"WE NEED just about a half a million by May next year to stay open," says Tony Puesan, a founding director of jazz club HR-57 (1610 14th St. NW; 202-667-3700), and the man most often seen behind the counter serving food and taking admission money.
Puesan isn't being bleak when he says this, merely matter-of-fact. He's talking about a "balloon" payment that's coming due on the mortgage of the property. "Basically, the folks that own the note on the building want to repossess it and resell it to a developer for bigger bucks," Puesan explains.
The actual amount due in May is $480,000, and Puesan is confident Washington's music fans won't let this nonprofit group go under. Over the course of a decade, HR-57 -- named for the 1987 Congressional resolution that declared jazz to be a "rare and valuable national American treasure" -- has become a reassuringly steady spot on the city's nightlife landscape. Clubs come and go, but if HR-57 were to disappear, we'd be a poorer city by far.
On Dec. 18, HR-57 will celebrate its 10th anniversary with (you knew this was coming, right?) a fundraiser, an event that will feature two or three dozen of Washington's most prominent jazz musicians. But Puesan hopes folks won't wait 'til then to come and support HR-57, a venue he says isn't your typical jazz club.
"In fact," he says, "we really don't call it a club. We refer to it as a center, and it's a lot warmer that way, a lot more welcoming."
It is warm, with its exposed brick walls, candlelit tables, painted wooden floors and that intangible good feeling a place has when it's run by good people. And after years as a BYO alcohol kind of establishment, HR-57 got a beer and wine license earlier this year, and you can order up homemade rice and beans, greens, fried chicken and fish dinners, simple fare but made with care.
The full name of the spot is HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues, and part of its mandate is education, like its Youth Jazz Orchestra, its workshops and seminars. Also, Puesan says the center is open to anyone who needs it for educational purposes. "We welcome local schools, the D.C. public schools, the D.C. Commission on the Arts, college music programs like University of Maryland, the Smithsonian's music programs, anyone. They can come here and use the space if they need it," Puesan says.
As for the musicians who perform there, Puesan makes sure they fit a certain criteria: "We get calls from people who want to play here and I ask them if they're pitching in. If they're going to be performing here on this stage, they're going to be working with the community. They're going to be school music teachers, educators, programmers, mentors."
BAND DOWNSIZES One of the regulars at HR-57 is trumpeter Thad Wilson, who has been performing there with his 16-piece big band nearly every Thursday night for the past two years, but that's about to change.
"Beginning next week, I'll be going with a smaller configuration here," Wilson says about his HR-57 gig. "I'm going with a 10-piece, and it'll be much more adventurous, very much on the modern side, revolving much more around the writing."
He compares this new direction to that of young New York-based pianists Jason Lindner and James Hurt. "It's getting away from just swinging, and into more mood-based pieces," Wilson says. Swinging is what Washington audiences know Wilson for best, as his big band has done it with gusto, first at One Step Down, where he launched the group in 1997, then at HR-57. He conducts his band by waving his trumpet with one hand, jabbing the air with the other, cutting off some soloists with a quick air-slice of his hand, prodding others on by twirling his horn in their direction. He puts on a show, and he promises to remain as engaging with the smaller band. "It's how I do it," he says laughing.
Son of an Air Force man, the 37-year-old Wilson grew up in New Jersey, Italy and Alabama, then as a musician, he spent time in New York and Atlanta before making Washington his home. As for developing an audience for his new band, dubbed Ugetzu ("It's my spelling of the Japanese word for 'fantasy,' " Wilson says), he admits it might be tough. "It's the challenge for us here in D.C. to find those folks who want to be moved and challenged by music. You have to concentrate if you're really to get it. It's not always feel-good music."
RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE In a booth made of old red leather, I'm trying to figure out how to fit the five-inch-tall "Moe's Burger" into my mouth. I slice it in half, but that doesn't reduce the height. I open and I shove. Yes! But I can't proclaim my glee because my mouth is full. Quite full with the ground Black Angus patty topped with fried egg, cheese and bacon. Man, it's good.
"Oh, that's a big favorite," nods the burger's namesake, pointing at my plate and talking with a thick accent. It turns out the accent is Palestinian and it belongs to Mohammad Traish, the owner of Peyton Place Restaurant (6516 Backlick Rd., Springfield; 703-451-6620) for the past 31 years. "It's 32 next May 10," he says proudly.
While Peyton Place is hard to find in the land of "Mixing Bowl" hell, it doesn't seem to lack for patrons whenever I stop in. Most are grouped at the bar, about equal numbers of men and women, most over 40, and all of them calling each other by their first names. "I know all my customers," says Traish proudly. "I always greet them." Greetings also come from his waitresses, Patricia (22 years working at Peyton Place), Cheryl (16 years), Tammy (7 years), Amina (6 years and she's also a chef) and from the main chef Norman (18 years).
I'm there to see what's happening in the room adjacent to the bar, but first I mosey to a stool and join the others in watching some gridiron action on the TV and getting another draught in a completely iced-over mug.
Through a wide doorway I head into the next room where the Sock Monkeys are rocking out like they're the Rolling Stones. They're playing "Brown Sugar," then "Honky-Tonk Women," then move on to the Doors, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and more tunes that you'll generally only find on your oldies radio station.
"We play the songs that we love listening to," says Sock Monkey drummer Vic Arkilic, "and thank God there are people out there who like the same songs we do." The band plays there the first Friday and Saturday of every month (recently upped from just the first Saturday), and the place is packed with dancing fans, many of whom went to Edison High in Alexandria, classmates several decades ago with some of the band members. "Mike, Roger and Ron all went there," Arkilic says, "so we've been getting a lot of work playing at all their reunions!"
Along with Arkilic, the Sock Monkeys are Ron Rodgers (lead guitar, vocals), Mike Moore (lead guitar, vocals), Roger Bullock (rhythm guitar, vocals), David Ross (rhythm guitar, vocals), Dan Aylestock (bass, vocals) and Arkilic says that sound man Steve Stinnette is really another member worth crediting.
Some of the covers are less artful than others, but it's great to hear this material done live. If you show up on the other Fridays of the month, you'll hear many of the same songs performed with a karaoke machine. It's just not the same, though, despite the enthusiasm of the regulars. Me, I'm a Sock Monkey fan.
It's time to talk nightlife. Log on to the "Live Online" page of www.washingtonpost.com Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. to share your thoughts on the local scene with me and the other chatters.