JAZZ FANS visiting Blues Alley (1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-337-4141) for the first time might be forgiven for thinking they've stumbled onto a movie set. The flickering candles throwing shadows onto mottled brick walls; tiny tables arranged mere inches from the low stage; an audience that's more interested in applauding a honking saxophone solo than talking over the music. There's not a bad seat in the house, and the sound is sparkling. It all seems like something out of "Mo' Better Blues" or "Lady Sings the Blues."
Yet the tiny Georgetown club, celebrating its 40th anniversary, exudes authenticity from every nook. Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis were regular attractions for decades and recorded live albums from the stage. Looking back at the club's past lineups is like flipping through a history of 20th-century jazz: Wayne Shorter, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Carmen McRae, Ramsey Lewis, Stanley Turrentine, Ahmad Jamal.
Washington native Chuck Redd has played drums and vibraphone around the world with legendary guitarists Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd and performed with Gillespie and Mel Torme. But his voice drips with amazement when he talks about checking out drummers Louie Bellson or Buddy Rich at Blues Alley as a star-struck teenager in the '70s. A few years later, while performing with Byrd at a nearby club, Redd discovered that "our breaks coincided with the sets at Blues Alley," so he'd sneak over to see Gillespie or Vaughan and meet the musicians.
Redd ticks off favorite moments: Ray Brown and Milt Jackson raising the energy level so much that it seemed like they had a whole orchestra with them; a hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment when Gillespie "just nailed" his familiar four-bar break on "A Night in Tunisia" despite slipping health; how when Redd first heard drummer Elvin Jones of the John Coltrane Quartet, "it sounded like he was suspending time. I was mesmerized. I started walking slower."
"I've played in jazz clubs all over the world, and this one has the feeling of being a real club," Redd says. "All my heroes have played there, and in that humble little room, I've heard some of the greatest music ever created.
"With this kind of history, if you don't have a sense of reverence, you're off base. [When I play at Blues Alley,] I feel a kind of responsibility to try to approach the level of excellence I've witnessed there. I feel like I have to do something honest and sincere every time."
Groundbreaking pianist Ahmad Jamal splits much of his time between the United States and Europe, so he takes a more international view of the club.
"Historically, [Blues Alley] is like Ronnie Scott's in London: It's one of the best-known clubs in the world," he explains. "No matter where you go, people talk about Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London, and people talk about Blues Alley in Washington, D.C."
Jamal, known for his stone-classic trio work in the '50s and '60s, has long been a fixture on Blues Alley's December schedule, typically arriving Christmas Day and staying through New Year's. "I've been with them for about 40 years -- or it seems like that, anyway," he jokes, before adding that he's probably rung in the New Year "24 or 25 times" at the club. "Playing at Blues Alley is always fun. I enjoy coming to Georgetown. It's like a vacation. It's a very international place. And the audiences are always good for me -- very attentive, and they have a great rapport with me, as they do in Paris."
Bop-and-boogie pianist Mose Allison, 77, has been a fixture at Blues Alley for almost a quarter century. "I don't remember the first time I played there," he says from his New York home. "I lose track of all this stuff. But it's a good club. I do well there, and I like to play there. There's not that many extended engagements left, and I've been playing the same slots there [Labor Day weekend and the week after New Year's] for a number of years."
Trumpeter Marsalis is more succinct. "I used to play at Blues Alley every December, for almost 20 years," he told The Post's Sunday Source in 2003. "The ambience is one of the best of any jazz club in the world."
It didn't start that way.
Blues Alley had been the dream of clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney, who in January 1965 finally decided to take the plunge and open his own nightspot. Gwaltney found an 18th-century carriage house hidden down a narrow Georgetown alley near Wisconsin Avenue. It had been empty so long, reported The Washington Post's John Pagones, "that no one can remember what was there last." Gwaltney gutted the building, sanded the brick walls and set up a stage along one side of the room and a bar running along the opposite wall. "He has built, to his own specifications, a dandy club," Pagones wrote, praising the sound quality and the musicianship of the house quartet, led by Gwaltney himself, who died in 2003.
Through the '60s, though, Blues Alley wasn't the top jazz spot in town. That honor went to either Bohemian Caverns, the cave-like U Street club where Ramsey Lewis recorded "The In Crowd" and Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were featured artists, or Georgetown's Cellar Door, which welcomed Nina Simone and Oscar Peterson. Blues Alley attracted some stars, such as swing legend Roy Eldridge and Dixieland trumpeter Wild Bill Davidson, but it was known as much for the drinks at its bar and cocktail lounge as for live entertainment. From the bandstand, Gwaltney would stop the music and admonish the crowd to "shut up and listen."
All that began to change in the 1970s, when new owner John Bunyan created what he called the "Quiet, Please" atmosphere to put the attention back on the artists, discouraging conversation at tables and the bar. (You'll still hear a well-worn announcement before every set reminding you that Blues Alley "considers [itself] a listening club.") Looking for the "jazz supper club" experience, Bunyan added a Creole menu and smaller, more intimate tables.
To take the music up a notch, manager John Dimitriou got rid of the house band in the late '70s and began booking musicians with their own groups instead of just bringing in soloists. The schedule began to regularly feature such legends as Gillespie, Lewis, McRae and Earl "Fatha" Hines.
The club's reputation grew. Jamal and the Marsalis family became regular fixtures on the calendar, as did vocalist Phyllis Hyman. Doors were opened to performers such as British R&B vocalist Julie Dexter or Eva Cassidy, whose "Live at Blues Alley" went platinum after her untimely death in 1996. Keeping up with the changing world of jazz, Blues Alley went entirely smoke-free two years ago.
It was a busy time offstage, as well. In 1986, at the urging of Gillespie, owner Bunyan founded the nonprofit Blues Alley Music Society and Blues Alley Youth Orchestra. Designed to help spread jazz through the community and local public schools, Gillespie and Marsalis led workshops for promising students, who then performed in local nursing homes, in local parks or at the Kennedy Center. In April, current owner Harry Schnipper, who had served as executive director of the music society, put together the first Big Band Jam, a three-day festival on Freedom Plaza featuring high school ensembles, collegiate groups and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. With so much history in the very bricks of the club, Schnipper had a tough job trying to figure out how to celebrate the club's 40th birthday. He decided to keep it simple, mixing legendary musicians from the club's past with rising stars and local musicians.
"We brought Les McCann in here, and he hadn't done a show in D.C. for 15 years," Schnipper says. "The Duke Ellington Orchestra hadn't done a performance in Washington in [almost] a decade, but we had them in May."
This weekend marks the beginning of the official birthday celebrations, with the Count Basie Orchestra playing two shows each night beginning Friday. Coming weeks present a wide spectrum of music: up-and-coming trumpeter Sean Jones, Latin jazz star Arturo Sandoval and neo-bop trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who has recorded tributes to Louis Armstrong as well as the new, hip-hop-flavored fusion album "Sonic Trance." The great pianist McCoy Tyner is scheduled to appear in November.
"We look at this as an organic celebration of Blues Alley, with some big names, but also people like the Redd Brothers, players who have been big on the local scene over the years," Schnipper explains. "You want something that's invigorating and raises the bar for jazz in Washington."
Blues Alley is a great place to see a show, but it's not cheap. A friend and I went to see sax man Marty Nau's annual tribute to the great Charlie Parker last week. We caught the 10 p.m. set and enjoyed his driving, hard-swinging "Cherokee" and the quartet's Bird-inspired originals. Nau's group aren't "names" outside regional jazz circles, but the collective resume is impressive. Nau backed Gillespie and Stanley Turrentine; bassist Tommy Cecil is Mose Allison's first choice when he visits Washington; pianist Robert Redd played with the Charlie Byrd Trio and Keter Betts's quartet. To stop by for the last set on a slow Thursday night, admission was $18. A per-person minimum of $10 and a $2.50 "supplement" means patrons knew they were spending more than $30 apiece before even reaching a seat. Now $30 isn't a lot to spend on a night out -- at some nearby lounges, that's enough only for a cover charge and two drinks -- but there's something about investing that much up front that's off-putting, especially when many people haven't heard of the musicians.
Schnipper points out that the surcharge "helps us run our year-round youth orchestra, and the minimum goes to food and beverage, so you get something for that." The problem, he says, is that his main competition for artists comes from such places as the Kennedy Center or the Smithsonian's Jazz Cafe, which can draw on grants and public funding to keep ticket prices low. (The club does offer half-price tickets to students or congressional staffers who show ID; the discount is good for 10 p.m. shows Sunday through Thursday.)
The $35 tickets probably won't be a consideration when the Count Basie Orchestra plays this weekend -- getting to see a big band in such an intimate setting is a rare treat. But jazz fans will want to clear their schedules for Wednesday, when Chuck Redd celebrates "Forty Years of Jazz in the Alley" with his quartet and a few surprise guests. "It will be little mini-salutes to all the people I've worked with there over the years -- Dizzy, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Byrd," Redd says. "I'll talk about them or talk about the times I saw them, reminisce about the club but also look ahead -- I'll probably have some [of my] students come up and play during the set. Jazz education is very important to me, and you've got to keep looking ahead."