One of the most persistent criticisms of jazz is that it doesn’t attract a young black audience. But if you check out Bohemian Cavernson Monday nights, you’ll find a scene that bucks that tired trope. Each and every week, the timeless jazz club on U Street hosts a capacity multigenerational and multicultural audience with plenty young and fresh black faces as they swing to sounds of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra
Formed in 2010 by baritone saxophonist and jazz educator Brad Linde in the wake of the Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra, which previously
played there at the legendary U Street jazz club, the 17-piece Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra regularly explores a massive songbook that goes all the way back to the works of genre-defining pioneers such as Count Basie and Benny Moten up to wide-screen contemporary jazz, penned by such modernists as Maria Schneider and D’Arcy James Argue. The motley crew of a big band often mirrors its Bohemian Caverns audience in terms of racial, gender, and age demographics; and it features some of D.C.’s finest jazz whippersnappers such as trumpeters Donvonte McCoy and Joe Herrera (the orchestra’s co-leader); and alto saxophonists Sarah Hughes and Brent Birckhead.
One mid-March Monday, the Jazz Orchestra regaled a sold-out audience during the first set with an impressive program that touched heavily on the compositions of Duke Ellington, the city’s de facto artistic patriarch figure. The band powered through intriguingly chosen pieces such as Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Portrait of Louis Armstrong” and the obscure “Blue Cellophane.” The Big Band rounded out the set with equally titillating readings of J.J. Johnson’s “Lament,” Thad Jones’ “The Little Pixie,” and Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”
In between each performance, Linde bantered lightly with the band members and audience members, effectively breaking down the stuffiness often associated with jazz concerts. Still that and the occasional chitchat that always filters through live shows didn’t nip the enjoyment for diehard jazz lovers. “They listen and they hushed their neighbors when the chatting gets too rowdy,” Linde enthuses in between sets, “The crowd really feeds our energy. And they can feel the community, family vibe that we give on stage. When we have a crowd like tonight, they become a part of the performance.”
Bohemian Caverns is the ideal setting for such a homegrown, large ensemble to take up permanent residencies on Monday nights. In many ways, it mirrors the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which plays regularly in New York’s famed Village Vanguard jazz club. Also like the Village Vanguard – arguably the most celebrated, still-existing jazz club in American history – Bohemian Caverns is an institutional brand that carries significant historical weight. At 87-years-old, Bohemian Caverns ranks up there with the Howard Theatre as a landmark anchor for U Street’s culture, particularly during its “Black Broadway” heyday.
Now under the direction of owner and operating manager, Omrao Brown, Bohemian Caverns attracts some of today’s leading jazz renegades such as Robert Glasper, Christian Scott, Gretchen Parlato, and Jeremy Pelt, as well as living legends, such as Ron Carter, Benny Golson, and Pharoah Sanders. And almost any given night, Bohemian Caverns regularly attracts a diverse audience, again filled with an enthusiastic black audience. “Musicians feel the knowing black audience more than anyone else,” Brown says, “A musician was trying to describe the difference of playing here and playing somewhere else. I think here, you do get more of the people who are jazz listeners as opposed to people who are just excited about being a jazz listener. It’s less touristy. I always feel good that the musicians in town come to hear our presentations.”
The vibe of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra’s audience often falls somewhere between contemporary black bohemia and 21st century hipster culture – basically the same crowd that you’d expect peddling their bikes in the Dandies and Quaintrelles’ now famous Tweed and Seersucker Rides. The performances themselves take on more of a practicum sensibility – think of a more benign Charles Mingus’ Jazz Workshop – than calcified interpretations. And while all of the solos and arrangements aren’t spit-shined polished, some of the orchestra’s appeal actually comes from some of the rougher moments. Linde says that oftentimes, the performances are the rehearsals. During the second set, the orchestra often showcases challenging originals penned by the various members.
Although the musicians receive money made from the door ($10 admission fee), Linde has now begun channeling his inner-church service deacon by passing around a bucket for additional financial support from audience in order to take care of future projects, maintenance of instruments, and possible purchasing of bandstand fronts, new bandstands, sheet music folder, and of course, music charts.
Next month on April 22, the jazz orchestra celebrates its three-year anniversary with a huge cake and champagne on the house, and a possible live radio broadcast on Pacifica radio station, WPFW-FM (89.3). But you don’t have to wait for the birthday celebration to join the party; it’s happening every Monday.