No city conjures the spirit of jazz more than New Orleans. So when Bo Blair turned the members-only Rookery bar into Bayou, a New Orleans-themed restaurant and bar, he knew it needed live music. Friday and Saturday late nights are given over to zydeco and R&B, but Wednesday through Saturday, starting around 6:30 p.m., the sounds of brass ring through the second-floor lounge.
Since Bayou opened on New Year's Day, my friends and I have found ourselves repeatedly drawn there after work - not by the promise of $2 po' boy sliders and cheap cans of PBR, but because we know we'll be listening to some of the finest young jazz players in Washington. (Before long, we're neglecting our drinks and food as we get lost in the jamming, which is no mean feat - that oyster po' boy is good.)
Live jazz at dinner is frequently relegated to background music, but this is one place where it deservedly takes center stage. The usual trio or quartet features sax, bass and either guitar or keyboards, and is led by Elijah Jamal Balbed, a 20-year-old tenor saxophonist who performs with Funk Art, the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and his own Elijah Jamal Experience. His muscular tone immediately grabs your attention, so it was no wonder he was named D.C.'s Best New Jazz Musician by the City Paper last year. It will take you less than 10 minutes to work out why.
The sound is classic bop, the solos are slickly improvised and guests are frequent. A few weeks ago, we found ourselves transfixed by the intelligent phrasing and rich tone of a young saxophonist named Braxton Cook, whose poise belied the fact that he's a 20-year-old on a music scholarship at Georgetown University.
My complaints about the place have less to do with the music and more to do with the atmosphere - the upstairs bar has big-screen TVs that are a distraction when music's playing, and Bayou's restaurant/sports bar/jazz club hybrid means that some patrons' conversations can drown out the band, especially at happy hour. But that could change once people realize that the New Orleans-style atmosphere goes beyond po' boys, Abita beers and strong drinks (take a Sazerac over a Hurricane), and includes some great jazz.
-- Fritz Hahn (Feb. 18, 2011)