getting this vinyl collection, I think [I want to] do a little situation like this, why don’t we get together and see if we want to do it together?”

Sunday, the operation is advancing from its bar phase to a new locale, with more room to dance, at Union Arts. Some of you might know it as the old warehouse loft party spot on New York Avenue NE. It’s a pretty big step up for the women, who are still doing this as their side gigs, effectively. There have been talks of expanding, potentially creating a collective and inviting more national DJs to their gigs.

But for now, they’re just trying to keep their eyes on their original goal and mission: good music and good conversation. “I like being able to connect people and give them a comfortable experience in the sense that they can walk in and they can feel comfortable. They don’t feel like they need to be on display,” Ellis said. “If you want to dress up, great. If you want to look really flashy and fly that’s awesome, but you walk in not feeling that you’re in a pretentious atmosphere.”

So far, mission accomplished.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Tom Jackman · December 13, 2013