In manner and dress it was 1981, but the method and the music was reminiscent of the 1930s Harlem rent parties in which families, musicians and artists held all-night jams to help raise money to stave off eviction. Washington jazz guitarist Bill Harris plugged his troubles into the grapevine, called on friends and jazz buffs and last night held a jazz marathon to help save his Pigfoot jazz club at 1812 Hamilin St. NE.
Businessmen in three-piece suits, retirees from the Bureau of Engraving and the Treasury Department, students, social workers and just plain jazz buffs -- white, black, young and old -- came to witness Harris' 11th-hour attempt to keep open the door to a club that for years has been a showplace for local talent and a watering hold for jazz greats after their gigs at expensive "uptown" Washington jazz clubs.
"I'm at the point of desperation," said Harris, a respected jazz and classical guitarist who has cut several albums on Mercury label, and a guitar teacher in Washington for more than a decade.
Harris, more a musician than a businessman, owes $30,000 in back taxes, and his building will be sold at 10 a.m. today to the highest bidder -- unless last night's crowd and those who have phoned in pledges can keep the taxman from closing the doors of one of the city's best-known musical institutions.
"When I opened this place up, the reason I did was because local talent had nowhere to work, and one of those people was me," said Harris, 56, rubbing the smudge off his baby blue piano. It was signed by Earl "Fatha" Hines who, like many others since the club opened in 1975, has dropped in the play a few bars when he has been in Washington.
Yale Lewis, free-lance announcer and former radio jazz show host, looked around him at the numbers of artists who call Washington home but still travel the jazz and blues circuit for jobs wherever they can find them.
"The media ignores this rich talent, calling them locals no matter how good they are because these people live here," said Lewis, as Mary Jefferson, a jaz circuit singer and daughter of the city, picked up Harris' slow moving stop-clap, stomp-clap 12-note blues rhythm. She sang her own version of the lyrics Helen Humes made popular with Count Basie in the 1940s: "He may be your man but he comes to see me sometimes."
"But it didn't used to be that way, back in the days when black people were forced to patronize their own clubs and we didn't need the media to tell us who the great people were," Lewis said. "I remember the old days when clubs along 7th Street, and 14th and U streets NW with names like the Casbah, the Sportsman's Club, Evelyn's Lounge, Little Harlem and the Howard Theater did a bustling business."
But then integration came along, he said, dispersing the clientele to clubs that were once "whites only," clubs that lured musicians away from black clubs that couldn't match the bookings or the dollars. Like an oil slick on a virgin beach, dope and crime slide their way into the lifeblood of neighborhoods where the jazz clubs once prospered. And now hard times and inflation have furthered the deminse.
The mood was old home week, and customers tapped the sides of beer glasses, or nodded their heads to the steady rhythm. As the cigarette smoke curled upward circling their heads like misty halos, some of the old-timers sat and remembered.
Walter and Samella Turner, he a retired Treasury Department employe and she a Government Printing Office retiree, talked about Washington's segregated days and the times they danced to songs like "Please" at the old Colonnade along U Street near 14th Street NW, or the old Elks club at 10th and U streets NW, places where black folks used to court.
"When I'm feelin' bad, music like this makes me feel a little better," said Samella Turner, mother of three, who came to the Pigfoot for the first time last night.
As she spoke, Bill Harris closed his dark brown eyes, which looked like liquid graphite motor oil, still silky smooth and cool after a stressful daily grind. He strummed the chords to "Sometimes I'm happy," and Sandra Lawson, a social worker with the Health and Human Services Department, leaned forward to tell her friends across the red linen-covered table what everybody feels about things they love and see slowly slipping away.
"This area needs this kind of clean, wholesome entertainment, where people can come and have a few drinks," Lawson said, her large, gold loop earings dangling and sparkling even in the club's red filtered light. "Everything else is centered in certain parts of downtown, but there isn't much else like this in this part of residential Washington. It's a shame to see something like this close."
One by one, amateurs and professionals paid the $5 donation cover charge and tiptoed past Harris strumming the guitar. He's the man the D.C. City Council honored by proclamation in 1978 for his work with city youth and his contributions to music. And these were people who remembered his Labor Day jazz festivals in his own Northeast Washington back yard. They nodded, paying their respects in a music gallery filled with paintings and photographs of such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane and many others.
They had heard of Harris, even if no one else had, and many of them know the frustration of their own virtual anonymity. Woodson High School music teacher Attrus C. Fleming a weekend pianist at the Gangplank restaurant at the city's wharf, took the keyboards, playing "The Way We Were" and "Secret Love" in a musical tribute to Harris.
Moments later, Ralph Cook left his seat in the audience, grabbed a saxophone, and joined Frank Maxwell finger-spanking the keys on Harris' piano, Darryl Wiseman on drums and Mark Ellicott on bass for a quick tempo rendition of Charlie Parker's "Blues in B Flat."
"D.C. is a hard town to make it," said Beverly Cosham, a Western High School graduate and ballad singer who came to shoo the taxman. "There are too few places for young talent, and I've been going up to New York . . . because even with opening acts I get at the Celler Door and Blues Alley, I can't find enough work. We need small, inexpensive nightclubs where you can feel the music."
And when her time came to sing, Cosham crooned Harold Arlen's old-time classic "Legalize My Name," singing, "All you want to do is bill and coo, but you's empty-handed when the bill is due, if you really love and you love is true, legalize my name."
"We're going to keep the Pigfoot open, everybody you and me," sang Mary Jefferson later as the crowd applauded and whistled. Newcomers dropped their $5 bills into the cardboard box at the door.
And the clock ticking toward Harris' 10 a.m. rendezvous with the taxman.