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Go to the Music and Club Scene

Expanding Jazz's Borders

By Eric Brace
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 1997; Page N10

WANDERING THROUGH Borders Books & Music (18th and L streets NW, 202/466-4999), you hear a sweet saxophone floating up the stairs. At first you think it's a CD that the music department has cranked up, but walking downstairs, you see a man in a tuxedo surrounded by a trio of musicians. He seems to be smiling at the same time he's blowing on the saxophone, while his white hair and mustache contrast strikingly with his deep black skin.

It's George Botts Sr., 69, a third-generation Washingtonian who has graced this city with notes from his saxophone for more than 50 years, and whose free monthly appearance at Borders is his only regular public gig. His attire clearly indicates he's from the old school: "If you don't look good the music don't sound good," says Botts emphatically. "We'd go see Duke Ellington or Jimmy Lunceford, man, and one of the things that made us want to be a musician was that they looked sharp. The musicians dressed up and the clientele dressed up to go out, and that really made it something special."

Ask Botts about that golden era of Washington nightclubbing and he's got a ready list: "Night life was really in full gear in the late '40s and early '50s with the Club Bali, the Flamingo. The Dunbar Hotel at 15th and U had three rooms for bands. The Crystal Caverns before it became the Bohemian Caverns. . . . There was Republic Gardens where Charlie Rouse used to play. The basement under the Lincoln Theatre was the Lincoln Colonnade where Charlie Parker would play, and next to the Lincoln was the Casbah where Harry Belafonte was emcee from time to time. And that was just uptown!"

He rattles off more places: Dyke's Stockade, Rocky's, Jimmy MacPhail's Gold Room, the Boots & Saddle, Little Harlem, Offbeat, Clore's. "Can you imagine all those places without air conditioning, with music going all night?"

"And the Cotton Club at 15th and H, that's where I worked with Betty Carter." Betty Carter? "Oh, yes. I mostly backed up singers," says Botts. "That's what I liked to do most. I've toured with Dinah Washington, and I had the opportunity to work with Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Johnny Hartman, Anita O'Day. I love those songs of the World War II era. They were so beautiful, man." He names some favorites: "Laura," "Come Sunday," "Polka Dots and Moon Beams," "In the Still of the Night."

"I believe in playing songs that the people can hum," Botts says. "And when I play without a singer, I never play a ballad unless I know all the lyrics to it. How can you play a song without knowing the lyrics?"

After his family (a wife of 47 years, two sons, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren), the thing Botts seems most proud of is his tone on the saxophone. "I was brought up that before you play anything, you have to have a big, beautiful sound. One of my mentors, Gene Ammons, had one of the biggest and prettiest sounds. Johnny Hodges used to say that if you get that sound, then you don't have to worry about anything else. You can just stand up there and play the melody."

But don't look for Botts's sound in the CD racks at Borders. The saxophonist isn't impatient to immortalize himself. "At this point, if I get a record out, that's fine. If I don't, that's alright too. I'm not going to spend two or three thousand dollars just to put a CD out there. By now, I'm not looking to impress people and blow down buildings. If I can play some shows from time to time, then I'm happy."

Botts will be joined at Borders this Friday night by drummer Percy Smith, pianist Ellsworth Gibson and bassist Butch Warren (taking the place of the vacationing David Jernigan), from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Burbling Burb
Slowly, slowly, slowly, Bethesda is turning into more than a restaurant destination.

"Bethesda is becoming a real night life spot," insists Alan Emery, owner and manager of Uncle Jed's Roadhouse (7525 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda, 301/913-0026), a comfortable bar and restaurant (though not quite as comfortable as the name would seem to promise) that opened in May 1996. "We offer live music three nights a week now, and there's music at Parker's, Twist & Shout, Lewie's. There are Irish groups at Flanagan's and they have bands at the Rock Bottom brewpub some nights as well. To a certain extent, it's clear that people are a little tired of all the hassles in the District, the parking issue, the safety issue. I think with a little planning, Bethesda could become like Adams-Morgan and Clarendon, offering all kinds of options."

Emery had his eye on the space that became Uncle Jed's when it was the Good Times Rock and Soul Cafe, and even before then when it was the Round Table II. Instead of considering the location cursed, the 30-year-old Emery set out to make it funkier, to create a place he'd like to hang out in. "I wanted a place where you could meet friends and relax, play a little pool," he says. "I didn't want it to be a pick-up joint. I wanted a bar with great bands, and I wanted to make sure we offered more than just bar food, so we got a real chef."

The food succeeds from top to bottom, with a good portion of the menu still available late into the night. A side of the Virginia Brunswick stew, packed with sweet corn, chicken, lima beans and potatoes, is just the thing to help you get your second wind when midnight rolls around. The po' boys, ribs and meat loaf are all sure bets as well. And to wash everything down, there's Uncle Jed's ale, a nice hoppy beer that's custom brewed for the roadhouse by Old Dominion.

At first Emery was reluctant to have live music too often, but a couple of months ago he started booking bands Thursday through Saturday, charging a nominal $2 cover Thursday and Saturday, and keeping Fridays free. With those nights going so well, he's looking to add acoustic acts on Wednesday nights. Modern rock bands like suburban favorites Once Hush, Blue Yard Garden and the Emptys make regular appearances, and if they aren't on the bill, you can find their CDs on the jukebox that Emery keeps stocked in favor of local musicians.

On top of all those pluses, Emery points out that Bethesda's newest public parking garage just opened half a block away, with spaces for 900 cars, and that the Metro is right across the street. The only downside to the whole place might be the baseball-cap-and-khaki-shorts guys that populate the club, but that's just my bad attitude talking.

Emery, who grew up around here, went to college around here (George Washington University) and wants to stay around here, says he signed a 10-year lease with a five-year option. "We're not going anywhere. We like it here."

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