Nobody really knows the age of the weathered red-brick carriage house in the alley off Wisconsin Avenue NW, just south of M Street in Georgetown — it could be as old as the District itself. Nor is most of the building’s history known. “It has been empty for so long,” wrote The Washington Post’s John Pagones in 1965, “that no one can remember what was there last.”
Since 1965, however, it has been the home of Blues Alley, a small, dimly lit venue that has evolved into Washington’s longest continually operating jazz club. It has hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Sarah Vaughan. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and vocalist Eva Cassidy, among others, recorded successful live albums there. A regular rotation of stars still perform at Blues Alley.
“Our reputation precedes us,” said Harry Schnipper, Blues Alley’s owner and executive director. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t talk to a representative of some overseas country who says, ‘Oh, everybody knows Blues Alley in my country.’ ”
It has become an institution in Georgetown, the Washington area and beyond. “Blues Alley is one of the premier jazz clubs in the world!” said Cyrus Chestnut, a renowned pianist who has played regularly there for two decades.
Nobody imagined such prominence back in 1965, when a traditional jazz clarinetist searched for a hole-in-the-wall locale where he could jam with his buddies. Nor would anyone have predicted that it would celebrate a 50th anniversary, as Blues Alley does next week with three nights by fusion guitarist Larry Coryell. An anniversary show geared more toward the club’s R&B audience will take place Saturday at the Strathmore in North Bethesda.
Here’s a trip through time with the club, which has been a constant presence even as it changed with the times.
Tommy Gwaltney played clarinet and vibraphone for Dixieland and swing stalwarts Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison and Buck Clayton, but he dreamed of owning a club. In late 1964 he found the two-story carriage house off Wisconsin Avenue NW — long abandoned, and cheap.
Gwaltney gutted the interior and sandblasted the walls. He divided the ground floor into two rooms: “A large bar and cocktail lounge, which seats 30, comprise one room,” John Pagones wrote in The Post. “Adjacent is the main room, which comfortably seats 124, and where one can see the stage (backed against a wall in the center of the room) perfectly from every angle.”
From its January 1965 opening, Blues Alley’s bandstand was occupied five nights a week by the same headliner: the Tommy Gwaltney Quartet (later renamed the Blues Alley Cats). They could play for up to four hours in rambling “trad” performances, closer to jam sessions than fixed sets.
On Saturday nights, Gwaltney booked other musicians, both local and touring; the Washington area was a hotbed for trad jazz in the ’60s. Hackett and Davison were regular performers, along with such seminal stars as Roy Eldridge and Teddy Wilson. Gwaltney’s bookings of veteran singer Maxine Sullivan helped to revive her career.
The music immediately gained a following (vintage matchbooks, emblazoned with “Tommy Gwaltney’s Blues Alley,” are prolific eBay items), and so did the bar: The noise from sodden revelers often competed with the musicians. “Shut up and listen!” became a frequent Gwaltney refrain, one that he shouted at his own customers.
The clarinetist was never really a businessman, and in 1968 he sold the club to Bill Cannon, a retired Air Force colonel. Cannon retained the Dixieland and swing programming (Gwaltney, who died in 2003, stayed on as house bandleader), but also began tentatively booking modern jazz, with trumpeter Thad Jones and Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander making their Blues Alley debuts.
Cannon sold out in 1973 to John Bunyan, a Georgetown lawyer and entrepreneur. Bunyan began to compete with the nearby Cellar Door, which was booking hipper jazz acts, especially the new jazz-rock “fusion” trend. That same year, 17-year-old Harry Schnipper saw his first Blues Alley show: Larry Coryell, also debuting, with his quintet Eleventh House.
Bunyan and his staff transformed Blues Alley’s ambience, reputation, even its physical layout.
In 1976, manager John Dimitriou knocked down the brick wall dividing the bar and performance space, converting the lounge area into a fenced terrace. “The place never closed during those renovations,” said Kris Ross, Bunyan’s stepson and Blues Alley’s current manager. “They just put up a tarp and kept the music going!”
They also adopted a “Quiet, Please” policy (there’s an announcement before every set), which finally solved Gwaltney’s noise problems.
Traditional jazz didn’t go away — a documentary of piano great Earl Hines was made at the club in 1975 — but the focus shifted. National acts, from bebop to avant-garde and fusion, started coming in. It was a transitional period; Blues Alley was figuring out what it wanted to be.
A turning point came in 1978, when Dizzy Gillespie first headlined. “Now this,” he said, “is a jazz club.”
Ever the evangelist, Gillespie not only became a regular, but also talked the place up to his friends and colleagues. The names on the marquee graduated from national to iconic: Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach. One of Gillespie’s mentors, pianist Mary Lou Williams, played Blues Alley in 1980, less than a year before her death.
Bob Israel, a popular local guitarist and bandleader who became Blues Alley’s talent booker in 1983, played a key role in that transition. He built relationships with those totemic names (and their management) to ensure regular appearances.
He also added blues (Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy) and R&B (Jerry Butler, Phyllis Hyman) to the club’s calendar. “First of all, they’re great artists,” Israel said. “Second of all, they’re sort of borderline jazz. Jazz and R&B interact more than most people realize.” D.C.’s devout R&B audience made those bookings successful.
But jazzy traditions also took root. In 1979, seminal pianist Ahmad Jamal began a three-decade run of New Year’s galas. In 1980, young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who had taken jazz by storm and would even revive its commercial fortunes, began annual weeklong bookings in December.
By its third decade, Blues Alley was Washington’s preeminent jazz venue. Business was booming, thanks in part to the Marsalis-sparked renaissance that emphasized the jazz icons and disciples who were Blues Alley’s specialty.
In 1986, Marsalis brought the club a new level of fame. He and his quartet turned that year’s December booking into a live double LP. “Live at Blues Alley” was a jazz hit and is regarded as one of Marsalis’s definitive recordings.
Blues Alley became a tourist destination, too. Visitors from around the world began making reservations without even bothering to ask who was playing. Sometimes a whole tour bus worth of patrons would fill the club: Then-manager Ralph Camilli recalled a night in the mid-’80s when “we had [bassist] Dave Holland and 80 West German oncologists who wouldn’t stop talking.” (The Post’s concert review was headlined “Germans Take Holland.”)
The brand was expanding. In 1985, urged on by Gillespie, Bunyan started a nonprofit, the Blues Alley Music Society and Youth Orchestra, designed to cultivate a new generation of jazz musicians. Gillespie was its honorary chair; Israel became its inaugural director.
There also were attempts to franchise the Georgetown club. In 1988, Bunyan leased a space in downtown Baltimore, which he opened as a second Blues Alley location. In 1991, he became a partner in a third club, this one in Tokyo. Neither satellite venue lasted beyond the early 1990s. (The Baltimore location never did much business; Tokyo’s Blues Alley operates today, but Bunyan terminated his involvement after a legal dispute.)
Behind these major developments, another was taking place: Bunyan had quietly begun moving toward retirement. In 1993, he made Harry Schnipper the club’s unofficial chief financial officer. “I was brought in because of my commercial real estate background, so that John could make an exit strategy from owning Blues Alley,” Schnipper said. “And in exchange for equity, I provided him with that exit strategy.”
Sarah Vaughan passed away in 1990. Saxophonist Stan Getz died in 1991, Dizzy Gillespie in 1993, guitarist Joe Pass in 1994. All had been popular performers at Blues Alley, and their losses were difficult.
The club’s solution: Find, book and thereby cultivate new young acts that could become draws. Monty Alexander and Larry Coryell were those in the ’70s, and trumpeter Terence Blanchard was that in the late ’80s. Now it was trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Cyrus Chestnut, a Baltimorean who by his early 30s was already a jazz veteran.
Another promising young talent was D.C. singer-guitarist Eva Cassidy, who attracted notice in the area with her folksy covers of jazz, pop, blues and even go-go. In January 1996, she recorded her own “Live at Blues Alley” album, featuring jazz and blues standards as well as tunes by Sting and Curtis Mayfield. Its release that May would prove to be her commercial breakthrough, but Cassidy never got to experience her own success: She died that November, at 33, of melanoma.
The loss of those iconic stars shortened Blues Alley’s weeklong booking policies. “It used to be that four bookings was a month,” Camilli said. “But as we lost some of the greats who could sustain a week, younger [artists] were coming through and they needed to fit in shorter gigs. So now we were doing two- and three-night stands.”
Schnipper had taken over the nonprofit and, by 1999, had both established its bona fides and added a summer camp. “I said to John, ‘I really don’t want to give up the youth orchestra. If you sell the club to somebody else they’re not going to see the value in the nonprofit — why don’t we begin serious negotiations?’” he said. In 2003, Bunyan finally retired to central Florida, and ownership of Blues Alley transferred to Schnipper.
The new owner enlisted Bunyan’s stepson, Ross, to manage; Schnipper also brought back Blues Alley’s old talent buyer, and his childhood friend, Bob Israel.
Though Israel booked most of the calendar, Schnipper retained special occasions — the month of April (Jazz Appreciation Month) was his, as was another project he’d been developing for a few years.
“I realized that for the first time, America was no longer just exporting jazz, but importing it,” Schnipper said. “And I began knocking on the doors of the embassies in an effort to create partnerships. So I began doing the Embassy Jazz Series.
“We started with the Nordic Jazz Series, and it quickly morphed into Israeli, French, E.U., Czech, Latin, Puerto Rican, Italian, Brazilian and now, for the fourth year, a Japanese jazz series.”
Blues Alley got into the export game as well. In 2012, Voice of America began a television broadcast, “Beyond Category With Eric Felten,” and half of its 36 episodes have been filmed at the club.
In 2009, another longtime booking came to a close: Jamal, after 30 New Year’s Eves at Blues Alley, retired. In his place, Monty Alexander performed for five years. “Blues Alley is a special place,” Alexander said. “I’ve been there since 1971 and know the bricks in the wall by name.”
This year, Cyrus Chestnut takes over New Year’s duties. “It’s such an honor,” the pianist said. “A pleasure to be a part of that history.”
The Blues Alley Youth Orchestra continues to flourish after three decades, now led by local bassist and educator Michael Bowie (with Terence Blanchard as honorary chair).
“It really is incredibly rewarding,” Bowie said of the work. “To see these kids grow the way that they do is a revelation. I graduate eight kids this year and they’re depleting the band, but they’re so, so ready to move on.”
Then there’s Coryell, whose performance this week — with a multiple-guitar ensemble called Strings Attached — brings both Schnipper and Coryell full circle, to that night in 1973 that was the first time in Blues Alley for both of them.
“It’s a great place to play,” Coryell said. “It’s very relaxed, but there’s this excitement in the air — and so intimate that it’s almost just like you’re at home.”
After a half-century of music echoing through that old brick carriage house, jazz in Washington is at home at Blues Alley.
West is a freelance writer.
Featuring Angela Winbush, Kindred the Family Soul and Chelsey Green.
July 18 at 8 p.m. The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda.
July 23 through July 25 at 8 and 10 p.m.
Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW.