AS WE TEETER on the cusp between suffocating humidity and brisk fall weather, Washingtonians are seizing every opportunity to enjoy their nightlife outdoors. Last weekend's temperate weather and low humidity led to long waits for rooftop seats at Lauriol Plaza and the Reef, full houses at the restaurants at Georgetown's Washington Harbour and packed patios at the usual happy hour hangouts.
Forget trendy martinis, flat-screen televisions or VIP-style couch seating. This time of year, all people want is to be outside, dancing to a DJ, sipping a cold drink and eyeing that cute guy or girl standing on the other side of the patio. How else to explain the success of Breeze (1800 M St. NW; 202-491-2165), the new Saturday night party that fills the otherwise unremarkable courtyard of an office building at 18th and M streets NW?
Some outdoor parties trade on their locations -- the defunct Air at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, where a light show flashed across the building's marble facade as DJs spun, or the view of the Potomac from Georgetown's waterfront bars -- but at Breeze, as DJs set the mood with hip-hop and colorful lights sweep the walls, crowds gather to sip beers and dance on a plaza that could be part of Any Business Park, U.S.A. The not-quite-picturesque surroundings include a bank's well-lit vestibule with a busy ATM, a closed hair salon and plate-glass windows with "For Rent" signs on them. Steps away, traffic rumbles down 18th Street.
It's so crowded that I can't travel more than five feet without having to wind between dancers or tap someone on the back and excuse myself as I push through. Customers can duck inside Yuca, an adjacent Cuban restaurant with a smaller dance floor, couches and a large bar packed with dozens of folks trying to catch the overworked bartender's eye and order a mojito. Beer is sold at a tiny table in the courtyard, where I pay $6 for one of those fancy new aluminum bottles of Budweiser (no mixed drinks). Lots of groups are standing around talking (or shouting) over the pounding music, and seating is at a premium.
"The biggest complaint we get is that this isn't Air," says Breeze promoter Howie Kitrosser. "Air was so successful that it's the measuring point. It's hard to live up to that."
He would know. Kitrosser was one of the founding partners of Air, the outdoor club that took over the spacious plaza of the Ronald Reagan Building in the summers of 2003 and 2004. Thousands of people came every Friday and Saturday night to dance to local and national DJs, catch such live acts as Wyclef Jean and New Edition and just hang out, enjoying the weather. Then the trade center's management decided to euphemistically "take the party in another direction," dropping hip-hop DJs from the schedule, removing longtime promoters Flow Entertainment Group and alienating many longtime patrons.
Kitrosser and his partners, promoters DC Karma and the AMS Worldwide booking agency, were interested in restarting Air this year but didn't get a definitive no from the center's management until the end of July. "Once we knew Air wasn't going to happen, we moved quickly," Kitrosser says. "We'd had our eye on Yuca for a while. People had looked at the space, but no one had done anything with it."
The contrast between the grandeur of Air and the compact, fairly generic setting of Breeze couldn't be more different, but, Kitrosser says, "that's why we never put 'From the producers of Air' in our ad -- we knew it's not Air."
Breeze opened Aug. 6, but it has been constantly in flux, thanks to complaints -- er, suggestions -- from patrons. "We've gotten a lot of feedback that there's not a lot of places to sit, so we've scaled back the outdoor [dance party] and added couches and tables," Kitrosser says. Starting this week, the hip-hop DJ is moving inside Yuca, and those who want to chill outside can do so to a more relaxed soundtrack of bossa nova and acid jazz. The switch makes sense to Kitrosser. "People want to be outside, but sometimes they don't want to be in the middle of a commotion. It was easier at Air because we had more space."
Of course, there's always a chance things could change again before October, when Breeze wraps up for the season.
The dress code is standard: no boots or athletic wear; jeans and "dressy" shorts are fine. Arrive before 11 for discount admission ($10) when you register at Breezedc.com. (If you don't register online, it's $15.) Arrive before 10 for free Budweiser and Bud Light; arrive at 9 to make the free beer worth your while, and grab a bottle or two to squirrel away at your table or in your girlfriend's purse.
SILVER SPRING AND ALL THAT JAZZ
Susan Hoffman helped organize the inaugural Silver Spring Jazz Festival last September, and although the free, day-long gathering was a success, she decided that this year's festival needed to go above and beyond. (For more outdoor festivals, see cover story on Page 30.)
"We were having our first organizational meeting, and I said, 'I'd like to have Wynton Marsalis,' " she says. "When the laughter subsided, Murray Horwitz, the director of the AFI Silver Theatre, who's also on the board, said, 'Well, I know Wynton, and I could give him a call.' " And so trumpet legend Marsalis, a winner of Grammys and the Pulitzer Prize for music, and artistic director of acclaimed Jazz at Lincoln Center, is taking the outdoor stage at Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street on Saturday evening and performing for free.
It's a major coup, Hoffman says, but "that was the intention: to step forward."
The jazz festival starts at 2 "with a caravan of three youth jazz ensembles," Hoffman explains. "They'll be riding on trucks through the [nearby] neighborhoods" before returning to Fenton and Ellsworth for a competition judged by Marsalis, JazzTimes magazine founder Ira Sabin, WPFW-FM (89.3) host Rusty Hassan and others.
Beginning at 4, the main program features French-born harmonica ace Frederic Yonnet; the exquisite vocalist Carol Sloane; stellar sax player Ron Holloway; and smooth jazz from Silver Spring native Marcus Johnson. Marsalis takes the stage at 8:30, and the grand finale, a jam session featuring the day's performers, begins at 10:15.
This year's festival is dedicated to Keter Betts, the Silver Spring resident who played bass behind Ella Fitzgerald for almost a quarter of a century and headlined last year's event. He died Aug. 6 at age 77. "There will be verbal tributes [to Betts]," Hoffman says, adding that details of a memorial scholarship will be announced.
And in a nod to Marsalis's New Orleans roots, the American Red Cross will collect money to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina. There's no admission charge, but Hoffman is hoping the audience will be generous with donations. After all, she says, "this is a great opportunity to hear the master for free."