The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These sisters never imagined their restaurant would become a D.C. jazz institution

Kelly, left, and Maze Tesfaye came to the United States on a student visa in 1972. After opening a restaurant, they found themselves hosting jazz acts. Now, at its second location, on U Street, Twins Jazz has survived while other lounges have closed. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

In 1987, when Kelly and Maze Tesfaye opened Twins in a scruffy upstairs space at 14th Street and Colorado Avenue NW, D.C. jazz fans already had multiple options for seeing live jazz. They could go to Blues Alley, Moore's Love and Peace, Mr. Y's Gold Room, One Step Down, Les Nieces and HR-57; later came Cafe Nema and the reborn Bohemian Caverns. Thirty years later, all of those venues, save Blues Alley, are gone. Twins, albeit in a different location on U Street NW, soldiers on. How have they managed it?

Layla Nielsen boiled it down one night at the club before showtime. “I think it’s just these two ladies,” she said, gesturing to her mother, Kelly, and aunt, Maze — 64-year-old twin sisters born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “They work really, really hard. What restaurant in D.C. do you go to where the owner is the cook?”

In fact, the Tesfaye sisters’ cooking was originally their business’s raison d’être. They opened Twins as a restaurant after a decade in food service; arriving in Washington as students in 1972, their father lost his ability to finance their education when Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown two years later. They were forced to spend the next several years waiting tables, saving money along the way until they could start their own restaurant.

“So we opened the place basically to introduce the Ethiopian national dishes,” Kelly said, noting that the cuisine had not yet seen its current boom. “We didn’t know anything about jazz.” However, the location they’d rented in the Brightwood neighborhood was a former jazz club — and when the neighbors saw an “Open” sign in the window, they assumed that the music had come back.

It wasn’t long before Bobby Sanchez, a trumpeter originally from Cuba, showed up at their door. “Would you like to have live music in here? Jazz?” he asked.

“We told him, ‘We don’t have money. We already used up all our money to start,’ ” recalled Maze. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I will take care of that. Let me make the stage, let me buy the instruments.’ ”

“ ‘You guys just cook,’ he said,” Kelly added. “That’s how it started.”

From The Post archives: Jazz provides sisters with key to success

Very quickly, Twins became a popular jazz club. It attracted touring musicians from New York and elsewhere, including a group of five legendary pianists — John Hicks, Mulgrew Miller, Larry Willis, Kenny Kirkland and Randy Weston — who held a “piano summit” in 1998.

But the club thrived on local performers, who were “always front and center,” Nielsen said. In particular, student musicians at Washington-area universities were drawn to Twins’ weekly jam session, which often became a competition among the schools.

“Antonio Parker. Allyn Johnson. Kush Abadey,” Maze said, listing the various local favorites who got started at the club’s jam sessions. “Ben Williams. Corcoran Holt. Braxton Cook. They all started playing here when they were just kids!”

Even as the club succeeded, however — enough to open a second location on U Street in 2000 — the Tesfayes made Twins a part-time job. Maze worked days at Howard University as a registered nurse (her earnings there also helped support the club); Kelly was a stay-at-home mother. Between them, the sisters have four children (and three grandchildren), who often helped out around the club where they were needed.

Twins also hired a few employees, all of whom have now worked there for years and developed a fierce devotion. Longest-tenured among them is Wendy Whittington, the bartender and jill-of-all-trades who began working at the U Street outpost in 2002.

“There’s nothing I won’t do for these ladies,” Whittington said with a smile. “Nothing I won’t do to get it done. All of us have to pull together — it’s teamwork. It’s a family.”

The original Twins, on Colorado Avenue, closed in 2007, the victim of both a building being condemned and noise ordinances enacted to protect residences at condos built nearby. Hence, the Tesfaye sisters work at U Street. Kelly supervises the main room and cooks the (mostly Ethiopian) food, while Maze does the administrative work in the back office. Nielsen helps with marketing; her sister, Love-Leigh Trimiew, and cousin, Natalie Robinson (who are so close that Nielsen refers to them collectively as “my sisters”), do the artist booking.

“It’s a family-run business,” said Nielsen, Kelly’s oldest, who recalls years of doing homework in the back of the Colorado Avenue club. “You have people who are compassionate about keeping it open, inside and out. So I think that contributes to the longevity as well.”

“Everyone always tells me that they love coming here, because they see the same people here,” Whittington said. “They know me by name; they know Kelly by name. We’re personable, and you’re welcome — you’re part of the community.”

That community has changed with the times and with the neighborhood, and is more centered on tourists. Meanwhile, the lack of parking in the U Street area has kept some of the veteran audiences away, as has the city’s transient nature. But one way or another, they make their way back.

“The older customers, some of them travel from Washington for years,” Maze said. “Then they come back, and they say, ‘You guys are still alive! I’m so happy you’re still here!’ They come back here to find us.”

If you go

Twins Jazz

1344 U St. NW. 202-234-0072.

Upcoming shows feature trombonist Reginald Cyntje (Friday and Saturday), guitarist Nelson Dougherty (Sunday) and guitarist Deon CleanCutt (Wednesday).