Jazzed Up About Reviving D.C. Landmark

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

A vibrant jazz and swing culture bloomed in D.C. in the last century and then faded after the racial upheaval of the 1960s. Last week, an eclectic group of Washingtonians gathered to revive an architectural landmark at the epicenter of that history.

Alfred C. Liggins III, chief executive of Radio One, opened his D.C. home Thursday night to kick off a fundraising campaign for the restoration of historic Howard Theater. Among the guests were the well-heeled and well-connected of Washington's business community, mostly African Americans, who needed little education on the significance of the venue.

"My grandmother used to perform at the Apollo and the Howard," Liggins said, holding up a pink album cover showing a young Helen Jones Wood, posing with a trombone in her hands and fellow members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm around her. The "all girl" swing band broke Howard Theater records by selling more than 35,000 tickets for their performances during one week in the 1940s.

The District reached a deal last month with local developer Chip Ellis to provide up to $15 million in grants and tax incentives for theater renovation after Liggins agreed to relocate his company from Lanham to the Shaw neighborhood. That opened the door for the preservation fundraising campaign to begin, Ellis said.

His plan is to revive the area as a culture hub by creating crossover opportunities between the nation's largest African American broadcasting and media company and the nation's oldest black urban theater. For example, performers who come to the theater will be able to walk around the corner to the new $100 million Radio One street-level studios to do interviews. Students will be able to take classes with the Washington Jazz Arts Institute at the theater, and music lovers can enjoy dinner while watching live stage acts.

The campaign comes as a downturn in the real estate market has delayed and canceled projects throughout the region. Radio One is going through its own struggles, last week having reported losses totaling $387.1 million for 2007.

But that hasn't cooled their ambitions. Developer Thomas Hart Jr. plans to build a boutique hotel across from the Howard. Real estate executive Ernie Jarvis plans to lease retail space on the bottom floor of the Radio One building, which is also slated to include several hundred new condominiums. The building will be close to the Shaw-Howard University Metro stop along Seventh Street NW between S and T streets.

"That's what gets me up in the morning," said Ellis, who asked Liggins to head the fundraising committee, which needs to raise $10 million to $14 million for the theater restoration. Ellis, who has been friends with Liggins since ninth grade, brought the property to his attention several years ago. The site, they said, could spur redevelopment in the surrounding neighborhood, where Liggins's mother, Cathy Hughes, got her start in the radio business.

Since history defines destiny, it should be preserved by the communities that make it, said Hughes, who attended the fundraiser.

"How did I get to be such a strong woman?" she said, standing in a white tent that turned Liggins's back yard into a solarium. "It was because of Aunt Tiny . . . and 15 other women who were part of the International Sweethearts."

"But our history keeps getting lost. Our history keeps getting confused, and our history keeps getting corrupted because we do not control it," she said, to enthusiastic applause and clanking of champagne glasses. "We will not be ignored. We will not be forgotten."

Karl Cole, who grew up in the neighborhood around the Howard, recalls the theater as more than a music center. "It was a cultural center," he said. "It was a place where people would come together to listen to music."

In the theater's heyday, the neighborhood around the theater gave back to performers, offering their homes as hotels and serving meals to the musicians, who had few options for food and lodging during segregation.

Even after segregation ended, the hospitality continued. Barbara Jackson, who has owned a custom tailoring, dry cleaning and shoe repair business in downtown Washington for nearly 40 years, recalls Hughes bringing Dizzy Gillespie around for some of her home-cooked chicken wings when he was in town to do a show.

"Eventually he ended up coming to the shop when he was in town, and we'd do his suits for him," Jackson said. "And the rest, of course, is history."

Liggins said he hopes to leverage his experience as an Apollo Theater board member for the Howard's benefit. Last week's party also brought out several political leaders, including former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who browsed the elegant buffet table. Former D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (mother of Ernie Jarvis, one of Ellis's partners in the development) and Gary Flowers, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, sipped "Ella Fitzgerald" champagne cocktails. And Pepco government relations executive Bev Perry sat munching ribs in the kitchen with Hughes and her son.

"It just makes sense," Liggins said earlier. "We wanted to move back in the city. My mother started her career at Howard University. So we've got deep roots in that neighborhood. It just fits with what our company should be about."

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