Ron Holloway walks into Jackie Lee's on a Tuesday night, his tenor saxophone cradled in a light tan case. There are sudden smiles in this staunch refuge of soul in the upper corner of Northwest Washington. The music is about to move from warm to hot.
At 27, Holloway is a legend on Washington's nightclub scene. Good enough to play alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Freddie Hubbard whenever those jazz masters come to town, Holloway is an inveterate sitter-inner who has played with practically every band in every spot in the area, playing any music from rhythm and blues and rock to funk, blues and jazz.
It must have been the same for the late King Curtis, when he walked into clubs in the '50s. Like Curtis, Holloway makes it different, makes it better. And the small black nightclubs, the unflashy neighborhood spots that keep the music alive outside the glare of publicity or the magnetism of trendiness, make the Kings and the Holloways that much better.
Washington's nightlife seems to ebb and flow. With the exception of several general showcase clubs--the Wax Museum, the Bayou-- times have been hard in recent years, with club closings outweighing openings. Ten years after the shutdown of once stellar spots like the Bohemian Caverns at 11th and U streets and the Showboat at 18th Street and Columbia Road, new names are chiseled on the tombstone: The Cellar Door, Desperado's, Louie's Rock City and dozens of clubs whose names never became familiar. The music is stilled at the Psychedelly, at The Childe Harold and at Clyde's, where Fat City began and then emerged as the Starland Vocal Band, and where a bashful Emmylou Harris used to have to ask audiences to hush up.
Washingtonians tend to remember the nightlife that coincides with their most extensive club-going experiences. In the late '30s and '40s, that meant big-band rooms (the Shoreham once had three going full blast at the same time), an appropriate selection for Duke Ellington's home town (he started his career as the pianist in Elmer Snowden's Washingtonians). Between the Howard Theatre and Howard University, a handful of rhythm and blues clubs whose names have faded nurtured top talent whose names haven't: Ruth Brown, Lloyd Price, the Clovers, Bo Diddley, Billy Stewart, Don Covay, Van McCoy, Donny Hathaway. Some who came out of that experience are still making their mark: Marvin Gaye, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Peaches and Herb.
In the '50s, there were two distinct urban corridors: an uptown jazz scene that thrived in clubs like Olivia's Patio Lounge, the Spotlite and Abart's and in the nameless after-hours joints where vanguard musicians like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk met veterans like Art Tatum and Earl Hines. The second corridor was pre- developed downtown, where one could hear hard country in a string of gritty honky- tonks and servicemen's bars. Patsy Cline and Roy Clark started there; Clark eventually joined Jimmy Dean's band when it broadcast the first country music show on television out of the Harrington Hotel. Link Wray survived "Rumble" and managed to keep rock's raw spirit alive.
In the '60s, rock 'n' roll and soul fought over the keys to the city, pitting clubs against stars in a battle that everybody won, including innocent bystanders like guitarist Charlie Byrd, who emerged at the Showboat, settled briefly in the too-often empty and therefore short-lived Byrd's Nest and resurfaced recently at Charlie's Georgetown. Bill Harris, another superb guitarist, didn't have the same luck--or financial and promotional backing--with his Northeast club, Pigfoot, which closed last year.
Among those who honed their chops or drew inspiration from the cozy clubs in Georgetown and downtown: Doors singer Jim Morrison; guitarists John Hall and Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady (they moved to San Francisco and formed the Jefferson Airplane); Seth Justman of the J. Geils Band, and Nils Lofgren.
Singers outgrew their homes, some quickly--Roberta Flack, the moonlighting teacher, didn't stay a secret at Mr. Henry's for very long --and others slowly--Roy Buchanan, whom some felt to be the best blues and roots rock guitarist alive, must have thought Bladensburg's Crossroads had become his final resting place. Inspired by The Shamrock in Georgetown, The Red Fox in Bethesda (both long gone) and The Birchmere in Alexandria (it used to be in Arlington), Washington became the bluegrass capital of the nation, home of The Country Gentlemen and The Seldom Scene.
But few things are as impermanent as entertainment, and few of these clubs are still around; others have simply stopped the music. Most of the artists have moved on to other towns, leaving new dreamers on both sides of the bar. Every year brings high hopes and new clubs. When the Metro reached Silver Spring, there was a huge club--called, appropriately, Silver Spring-- ready at the end of the line, but it never opened. On the other hand, Metro's downtown stops gave new life to d.c. space and made The 9:30 Club possible.
Things change quickly, though: of 19 selected clubs listed in a Washington Post rundown five years ago, 11 are defunct and three others no longer have live music-- this despite a trend that has every neighborhood bar trying its hand at music, from acoustic folkies to Celtic flailers.
But there's a handful of small, black neighborhood clubs existing outside the limelight that have gallantly survived, if not exactly thrived, largely through word of mouth, an occasional poster and a free mention on radio station WPFW. They are not like the major black showcase/disco/clubs--the Penthouse or Chapter II--or the hard-core, youth-orienteddfunk clubs that dot the city. They maintain the gregarious spirit of the '60s, drawing strongly from their neighborhoods but also from other parts of the city and suburbs. Yet since the riots of '68, whites have been reluctant to come into what they perceive as the inner city; as a result they end up missing the honest and exhilarating music that is the backbone of black and white rock alike.
"There've never been any great number of clubs of this type in D.C.," says Ron Holloway, "but some have managed to survive." He lists them--it barely takes one hand. Besides Jackie Lee's, there's The Part III on upper Georgia Avenue NW, Club Zambezi on South Capitol Street, The Five Point at 12th and K streets NE. There are others--Chuck's on Irving Street, the Oasis in Mount Pleasant--where things sometimes pop.
The clubs are hardly different from the typical urban trough: square tables spread haphazardly around a dance floor, neon brand signs and walls of bottles, hovering waitresses, friendly bartenders, easy conversations with sudden neighbors. Some rooms are more oblong, some more square; on weekends, there might be a line outside. The stage at The Zambezi is almost in the middle, Vegas- like; at The Part III, it's tiny;, at Jackie Lee's it's bigger, though not big enough. There are no spotlights, and the sound is sometimes a bit wanting. The externals are not significantly different from what you'd expect; it's when the music starts that these clubs take on their distinct character.
Jackie Lee's has been at 115 Kennedy St. for 21 years and if some of the tunes are new, the ambiance is eternal--what Wilson Pickett would call "Sweet Soul Music" is alive and breathing fire seven nights a week.
"Jackie Lee's is a little club that I spent thousands of hours in with a thing called Mad Dog and the Lowlifers, a soul band, a good little band, a lot of serious musicians," says Holloway. "That's one of the values of having a small club: since they just deal in local talent, a lot of musicians have a chance to go in there and really develop. I figured out a lot of problems in Jackie Lee's. The basement is valuable but you really have to practice your craft before a live audience to get feedback."
The "official" band at Jackie Lee's is D.C. Unlimited, led by a 44-year-old veteran singer named Snake. But Snake can shift into emcee too, because there is loads of talent that has simply walked in the door--like Richard Boyer, Joe Brown and Herman White, known as Trilogy, and really from Washington. "We are an a cappella group trying to be an up and coming a cappella group. We're just basically trying to get our name established, and the way you do that is to play a lot of clubs." Needing no instruments, Trilogy can play anywhere and everywhere; right now their list of credits is halfway between those two points.
A few blocks away at The Part III, Chuck Battle sometimes sings blues between sets. Like Snake, Battle is a veteran who knows what he wants even if he can't always get it. "I wouldn't need no more than eight guys, but I can't have eight here, can't put 'em on payroll. I've been 20 years in the business; I'm still trying to motivate, still trying to get where I want to go, keep myself straight, keep myself in good health. I'm afraid by the time I get where I want to go, I'll be played out." (Battle and his band also appear at The Five Point, usually Wednesdays through Sunday.)
The set at The Part III is a tantalizing mix of covers, from Kool and the Gang to Lou Rawls to Otis Redding. "The economy is tight and you got people that only go out certain nights; you try and catch them, give them the right entertainment to come out and you got to have the band to do all types of material."
Back at Jackie Lee's on a typical night, Snake closes the show with a sensual medley of Kool and the Gang, Marvin Gaye and Richard "Dimples" Fields. The music will wind down, Jackie Lee's will empty out, the night will be still--for a few hours.