At Vicino Ristorante Italiano, pizza, pasta and all that jazz

September 23, 2011

To enter the secret suburban jazz lair, you go past the red-sauce pasta joint’s dining room; down the creaky stairwell lined with photos of elegantly dressed crooners and pianists and horn players; and past Ted Carter, a jowly 73-year-old wearing a ponytail pulled tight and a T-shirt bearing Miles Davis’s icy-cool gaze.

“Thank you for coming, man,” said Carter, who welcomes patrons — at $25 a pop — into his anachronistic little world, where the calendar is stuck on 1951 and the jazz joints are swinging. Even on a Monday night in the basement of Vicino Ristorante Italiano, a restaurant on the fringe of downtown Silver Spring owned by a Ghanaian immigrant. Here, Carter’s family has spent eight years presenting biweekly concerts that almost nobody but the hardest of hard-core jazz heads knows are happening.

“It’s word of mouth, man,” said Carter, who grew up on the music in his native Harlem. “We’re just trying to keep this jazz thing going.”

Monday Night Jazz at Vicino — which, in theory, goes off every other week on Sligo Avenue, though it’s sometimes more frequent, and sometimes less — is a modest (all right, divey) demi-space that emerged organically in a churning pocket of suburban redevelopment. It’s a half-mile south of the Fillmore, the shiny new Live Nation concert hall in the heart of Silver Spring.

Though the existence of Vicino’s as a jazz joint isn’t exactly threatened by the arrival of the imported nightlife franchise, one cannot help but notice the difference in buzz and scale. The Fillmore, which features mass-appeal music and exists clear on the other side of the cultural galaxy, was crammed to 2,000-person capacity on its opening night this month for a concert by hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige.

At Vicino, where 55 people might fit downstairs for a really hot show and a good night means the Carters don’t lose more than $40 or $50, it takes two years to draw 2,000.

The artists who play the room — Danny Mixon, Bootsie Barnes, Mycah Chevalier, Ralph Penn — aren’t among jazz’s best-known names. They aren’t marquee musicians in a genre decades past its peak.

“Jazz is not the popular music of the day,” shrugged Carter’s son, Chad, who was the impetus for the family’s foray into presenting live music.

Underground jazz adventure

One recent Monday evening, Chad Carter, looking natty in a dark suit, his shirt cuffs French, was crooning a Gershwin standard in front of the Buck Hill Quartet.

“In time the Rockies may crumble / Gibraltar may tumble / They’re only made of clay / But our love is here to stay,” he sang. The sound was warm and resonant, and Buck Hill, an old jazz cat who has accompanied legends, added sweet colors from his clarinet.

“Blow it, Buck!” Felipe Jose shouted from a table in the back of the small room. His wife, Sherry, nodded. “Mmmm, yeah,” Jose said.

There were 40 people who had paid for admission to the club, though none went as far back as the Joses, local music hounds who happened to be eating upstairs, in Vicino’s main dining room, when the Carters began their underground jazz adventure. The sound wafted up. The Joses were intrigued.

“We’ve been coming ever since,” Felipe Jose said.

“We haven’t been to a show yet that we haven’t liked,” his wife said.

“It’s really good talent,” he said.

“I prefer this to a more formal setting; you’re more in touch with the artists,” she added.

Vicino has none of the prestige or renown of Bohemian Caverns or Blues Alley, and none of the modern cool of HR-57, Twins or Ben’s Next Door. The stage is the area at the front of the banquet room where the Carter family’s upright Everett piano sits. The lighting is underwhelming, and there’s little overhead clearance. Once a musician had to remove a ceiling panel to give his stand-up bass enough vertical space.

“When you first walk down there, you don’t really think much of it,” said Paul Carr, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival and a working musician whose quartet will perform at Vicino on Monday. “It’s so small and intimate. But jazz grew out of places just like that.”

Says Chad Carter: “It’s a little hole in the wall, but it’s our hole in the wall.”

Music-loving son gets a gig

Vicino turned itself into a part-time jazz venue because Chad was green and couldn’t find enough singing gigs. He’d become smitten with jazz when his parents dragged him to a performance while he was attending Howard University, back when he only wanted to listen to hip-hop.

He’d done vocal workshops and shows, but he needed to improve his chops to get more work; but to get more work, he needed to improve his chops. His family yanked him out of that loop by looking for a space where they could present their son, among other artists. “I looked everywhere and my dad said no to all of them,” said Carter, now 36, and gainfully employed in a day job as manager of membership operations for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The family was eating at Vicino, which is just a few minutes from Ted and Elaine Carter’s home in the D.C. neighborhood of Shepherd Park, when Chad wandered downstairs to look at the space used for private parties. His father thought the room was too small for a club but eventually changed his mind. Ted asked Vicino’s owner, John Eshun, whether he’d be open to live music downstairs on Monday nights, when business was otherwise slow.

They made a handshake deal, the terms of which, Ted said, were: “You do the meatballs, we’ll do the music.”

The first show was July 14, 2003. Chad was the headliner, and tickets were $14 in advance, $18 at the door. “The place was packed,” Ted said. “Not because he was great, but because his mother and father called everybody under the sun and said, ‘Get your you-know-what here.’ ”

Eshun said the shows have been great for business, with roughly 95 percent of the jazz-night audiences ordering pizzas, plates of pasta and such.

Ted, who worked as federal government lawyer, then as a teacher, then for George Mason University, is retired now — save for his bid to save jazz and give his son a boost in one swoop.

They end up in the red every year, but no matter. “If you love jazz,” he says, “you’ve also gotta love to be broke.”

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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