Kelly Tesfaye, however, said yes. Tesfaye was the cook and manager of the U Street jazz club Twins, half (with her sister, Maze) of its eponymous moniker.
“Twins believed in me,” Bormet says. “The risk that they took in allowing me to do that set me up secure larger venues bigger gigs the next year, when they saw how the city’s music scene embraced Washington Women in Jazz. It wouldn’t have happened without that place.”
So goes the story of Twins, which announced on Aug. 27 that it has closed permanently — casualty of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. For 33 years, in two locations, the club started in 1987 by two Ethiopian immigrants has provided space for jazz musicians to take bold steps.
“They have such soft spots in their hearts for young musicians,” says Layla Nielsen, Kelly Tesfaye’s daughter, who grew up working in the club and helped with marketing as an adult. (Attempts to contact the sisters for this story were unsuccessful.) “My mom and my aunt would give people an opportunity to perform when no one else would. Now we look up, and they’re performing at the Kennedy Center or Blues Alley. But they got their start at Twins.”
Bormet, whose festival has become a staple of the D.C. jazz community and gained influence across the United States, is one of those people. Another is Steve Arnold, a young bassist who has quickly built a reputation for his technically adept and adventurous playing. Now 25, Arnold was still a student at George Washington University when he began playing in the Twins Jazz Orchestra, the club’s resident big band led by his GW teacher, trumpeter Thad Wilson. He graduated to other sideman gigs and finally to bookings of his own.
“Twins was really the place where you could do your thing,” he says. “You could play whatever you wanted to play, without too much input from the owners or the managers of the place about, ‘Oh, the people don’t like this.’ If you were young and new to the scene, this was the place you were going to develop.”
“It was like a laboratory,” agrees Paul Bailey, a trumpet player whose first professional gig as a bandleader was at Twins in 2017. “When I was an undergrad at Oberlin, I could write compositions and just try them out at weekly ensemble rehearsals. When I moved back to D.C., that wasn’t the case. Except for Twins, who gave me a chance to work stuff out.”
There are dozens of similar stories from musicians of multiple generations, harking back to the weekly jam sessions for which Twins was renowned at its original location on Colorado Avenue NW. Not all its regular headliners were young and unproven: the great New York pianist John Hicks, who died in 2006, was one of the club’s most enthusiastic boosters. So were saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and another late pianist, Mulgrew Miller (who joined Hicks and three other legendary pianists in a Twins “piano summit” in 1998). World-renowned talents from Freddie Hubbard to Oliver Lake graced its stage.
With increasing competition in the 2010s, national acts became less frequent; however, avant-garde legend William Hooker continued to appear at Twins at least twice a year, and piano icon Larry Willis performed there every New Year’s Eve before his death in 2019.
Yet Twins remained at its core a spot for locals. Some, such as vocalist Shirley Horn and saxophonists Buck Hill and Stanley Turrentine, were big names in and of themselves. Most, though, were the local artists who just wanted to gig — and the music lovers who would stop in for a set and a plate of nachos, or tibs, even if they didn’t know the name on the bill.
They also learned to adapt to its quirks and irritants. The sound system was spotty; the piano was notorious for being out of tune; tables near the back bar were often chatty. If a band didn’t draw an audience for its early set, the late one might be canceled.
However, relationships between the Tesfayes and their staff, and the artists and regulars, proved remarkably strong. Musicians disgruntled by the sound or the piano still came back to play; audiences still packed the house on weekend nights (and sometimes even heeded the shushers); and if a young musician played to a nearly empty room on a Tuesday, it never meant they would be refused future bookings.
“We loved each other like family, and we had disagreements like family,” says bassist Michael Bowie, who played frequently at both Twins locations. “Let’s underscore the word ‘family,’ because that’s what they were to me and many other musicians. My affinity for them didn’t fade, and neither did their affinity for all musicians in this town.”
“This is not the perfect venue we would have made, but it’s the venue that stuck by us,” Bormet says. “That’s where we learned how to promote, how to drag people into the seats, how to talk on the microphone, how to interact, how to sell CDs and merchandise.”
The end of Twins’s bricks-and-mortar business may not be the end of its presence in local music. The pandemic and its economic effects offer a chance to reinvent the wheel, and Nielsen says that the family is already thinking about how to do that.
“This situation has forced every business owner to reimagine what their operation is going to look like post-covid,” she says. “And now with digital components, people are getting more used to entertainment in a virtual setting. My mother and my aunt are not the type of women who can sit still [anyway,] so we’re definitely going to come up with some ideas.”
Nevertheless, the jazz community is mourning the loss of a space that meant so much to so many. “I actually cried,” says Bailey of his first hearing the news. “It’s a sad day in D.C. jazz history.”
“Twins would let you have a gig there if you just went in and said, ‘I want to play some jazz,’” Bormet says. “They fostered so many young musicians, literally hundreds of D.C. jazz musicians, and also people coming in from out of town looking for a place to play. It was one of the last black-owned businesses on U Street, and the last woman-owned space that I know of, but as that got harder and harder to do they still kept on taking the risks in providing that space for people.
“We’re eternally grateful for that.”