"AND WE will thank the small hotel together," is how Rodgers and Hart ended their classic composition "There's a Small Hotel." And indeed we should all thank a certain small downtown hotel for bringing bassist Victor Dvoskin into our midst.
That small hotel is the Tabard Inn (1739 N St. NW; 202/785-1277), well-known for being a jewel of a downtown hotel and restaurant, but less known as an absolutely perfect place to hear jazz every Sunday night. That's when Dvoskin sets up in the corner of the Tabard's sitting room, joined only by a guitarist, most frequently Silver Spring jazzman Paul Pieper.
The duo plays surrounded by warm wooden walls filled with historical prints, patrons slumped in the comfortable old couches sipping coffee, brandy or wine brought from the bar down the hall. It's also got one of the nicest real log fireplaces in town, something that's helped get me through many a cold evening. (My eyes always linger on the carved double-headed eagle over the mantle, described by a friend as looking like "a schizophrenic, angry Marge Simpson.")
Dvoskin, who's been playing Sundays at the Tabard for four years, released an absolutely gorgeous CD last year called (if you haven't guessed already) "There's a Small Hotel." It's mostly performances with guitarists (Pieper, Paul Bollenback and Vinnie Correo), reflecting the format of his Sunday gigs, and it's Dvoskin's way of thanking Tabard's owners, Fritzi Cohen and her late husband, Edward.
In 1988 Dvoskin first came to this country on a program begun by the Cohens, the Capitals Citizens' Exchange. It was a private attempt to thaw the frost of the Cold War, and it brought the Soviet jazz group the Igor Brill Quartet -- with Dvoskin on bass -- for an American tour. "That was an incredible time," Dvoskin says, "we traveled everywhere. It was all about music and not about politics."
After that trip, Dvoskin made several more to the United States with groups like Jazznost and Partners in Time, finally staying for good in 1993. "I came to Washington to record a CD, but production was delayed for four months," he says. "And in those four months I started picking up gigs and getting a lot of work. But things were suddenly not so good in Russia in 1993. All those coups and tanks," he says wryly. "I just stayed and stayed and stayed."
Lucky us. Watching Dvoskin and Pieper play, modestly tucked into a corner of the Tabard, you might approach it as background music while you chat with friends, but the duo quietly earns your attention.
Dvoskin will launch into a bass solo, so often the butt of jokes. But this is different. His tone, his clarity, his melodic sense, his triplet notes rippling down the neck of his maple and pine bass all conspire to grab you. You turn and see Dvoskin leaning over the body of his bass, as if in an embrace. His eyes are closed and he's smiling.
Pieper jumps in, playing flowing chordal patterns under Dvoskin's lead, before his own solo begins at a nod from the bassist. This is world-class stuff.
Dvoskin began playing guitar in a band in his Ukrainian hometown of Dnepropetrovsk. "We were backing a variety singer," he says. "One day the bassist quit, and the leader asked me to switch to bass. I didn't want to, but he said, 'You have to or I'll kill you!' So I did!" That was in 1965, and right away Dvoskin felt comfortable on his new instrument. He spent the first money he made with the band on a shortwave radio. "It was a Sharp, I remember perfectly. It was to listen to Willis Conover playing jazz on Voice of America."
He moved to Moscow to study classical music, and after joining the jazz group Allegro, became a star in his homeland. "I was No. 1 bass player for, like, 12 years," he says. "I was too popular. But there's not that big competition over there, you know," he adds modestly.
You can see the fruits of his years of study and years of performing in his absolute command of his instrument. Dvoskin has become a teacher and is on the faculty of Towson University and Virginia Commonwealth University. I wish there were dozens of jazz clubs that could showcase the talent that made Dvoskin a celebrity in Russia, but meanwhile, there's the Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City (1250 S. Hayes St., Arlington; 703/415-5000), where Dvoskin performs during Sunday brunch, and of course, there's a small hotel called the Tabard, where he plays Sunday nights from 7:30 to 10:30.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from Victor Dvoskin, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8111. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
In October 1997 in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, the Majestic Lounge opened in a small room behind the pretty little Evening Star Cafe (2000 Mount Vernon Ave.; 703/549-5051). It was an immediate hit.
A cozy room, the Majestic has sparkly blue lights crisscrossing the ceiling, reflected in a wall of antique mirrors. There are couches and armchairs squeezed into corners, board games on tables in front of them, illuminated by funky thrift store lamps. The bar is nicely lit, with a full selection of libations, including eight beers on tap (Old Dominion's Belgian Style ale and Unfiltered Amber Lager are standouts).
But I found myself avoiding the Majestic, despite the great vibe, because the folks behind the bar simply didn't seem to know what they were doing. Minutes would tick by as I stood trying to order while the bartenders would figure tabs, slowly pour other cocktails and generally act frazzled.
That's all changed. "We had a lot to learn in those days," admits Michael Babin, who with his wife, Stephanie, and their partner, Christi Ehrett, owns the Majestic Lounge (and the Evening Star and the neighboring Daily Planet wine shop). "Before this I was a lobbyist, and my wife was in law school. Christi was the only one with any background in this business, and she was a server at Austin Grill."
The Babins were living in Del Ray and felt something was missing in their 'hood. "There were good restaurants around here, but no good bars," he says, "so we decided to open the kind of place we would want to go to." With the help of designer Travis Smith (award-winning creator of the interiors of the Buffalo/Atomic/Bedrock/Carpool billiard halls), the Babins and Ehrett launched their dream.
After they opened the adjacent wine shop in October '98, the partners wanted to open a wine bar somewhere, finally deciding to convert an apartment above the Evening Star Cafe to suit their needs. In February 2000, the No. 9 Lounge opened (that was the old apartment number) and it's one of my new favorite places in town. It's sleeker than the downstairs bar, with newer couches and brighter lights.
Open Wednesday through Saturday, the upstairs lounge has live small-combo music Wednesdays (jazz) and Thursdays (pop/folk/country), and there's a menu of tapas-style small plates available (grilled asparagus, scallop ceviche, chicken sausage and much more, all good). The best offerings, though, are the "wine flights." That's where four-ounce servings of three to five wines of a given grape varietal are set before you on a place mat printed with descriptions of what you're drinking. For between $13 and $20, it's a chance to taste and learn about a wide range of available Zinfandels or Syrahs or whatever's being offered.
"We always have three 'flights' running," Babin says, "and our wine director, Erin Nuccio, changes them every two weeks." Behind the bar upstairs Stu Ellis and Paul Duncan hold court. Local residents both, Ellis and Duncan seem to know everyone in the bar, and they have a way of making every night up there feel like they're personally throwing a party and everyone's invited.
What are you waiting for?