WHEN THE Bohemian Caverns and the Showboat closed in 1969, few jazz fans held out much hope for the Washington area.In the decades before, they had watched the demise of such spots as Abart's, Olivia's Patio Lounge and the Spotlite. In the '70s, the death knell sounded for the Rogue and Jar, the Top of the Foolery, Sweet Chariot and Etcetera, among others.
But as the '80s begin, jazz is back. In fact, it hasn't been so healthy since the late '40s. A case in point: Tomorrow, Blues Alley celebrates its 15th anniversary as a full-time jazz club. And elsewhere around town, three musicians -- Bill Harris, Frankie Condon and Jimmy McPhail -- own their own clubs, and a half-dozen clubs have merged from Washington's inner city, an area that had been all but abandoned by owners for 10 years.
Downtown, d.c. space has become a home to the nation's most respected avant-garde musicians; concerts at the Smithsonian and during the summer at Ft. Dupont Park attract capacity audiences; the Smithsonian's jazz-album series is being matched album-for-album by saxophonist Andrew White, the foremost disciple of John Coltrane. Jazz fans even overturned WMAL's threatened cancellation of Felix Grant's jazz radio program. It's a healthy scene.
No one is quite sure why. "There's a lot of fine local musicians," offers John Bunyan, Blues Alley's owner for the last 6-1/2 years. "People are suddenly realizing these fellows are good enough to command a crowd. But it's also a very narrow market in terms of audience draw." Bunyan cites the tyranny of the youth market for the inevitable state of flux in jazz clubs.
Others attribute the return of jazz to the fact that the first-born generation of rock 'n' roll is now entering its 30s, with more conservative tastes. Fusion music is bringing many listeners to a rediscovery of the joys of sax and trumpet, and the more direct and raw emotional impact of jazz improvisation. That may be why jazz record sales have risen over the last three years, with a substantial market for reissues of artists and albums from the '40s to the '60s.
Pete Lambros, who manages and books Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis -- and who will open Charlie's of Georgetown with Byrd in April -- has noticed a new national interest in jazz. "Rooms that were doing strictly pop or rock are now going into jazz one or two nights a week," he says, citing the Cellar Door, Desperado's and the Bayou locally.
The danger in popularity, however, is that the stronger draws on the circuit will opt for non-jazz clubs, which are generally larger and thus pay better. In doing so, they hurt the very clubs which have supported them through the lean years. Bunyan says that Blues Alley will book more vocalists and blues figures in the coming year in an effort to diversify, but will also continue its local support. Says Keter Betts, the respected bassist who can be heard around town when he's not out on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, "Blues Alley's always supported a lot of musicians, and it's allowed a lot of experimentation."
For jazz, it has been a long road back to popularity. The last great spurt of activity was in the middle '40s. At 7th and T Streets, one could hop from Flora's Cocktail Lounge to Little Harlem to the Offbeat. They were right next to each other; the Old Rose Social Club was just across the street. At 14th and U sat the Club Bengasi and the Club Bali, half a block from the Republic Gardens.
"I knew all those joints, man," says Tony Taylor fondly. From 1959 to 1968, Taylor ran the Bohemian Caverns at 14th and U, but he regards 1947 as jazz's heyday in Washington. There was an after-hours club, the Villa Bier at 19th and California, where figures as great as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane would jam until dawn. "All the musicians would come over from the Howard Theater and play all night long . . . When those clubs closed, they'd all go to the Villa and play till daylight."
By the early '50s, the face of jazz was getting a little sallow; and it got more pale after the twin arrivals of rock 'n' roll and television, coupled with the middle-class exodus to the suburbs. In Washington, the killing blow eventually came in 1969 with the summer riots. The Caverns closed, and for the next six years jazz clubs tended to be found in the "safer" confines of Georgetown and downtown, though the real energies had always come from uptown. g
When vibist/clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney decided to open Blues Alley in 1965, most of his friends predicted disaster. What future was there in having jazz in a building that had been abandoned for over 100 years and was located in an unnamed alley off of Wisconsin and M Streets? The answer was: "a rocky one." The first 10 years were dominated by Dixieland and traditional jazz figures.
Peanuts Hucko and Billy Butterfield were the first big acts, following a slew of female vocalists like Lurlean Hunter, Louise Tobin and Maxine Sullivan. The Georgetown location may have forced the club's staid and generally conservative programming."We run it like a business," says Wanda Fears, the club's current manager.
Since 1975, the arrival of three clubs has greatly influenced the strength of jazz here. First on the block was Bill Harris' Pigfoot at 18th and Rhode Island NE. Harris, an internationally acclaimed guitarist, settled here in 1945 after a stint in the Army. From the '50s on he kept an eye on a beer-drinking haven for Maryland college students. After three years of negotiating and remodeling, he opened Pigfoot.
In late 1977, d.c. space opened on two levels at 443 7th St. NW. It was a restaurant topped by a loft-style club which soon became a haven for avant-garde jazz. The first year was strong. "The novelty and rarity of that brand of music in Washington was enough to bring out a regular audience," explains co-founder Bill Warrell. But "the novelty wore off," to the point where jazz avant-garde is now sharing space with the new wave of rock 'n' roll and the infrequently screened new cinema. The jazz pulse is less frequent, but still persistent.
For years, the One Step Down at 2517 Pennsylvania Ave. NW had a reputation for having the best jukebox outside of New York. In late '77, jams would occasionally take place on Sundays. By spring of 1978, more nights were being taken over by live music; and these days the club's weekend acts, booked by Ann Mabuchi, are on a par with Blues Alley's.
Concurrently, clubs started jumping up on the Northeast corridor: Mr. Y's at 1601 Rhode Island Ave., Moore's Love and Peace at 1509 Rhode Island, Beverly's at 1940 9th St. NE. That part of town is "where it's going to go back to," insists Tony Taylor, "in order for it to survive."
"The unrest and the division of the '60s drove much of the supportive public to suburbia," says Gail Dixon of Mr. Y's. "But it seems a new day is dawning for many of us. Numerous media-ignored neighborhood spots have kept live entertainment rolling using local talent, many of whom are not known even in Washington proper since they have always played to local audiences in predominantly black neighborhoods."
Clubs presenting jazz performances not mentioned in this article include: the Casbah (1211 U St. NW); Manuel's (2463 18th St. NW); LBJ Restaurant (500 First St. NW); Jimmy McPhail's Gold Room (1122 Bladensburg Rd. NE); W.H. Bone & Co. (401 M St. SW); Wharf (119 King St., Alexandria); Bratwursthaus for Dixieland Jazz (708 Randolph St., Arlington): and the 219 Club (219 King St., Alexandria). Many other clubs feature jazz occasionally.