JAZZ MAY HAVE been born disenfranchised, distrusted by New Orleans society for its obvious physicality; but it was not so divorced from the creole melting pot as the culturati liked to pretend. The Caribbean sensuality that, mixed with American frontier braggadocio, produced this intoxicating bray of defiance was itself a hybrid of African percussion, French dance music and over-rich Spanish religiosity.
Which is to say, jazz almost had to be born in a river port city -- and it almost certainly had to be New Orleans. Even in Memphis, birthplace of America's other great musical contribution, the blues, the pitiless economic realities of Southern black life so overwhelmed the other influences that it produced not affirmation but lamentation.
Much current popular jazz -- fusion and "contemporary" soft-core and a sort of trendy deconstructionism -- seems reluctant to acknowledge this lavish emotional history. Maybe that's just another example of the chilling of the American dream. But bloodless, overintellectualized jazz isn't much refuge for the spirit; and frankly, we could use more fantasy these days.
219's Basin Street Lounge in Old Town Alexandria is the upstairs of an indulgently restored King Street mansion that walks a giddy line between New Orleans Garden District gentility and Memphis bordello -- flocked wallpaper, burnished antique chairs, wrought iron and exposed brick hung with full-length portraits of curiously melancholy gentlefolk.
All four levels have been restored, with an informal tavern in the basement called the Bayou Room (to which the television is thankfully banished) and more formal dining in the bay-windowed main floor rooms, glass conservatory and patio. Virtually all the Victorian furnishings are authentic, purchased in England during the $1.5 million renovation in the late '70s. It is a worthy neighbor to the William Ramsey House next door, Alexandria's oldest residence, which now serves as the visitor's center, making 219 an even more attractive place to bring out-of-town guests. (Mardi Gras is nearing, too -- Feb. 12.)
The menu is fairly formal, old-style creole, listing she-crab and red bean soup and jambalaya and gumbo and barbequed shrimp and seafood en papillote (going Antoine's one better, 219 includes not merely pompano but shrimp and crab meat in the parchment package as well). Sunday brunch includes all the familiar eggs and oysters -- Benedict, Sardou, Rockefeller, Bienville -- and the bar offers ramos gin fizzes, sazaracs, juleps and milk punches (though one might infer from the slightly uncertain execution that some of these are rarely ordered).
The jazz lounge upstairs is entrancing, a dim but inviting room running the full length of the house from a parlor area/performance stage in front, past a graceful bar and back to the fireplace (yes, this is also a Fireplace Alert). The ceiling has been cut away to open up a balcony overlooking the musicians; and the one modern detail, a mansard-angled skylight in the front, not only sheds cathedral light into the room but at night exposes the third floor staircase and heavy draperies in a mysterious and beckoning fashion to passing pedestrians. It practically semaphores rendezvous. (The sound, which is actually pretty good through most of the lounge, can be a little overwhelming at the front of the balcony if you want to talk, though, so you may have to move farther back.)
The Basin Street Lounge has live jazz every night (cover $3 weeknights, $4 or $5 weekends), which makes it an especially attractive spot for pre- and post-prandial sipping; plus an increasingly adventuresome no-cover jam session Sundays between 2 and 6. One Sunday a couple of weeks ago, four fine saxophonists -- ranging from slight Candace de Bartolo to hulking James Cotton -- stepped in and away from the microphone to trade breaks as smoothly as Morris dancers.
Unfortunately, food service -- even for appetizers and light fare such as oysters on the half-shell and soup -- is not available upstairs except at the bar itself; and anyone who's ever tried to knee up to a bar while spooning soup (much less while craning at right angles to the band) will recognize that this rule is a grave disappointment and ought to be reconsidered.
The reasons for the policy, the staff reports, are that the tables might be damaged by food or heavy silverware and that the food odors might be . . . well, it's not clear exactly what they might be, but one can only assume they might be appetizing, which would be good for business. Not to mention that as there is no separate non-smoking area, the performance nook already reeks of tobacco. As to the admittedly pretty little tables, the fact that they are already being used to serve drinks, thereby being constantly exposed to watermarks, probably makes refinishing a regular process anyway.
Otherwise, this is a truly prime site.
The 219 Restaurant and Basin Street Lounge is at 219 King St.; 703/549-1411.