THE Last Chance Jazz Band has been performing for so long that even founder Bob Thulman can't remember when the band began. It was about 25 years ago, he thinks, that the septet started playing Dixieland, ragtime and classic jazz standards at Columbia's Last Chance Saloon (5888-A Robert Oliver Pl., Columbia; 410-730-5656), but "I can't tell anymore," he laughs. That sounds about right to Peggy Oursler, who estimates that she and her husband, Jerry, have been coming to the Last Chance for 25 years. If they're not at a jazz festival in New Orleans or Denver, the Ourslers drive down every week from Hampstead, Md., almost an hour north of Columbia. They're easy to spot as they cruise around the dance floor -- Jerry in his jacket and tie, Peggy in a snazzy dress. "People are so wonderful here," Peggy says. "It's like one big family."
Couples who have been coming to the Last Chance and dancing to "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Westmoreland Weave" for 15 to 20 years or more are common. "We grew up with the big band music, and the smaller groups playing Dixieland," explains Charlie Bitterli, who has been attending concerts at the Last Chance with his wife, Doris, since 1981. The Bitterlis almost always occupy a table near the front so they can jump up and dance whenever the mood strikes them. Clarinetist Thulman, like Bitterli and many other regulars, got his first taste of jazz during the music's heyday. Born in the Bronx, his family moved to Washington in 1935, and a few years later, Thulman was listening to the records of Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden and taking clarinet lessons from one Albert Sinatra. "He was Frank's cousin, a petty officer who played in the Navy band," Thulman recalls. "He was an outstanding musician -- he could play and teach all the strings and woodwinds. He felt that if you wanted to play jazz, you should have a thorough grounding in the classics, like Benny Goodman's teacher did."
Through college, Thulman kept up his love of jazz. He fondly remembers seeing Sidney Bechet and Bob Wilber in Boston, and driving to New York City to visit Nick's, the Village nightclub that was a haunt of Dixieland legend Eddie Condon. But as he became successful in business, running a large fireplace company, Thulman gradually left the music scene behind him.
By the 1970s, Thulman was again playing with small "classic jazz" groups, filling in and gigging around the Baltimore-Washington area as part of the Bay City 7 Jazz Band and the Federal Jazz Commission. When Last Chance Saloon owner Claire Lay asked him to put together a band to play at her new watering hole, Thulman called a few guys he'd been performing with, and the Last Chance Jazz Band was born.
He grew to like the place so much that he actually bought the bar in 1977, a move he calls "the worst business mistake of my life." Thulman sold it a few years later for a loss, but a succession of owners has kept the band onstage, much to the delight of crowds who wouldn't be anywhere else on Sundays from 5 to 9.
The Last Chance Saloon has become a de facto community center for a core group of silver-haired customers. Regulars decorate tables for each others' birthdays. When someone is sick, word quickly spreads and everyone sends cards. One night, longtime dancer Hillen Smith collapsed, and the rescue squad had to be called. On doctor's orders, Smith stayed away -- for a while. "He moved to a retirement home in Towson, and now people go over there to pick him up and take him to the Last Chance Saloon," Thulman says.
The core group has dwindled over the years as age takes its toll; Thulman says the band has played at funerals as well as retirement communities. "There aren't very many young people here," says Ann Evans, who's been a fan for 15 years. "People do bring their children and their grandchildren. That's what [my husband Ken and I] will be doing next week."
Newcomers are welcomed into the circle, though, and they quickly learn about the bar's eccentricities. Longtime customers always sit at particular tables, "and woe be to you if you take their reserved seat," Thulman laughs. Potomac River Jazz Club member Roy Hostetter "inherited" a prized table by the bar when a couple retired to Florida.
Then there are the napkins. A few weeks ago, cornetist Al Straub was in the middle of a hot solo on Louis Armstrong's "Swing That Music" when the napkins began to fly. A few at first, and then it seemed as if half the crowd at the Last Chance was twirling red cloth napkins above their heads like helicopters. It's a New Orleans tradition, explains Doris Bitterli, usually done during an especially hot solo. "One night [in 1982 or so], I got excited and started waving my napkin, and then other people joined in."
Many of the numbers, though, aren't barnburners. One of the highlights of the evening is the delightful Ferebee Streett-Thulman -- "the chick singer," as her husband likes to call her -- crooning "Embraceable You." As the melody kicks in, whole tables empty and the dance floor is packed with swaying couples gazing into each other's eyes as they did years ago.
Every weekend at the D.C. Sanctuary, music and art intersect in dramatic fashion. Under blue lights and a disco ball, dancers shimmy to the thump of soulful house music. A painter in one corner of the room fills a canvas with colorful streaks and swirls, nodding his head in time. Upstairs, patrons take a break in couch-filled lounges and gaze at works that range from a portrait of Count Basie to dense, abstract images. "We're on the cutting edge of an arts district," owner Dorian Smith says proudly.
He's not talking about Logan Circle, Shaw or Eastern Market. On Friday and Saturday nights, the D.C. Sanctuary (1355 H St. NE; 202-399-4033) is one of the only signs of life along the H Street Arts District in Northeast Washington -- quite a change from the club's former home in the bustling U Street corridor.
Smith and partner Shadrach Gill (known to regulars as DJ Shadrach) looked at properties in Columbia Heights, Brookland and along North Capitol Street before deciding on the two-level building, formerly a barbershop and beauty salon. "We were conscious of the fact we were pioneering," he says. Although the neighborhood is part of a government-sponsored revitalization plan, much of the designated Arts District remains empty. The H Street Playhouse, a black-box theater and gallery space, opened last year. The art deco Atlas Theater is scheduled to reopen as a performing arts center in late 2004. Still, Smith says, the neighborhood's potential reminds him of "U Street in the early '90s."
The Sanctuary was born in early 2000. Smith, who became hooked on underground disco in high school in the early '70s, was making regular pilgrimages to the legendary Shelter nightclub in New York City. He fell in love with the "uplifting" house music and the friendly crowds who danced until well after the sun came up. But the traveling began to take its toll. "I thought, 'I shouldn't have to drive to New York to experience this,' " Smith says.
Joining forces with DJ Oji, who spun house music on Morgan State University's WEAA-FM, the Sanctuary took over Friday nights at Vicki's, a hole in the wall near 11th and U streets NW. The club built a steady crowd of dancers, black and white, straight and gay, who appreciated its welcoming atmosphere, excellent DJ lineup and lack of posturing or attitude.
Eventually, the founders decided to find a different, larger venue. But after a blink-and-you-missed-it stint at Club Bintunami on 14th Street NW last summer, the Sanctuary went dark until the end of April 2003. It was, the owners explain, a matter of finding the perfect fit.
The club's return got local house fans talking. Legendary DJs and producers Ron Trent and Larry Heard -- famous for his mid-'80s releases as Mr. Fingers -- have graced the decks this summer, and resident DJs include local favorites Sam "The Man" Burns, Brett Dancer, Pope and Oji. "We used the out-of-town DJs to get people here," Smith says. "And once they found the vibe, they'll keep coming back."
Modeled after venues such as Shelter or the Paradise Garage, the Sanctuary lacks dress codes, burly bouncers and obvious pickup action. Instead, the focus is on soulful house and garage, laid-back forms of electronic dance music that generally meld deep bass grooves, lush keyboards and positive, soaring vocals. "I see a similarity in this music and the message music that emerged in the early '70s, like Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire," Smith says.
But the owners also stress that the club is about more than music; besides displaying the work of resident artist Jeffery Henriquez -- usually found painting near the DJ booth -- new exhibits open each month. Outside of club hours (11 p.m. to 5 a.m.), gallery viewings are by appointment only.
Throughout the night, the crowd ebbs and flows; new faces are still arriving at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. While the club is far from any Metro stop, Smith has struck deals with a few cab companies that will send taxis for those who need them -- just speak to the doorman. The club is off the beaten path, but Smith is undeterred. "Our clientele is loyal," he says. "They're not daunted by transitional neighborhoods."
Aside from the couches, the numerous paintings and a large dance floor, the club is a bare-bones space, but that's how Smith and Shadrach like it. "It's not for everyone," Smith admits. "There's not enough glamour or glitz here for everyone. That's okay . . . We're committed to keeping this party underground."