An older man in a plaid cap and shades sat at a table in the back, under the masks, instruments and framed photos of jazz musicians and other notable African Americans that blanket the light gray walls, snapping his fingers on every fourth beat and frequently grunting at the same time. “Sam!” He suddenly shouted to someone across the small room. “Gene Harris! Three Sounds!”
He was correct. “That’s ‘When I Fall in Love,’ ” Heid intoned into the mic at the song’s end. “Learned that in my misspent youth from a Three Sounds record featuring Gene Harris.” Here was an audience who knew its music.
This isn’t your typical jazz club. There are none like it in Washington, and few if any like it anywhere. Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society, nestled between rowhouses on 12th Street NE in the Brookland neighborhood, hosts music only on Wednesdays and Sundays and some Saturdays. Admission is $10 for three one-hour sets, starting at 6 p.m. Dinner is available, but not alcohol. But Alice’s has a devoted following.
“I come here twice a week,” said Dolores Bushong, a retired teacher who lives near the two-story brick building, which is distinguished by a colorful mural of jazz musicians on its storefront facade. “It’s a unique experience. I can get up really close to the musicians. I can actually go up and talk to them. But also, if you go out to a lot of clubs, they obviously involve drinking, and when people start drinking, they start talking. Most people are here to listen to the music.”
“What helps is that we’re in this neighborhood,” added Alice Jamison, 78, co-founder of the club and its namesake. “The neighborhood has supported us and continues to do so.”
Alice’s is a joint venture between Jamison and Howard, 64, a popular D.C. trumpeter, part-time contractor and retired government engineer. Jamison’s late husband owned the 12th Street building, and she assumed ownership after his death in 2012. Howard, whom she had seen perform but had never met, was living around the corner. Jamison hired him to board up a broken window while she made plans to renovate.
“She showed me the whole building, and I asked her, ‘What are you trying to do with this building?’ ” he recalled. “She said since she was a little girl, her dream was to open up a nonalcoholic jazz club. She said those words and I fell against the wall — she thought I was having a heart attack.
“She said, ‘Are you all right?’ I said, ‘I’m all right, Alice, but you won’t believe this. I’ve had that same dream since I was 27 years old.’ I’d always said I’d love to open up a jazz club, build it myself and run it. So God brought Alice to me.”
Other specifics of their visions meshed, too. “I wanted to have a place that has real, classic jazz music and encourages people to support jazz,” said Howard, who had in mind some of the traditional bebop players he’d known and played with in Washington. Younger players were welcome, even encouraged, to play with the older cats, but with a catch: Howard didn’t want weird, esoteric music, or other genres masquerading as jazz, and he didn’t want neophytes who weren’t ready for prime time.
“When I hire someone and they come to me, I tell them, ‘We’re a nonprofit, so we pay everybody the same. And I’m not interested in paying you for a gig and 10 people are in the place,’ ” Howard said. “If you start at 6, I’ll give you till 6:30, and if ain’t nobody in here, the gig is called off.”
Jamison shares his populist outlook, which is why Alice’s doesn’t serve alcohol. “We wanted children to get accustomed to going to a place like this, and they can enjoy, learn the music,” she said. (Children younger than 12 get in free, as long as they behave.) “People who are single, people who are in recovery can sit here and enjoy the music.”
Howard books and manages the venue and lives in an apartment upstairs. Jamison checks in to “make sure everything’s rolling along.” Volunteers from the neighborhood work the door and cook soul-food fare in the rear kitchen. The audience’s faces have become as familiar and recurring as the staff’s: largely an older crowd, but increasingly diverse, and increasingly young.
On the nights without performances, Alice’s is available for community use.
“We have a women’s program that Catholic University brings in, another women’s program in science,” Jamison said. “We have a writers’ group — several people who have published their poetry, published books, so we’re delighted with that. It’s doing everything that I wanted it to do in terms of raising camaraderie in the neighborhood.”
But in case anyone questions Alice’s real raison d’être, its motto (and Howard’s catchphrase) is written on three ceiling rafters that you see when you walk in: “JAZZ. JAZZ. JAZZ.”
If you go
Alice's Jazz and Cultural Society
2813 12th St. NE. 202-526-1615. jazzandculturalsociety.com.
Shows: Upcoming shows include the Lucini Brothers and Origem on Sunday; John Lamkin on Wednesday; Elijah Balbed on May 13; and Thad Wilson on May 16.
Admission: $10, cash only. Free for children younger than 12.