The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic was especially hard on live jazz. But D.C.’s scene is slowly restarting.

The Lionel Lyles Quintet performs at Takoma Station on May 15, the tavern’s first show in over a year. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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The live music schedule for March 2020 still hangs in Takoma Station’s vestibule.

“I have it there just as a reminder, you know?” said David Boyd, the co-owner of the titular neighborhood tavern. Not that anyone needs reminding.

Live jazz had returned to Takoma Station after decades of absence in September 2019. For six months it had been a solid success, generating impressive crowds and building momentum. Then came covid-19, and jazz, at Takoma Station and everywhere else, stopped.

Yet with the announcement of new guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control, along with eased restrictions from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and other local leaders, jazz venues — after more than a year’s silence — are slowly beginning to reopen their doors.

Takoma Station is one of the first within the jazz scene. On May 15, it officially welcomed in-person audiences back with a performance by the Lionel Lyles Quintet. Tenor saxophonist Lyles put on a scorching, soulful show, warmly received by the spectators — although they only numbered about a dozen each set.

“It’s kind of what I expected,” said Michael Philips, who produces the jazz programming. “A lot of people are still cautious; they’re not ready to go back inside. Baby steps.”

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JoJo Restaurant and Bar, a U Street eatery that has long doubled as a popular jazz spot, beat Takoma Station to indoor, in-person gigs by two weeks. JoJo is located in the basement of a rowhouse, and owner-manager Ben Kibour had for several weeks been putting a duo of trumpeter Joe Brotherton and pianist Colin Chambers on its front stoop while his customers ate and watched from the sidewalk below. On April 29, he brought them inside for the first time. The duo configuration and instrumentation allowed JoJo to maintain the legally mandated precautions.

However, with Bowser’s lifting of the mask mandate and capacity limits — promising that the city can fully reopen on June 11 — JoJo is planning to reinstitute its full six-night-per-week jazz calendar. “Our customers have been calling us with the jazz and wanting to know when we’ll be ready to go fully open,” Kibour said. “We’re ready to move forward.”

Venerable Capitol Hill pub Mr. Henry’s is also ready. Its Wednesday-night jam session will return June 16, according to vocalist Aaron Myers, the session’s master of ceremonies. Myers himself will headline at Mr. Henry’s on July 23.

Even as the pandemic subsides, though, D.C. jazz is in a precarious position. JoJo is the last bastion of what was once a bustling jazz corridor in the vicinity of U and 14th Streets NW. Quarantine forced two of the neighborhood’s other holdouts, Twins and Sotto, to permanently shut down. Marvin, a 14th Street restaurant and bar that often hosted jazz, remains indefinitely closed.

The same is true at other District locales. Dupont Circle’s Eighteenth Street Lounge closed for good last summer; Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society in Brookland followed suit in the winter.

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Even Blues Alley, D.C.’s most storied and successful jazz venue (one that largely presents nationally known and touring jazz artists), is taking a wait-and-see approach. Harry Schnipper, the club’s owner, says that it will be back and at full power — he just doesn’t know when.

“No national acts have been booking anything,” Schnipper said. “And there’s no visitors, there’s no tourists, there’s no office workers in Washington right now. Where’s the audience going to come from? And if you buy a ticket, do I have to have security guards out front to inspect whether or not you’ve been vaccinated?

“I keep telling people [who ask about reopening], ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’ ”

In the meantime, Schnipper (under Blues Alley’s auspices) has been live-streaming local jazz artists every Monday night — the club’s longtime night for local jazz — from the National Press Club. He will continue to do so at least through the end of June.

There is likewise some trepidation among those who are active in bringing back live jazz. Myers, who is also a member of a grass-roots coalition called the DC Music Stakeholders, said that the suddenness and speed of the city’s reopening doesn’t fill him with confidence.

“I’d like to understand more about how some of the guidelines have been fashioned, what science models they were using to make some of these determinations,” he said. “We just got hit all at once with ‘reopen, reopen,’ and I don’t think anyone consulted with musicians.”

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At the same time, he is excited to perform for an audience at Mr. Henry’s again. “The pandemic showed me how big a role my audience played in my mental health. . . . Help a jazz artist today!”

That cautious optimism is the dominant mood among those working to revive the live jazz scene. Across town from Mr. Henry’s, in Glover Park, trumpeter Thad Wilson has begun (after several months of delays) curating jazz on the back patio at Social Beast, a Wisconsin Avenue restaurant/chef’s cooperative (known during the pandemic as Ghost Line). The same night that Lyles recharged the stage at Takoma Station, Wilson — whose wife, Tracy, is a co-owner of Social Beast — presented a band fronted by bassist Ameen Saleem.

“We’re not out of covid yet, so we’re still trying not to go overboard,” Wilson said. “But we had a pretty good crowd, I will say that. We had a line waiting for the second show.” In June, Social Beast will transition to ticketed programming, with a longer-term goal of opening a smaller, boutique-style music space in its upstairs.

Optimism especially pervades at Takoma Station. In fact, Boyd has asked Philips to expand jazz to two nights a week, Saturdays and Sundays. “I think jazz is a good way to start doing live entertainment again,” Boyd said.

“I want to see it full again,” Philips says. “These guys are very aware about other venues closing, and they would like to be able to pick up some of that slack. The roots of this place is jazz, so they’re cheerleading for this.”

Takoma Station, 6914 Fourth St. NW. JoJo Restaurant, 1518 U St. NW.

Read more:

Takoma Station was once the hippest jazz gig in town. The Northwest D.C. tavern is trying to bring that back.

‘A sad day in D.C. jazz history’: Twins closes after 33 years in the District

Bassist Christian McBride on the return of live jazz — and the recent loss of so many legendary musicians