It began as a bold survival gambit: Two sisters from Ethiopia would try to make it as jazz club owners in Washington, rather than struggle as low-paid waitresses for the rest of their lives.
They already knew how to cook and serve. That's what women in their country are expected to do. But to run a business, without a man around? Besides, what did they know about jazz anyway?
Kelly and Maze Tesfaye had arrived in Washington from Africa in 1972 to study biology and business. But political upheavals in their homeland resulted in financial support from their family being cut off. They had to find jobs.
On Aug. 29, 1987, the Tesfaye sisters used their savings from waitressing to open a restaurant and jazz club at 5516 Colorado Ave. NW. They called it Twins, because that's what they are -- born minutes apart in Addis Ababa 44 years ago.
"We decided that we wanted our own place instead of always working for somebody else," Kelly Tesfaye recalled.
"We wanted freedom," said Maze Tesfaye. "Back home, women never stayed out late. We couldn't be seen on the streets after 6 p.m. Now we can stay up all night, and we have 100 percent confidence in knowing that we can make it by ourselves."
On Sunday, the Tesfayes will celebrate 11 years in business with a "Piano Summit," featuring acclaimed pianists Randy Weston, John Hicks, Kenny Kirkland and Mulgrew Miller. Their anniversary party has grown so large that it had to be moved out of the club and into an auditorium at the University of the District of Columbia.
In a city where nearly 80 percent of new restaurants close within the first year, the endurance of the Tesfaye sisters is a testament to their hard work and sacrifice. But it's not just a business that they have kept going; these two sisters from the motherland are also helping to keep jazz alive, and they are doing so in a city where America's original art form is deeply rooted in African American culture.
"We didn't know anything about jazz at first," Kelly Tesfaye said. "We had to grow into it."
During a stint working the lounge of the now-defunct Flagship restaurant on the waterfront in Southwest, the Tesfayes were able to make some keen observations about the jazz clientele, if not initially about the music itself.
"We noticed that jazz customers didn't care too much about the food once the music started," recalled Maze Tesfaye.
The sisters figured that if they owned a jazz club, then customers wouldn't get too mad about service, which would be slow at first because they didn't have any help.
"We also noticed that they were mostly in our age group and that they weren't rowdy," Kelly Tesfaye said. That meant they'd have a better than average chance of avoiding the kind of fights that had made some clubs a danger to patron and owner alike.
But the biggest challenge was learning about this thing called jazz. It was a conundrum, a music that was at once mystifying and spellbinding to them. In Ethiopia, they'd grown up listening to what they called "countryside" music, featuring instruments like harps, flutes and keberos, a kind of drum.
On the advice of acquaintances, they took chances and booked artists they'd never heard of before, such as jazz trumpeter Bobby Sanchez, now deceased.
Working in the kitchen while Sanchez played one night, the Tesfaye sisters found themselves inexplicably bopping around like beatniks. Out in the audience, customers were doing the same.
"It was the same movements as a dance we do in Ethiopia called iskesta," Kelly Tesfaye recalled. "It involves moving only the shoulders, neck and head."
Added Maze Tesfaye, "It was like jazz."
For seven nights a week, they offered a variety of jazz performances, and it didn't take long before they were talking the talk.
"We tried New Age and Fusion," Maze Tesfaye said, "but we decided to settle on straight-ahead jazz."
"Be-bop," Kelly Tesfaye added. "We prefer the 1940s and 1950s, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, so that's what we went with for consistency."
These days, Twins serves not just as a jazz club but also as a place for cultural exchange. Patrons come not only from Washington but from around the world. "We get a lot of tourists from Russia, Germany and Holland," Kelly said. "One man from New York came in and said he just wanted to see how such a little place got such a big name."
It's not been easy, though. There is no doubt that, throughout America, jazz is on hard times. Last year, jazz radio station WDCU (90.1 FM) went off the air, and the D.C. landscape is littered with defunct jazz clubs.
Some nights, only a handful of customers can be found at Twins, even though big-name jazz artists are performing there. The Tesfaye sisters say that they sometimes pay the bands out of their own pockets and that, on some occasions, the artists will perform for free. "A lot of musicians just want to make sure that our doors stay open," Maze Tesfaye said. "Everybody just wants to keep the tradition alive. We know we have the best music. How can we not love it? We believe there is no reason for all of these great musicians to leave us and go to Europe just to get paid." CAPTION: On Sunday, Kelly and Maze Tesfaye will celebrate the 11th anniversary of their jazz club, Twins.