D.C.’s jazz scene gets an online boost from CapitalBop’s young advocates
By Chris Richards,
Outside Bohemian Caverns on a recent Friday night, it’s handshake after fist-bump after one-armed bro hug. Fans. Photographers. Musicians. The doorman. The owner. They all know Giovanni Russonello and Luke Stewart. Even the draw treats them like the draw.
“CapitalBop in the house!” shouts Kris Funn, a 32-year-old jazz bassist clad in an electric yellow sweater, arriving for his first set of the night at the subterranean U Street jazz club.
True children of the information age, Russonello and Stewart are known by their URL — capitalbop.com — a site whose interviews, reviews and scrupulous concert listings have positioned the duo as Washington’s fastest-climbing jazz bloggers, promoters, movers, shakers and evangelists.
“Jazz is so dynamic and of a moment, it’s not hard to fall in love with it,” says Russonello. “It’s just about trying to get it in front of people.”
Russonello is 23. Stewart is 25. Both of them are studious and sincere — and tired of being the youngest faces in the District’s jazz venues. So in September 2010, Russonello launched CapitalBop, a site he hoped would inspire newbie listeners to explore the clubs, restaurants, holes-in-walls and D.I.Y. performance venues where local jazz players continue to spill unheard sounds. (“Unmediated music thrives in unmediated spaces,” Russonello likes to say.)
CapitalBop sometimes shines its spotlight on CapitalBop, too, promoting the “D.C. Jazz Loft,” a monthly concert series curated by Russonello and Stewart. This weekend and next, CapitalBop will present three “Loft” concerts as a part of the annual D.C. Jazz Festival, whose organizers invited Russonello and Stewart into the fold last year in hopes of snaring younger crowds.
Sound familiar? In December, the Kennedy Center named 36-year-old pianist Jason Moran its new artistic adviser for jazz. It felt like a signal to a younger generation of jazz listeners. We care about you. Which is essentially the same message that Russonello and Stewart are sending on the street level.
“The Kennedy Center crowd is not underserved,” says Russonello. “And we’re glad they’re taken care of. But we’re concerned with all these kids who are looking for something gratifying and artistically resonant.”
Omrao Brown, owner of Bohemian Caverns, says he can see CapitalBop slowly spreading its influence on young ears across the city — which is nice, but not all that surprising. “In all reality, young people don’t really have an aversion to jazz,” Brown says. “They just haven’t really been exposed and/or marketed to.”
Stewart had to seek out his formative jazz experiences himself. He was still pretty new in Washington — enrolled at American University after his home town of Ocean Springs, Miss., was obliterated by Hurricane Katrina. One night, he wandered up the stairs of Twins Jazz for a set by saxophonist Sonny Fortune.
“He was playing burning tempo [stuff] and I had never seen anybody do that. It blew my mind,” Stewart says. “And there were only five people in the room.”
Russonello had similar experiences after teenage curiosity steered him into Twins, HR-57 and Bohemian Caverns. “For me, it was like, ‘Wow, the music is cool, but why is there nobody here?’ ” he says. “There’s obviously a disconnect.”
After graduating from Sidwell Friends, Russonello enrolled at Tufts University, where he “tried and failed” to become a jazz pianist. History degree to his name, he bounced back to Washington after college to try his hand as a freelance music journalist, penning pieces for Jazz Times and NPR Music. He timed the launch of CapitalBop in conjunction with the 2010 Rosslyn Jazz Festival so he could hand out fliers to promote it: “Here’s my computer-paper flier, cut into little, uneven squares. Take one and put it on your refrigerator.”
Stewart took one. Soon, in addition to writing for the site, he and Russonello were organizing performances at the Red Door, a now-shuttered studio space on I Street NW where Stewart’s bands — art-rock group Laughing Man and free-jazz threesome Tri-O Trio — rehearsed. When the building that housed Red Door was closed earlier this year, they moved the concerts to the Dunes on 14th Street NW.
Adriana-Lucia Cotes, a 20-year-old student at George Washington University, says she discovered free jazz at the “Loft” concerts and already feels a scene growing around what CapitalBop is doing. “I definitely see more and more new faces, some younger than me,” she says. “So, yeah, the community is really building up.”
On the site, Russonello and Stewart also make a point of spotlighting veteran players who have been a part of Washington’s jazz community for decades. After doing an interview for CapitalBop earlier this month, local bassist Michael Bowie says his new group, Sine Qua Non, saw a noticeable spike in attendance at a weekly Bohemian Caverns residency.
“They’re bringing people together that never knew they liked this, that or the other,” says Bowie. “I almost see those guys as a reflection of the listening audience right now. . . . The fact that these cats are out here really shaking the bushes and stirring things up? It motivates me.”
With the D.C. Jazz Festival (The Washington Post is a sponsor) kicking off this weekend, the duo also hopes to motivate donors. They’re seeking financial support via Kickstarter, the Web site that helps creative types crowdsource funding, and they’ll use the proceeds to pay the acts — the Todd Marcus Jazz Ensemble and the Christie Dashiell Quartet on Friday; Tarbaby and Kris Funn & Corner Store on Saturday; and Marc Carey’s Cosmic Indigenous on June 9.
They expect the last gig to draw the biggest crowd of any “Loft” event all year — but they aren’t quitting their day jobs anytime soon. With the site drawing about 5,000 unique visitors a month, Russonello continues to freelance while Stewart works as a production coordinator at WPFW (89.3 FM). Their “Loft” concerts remain small but consistent, drawing about 60 fans each month. Sometimes more.
“We clearly violated the fire code, there were so many people in there,” says Funn of his performance at the Red Door in January. “So they’re doing something right.”
Out on the corner in front of Bohemian Caverns, Stewart stomps out his cigarette and a bouncer waves him and Russonello through the door. Downstairs, Funn dives into an original composition called “Gemini,” fingers darting across the strings, locating notes that feel both warm and cool.
Stewart posts up by the bar. Russonello bobs his head. They both look happy. Happy to be here. Happy they aren’t the only 20-somethings in the room.
For details and ticket information about CapitalBop’s D.C. Jazz Loft concerts at the D.C. Jazz Festival, visit www.capitalbop.com/dcjazzloft.