City Paper is not for tourists
One lunchtime last September, pianist and composer Jason Moran sat down at the Watergate’s Campono restaurant with Omrao Brown, co-owner and managing partner of Bohemian Caverns. Both then 40 years old, they’d been friendly since Moran and his Bandwagon trio had played Brown’s U Street NW venue five years before. Moran was soon after appointed the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, making the two men not just associates but comrades in arms on the D.C. music scene. Regular confabs became essential.
But Brown’s report that afternoon wasn’t a rosy one. “Man, we’re over here struggling,” he told Moran of the Caverns, which he and his partners had purchased in 2006. “Business has been really struggling for a while now. I hope it doesn’t come to it, but it’s a possibility: We might not have a path out of what we’re in right now.”
“[Brown] dropped that knowledge on me, and I wasn’t prepared to hear it just then,” Moran recalls. “In fact, I’m still not prepared to hear it. It’s too tragic a loss to the D.C. jazz scene.”
By December, Brown had quietly concluded that Bohemian Caverns, the subterranean jazz club that survived several owners and different names over 90 years, was not going to survive. When the current five-year lease on the building at 11th and U streets NW expires on March 31, the legendary venue—which has hosted everyone from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Tia Fuller—will expire along with it.
The operation, officially known as Mahogany, LLC, includes not only the basement-level Caverns but the ground-floor, Southern-style restaurant Tap & Parlour and the nightclub Liv on the top two floors. Collectively, they are in the red, and all three will close at the end of the month. “A profit margin for a restaurant is something like six, seven percent,” Brown says. “We’ve been down 20, 30 percent for two years.”
In addition, Mahogany, LLC’s relationship with its landlord—Al Afshar, who was also the Caverns’ previous proprietor—has deteriorated past hostility into virtual nonexistence. Afshar says he is not interested in exercising another lease option with Brown and Brown’s partners, Jamal Starr and Brown’s brother, Sashi; nor are they. And because Bohemian Caverns is a legacy business, at a legacy address, simply moving elsewhere is a non-starter.
“We were at the mercy of our ability to be there,” Brown says. “It’s the end of a period in our lease where we can just walk away, and we’ve made a business decision to do that.”
It’s a sad ending for a venue that has, under Brown’s ownership, acquired a reputation as one of the best jazz clubs in America over the last 10 years. I first met Brown while covering the DC Jazz Festival in 2007. We have both a professional relationship and a personal friendship; I have spent hundreds of hours at Bohemian Caverns in the past nine years.
Audiences and artists alike love the downstairs room: Its craggy faux-rock walls, sponge-painted brown and black, create a dark, shadowy atmosphere while also evoking the sepia tones of a vintage photograph. Wizened, gargoyle-like sculpted faces peer from the support pillars that frame the bandstand. It’s far from cavernous: The room seats 100, and its close-packed candlelit tables and wall benches project intimacy—and access. There’s a feeling that one could easily mingle with the band on the floor, or chat them up at the bar on the far end, and indeed that’s not an uncommon occurrence.
As for programming, Brown would need three jazz clubs to satisfy the requests he receives from artists to play the Caverns. “The eclecticism over there [can be found] nowhere else,” says Caverns regular Sara Donnelly, an arts promoter and consultant. Young touring artists such as guitarist Matthew Stevens or trumpeters Jeremy Pelt and Christian Scott were regulars, as were mid-career talents like drummer Ralph Peterson and saxophonist Tim Warfield. And elder legends like bassist Ron Carter, or saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Benny Golson—who can easily book much bigger rooms, with substantial guarantees—accepted lower-paying gigs just for the sake of playing Bohemian Caverns.
But Brown has always had a soft spot for the up-and-comers, especially those on the cutting edge. “I try to present the artists and music that will be the next big thing; artists that the Howard Theatre might book now, we used to book because no one else in D.C. was calling them,” he told me in 2012. “The general public is usually behind the curve by quite a ways. We’re trying to change that in our little corner of the world.”
And then there’s the D.C. scene. Local musicians love to play the Caverns—not least the 17 members of its resident big band, the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra. The orchestra has held court every Monday night since April 2010 and drawn a sizable weekly audience.
If BCJO owns Monday nights, Tuesdays, until recently, had monthly tenants via the artist-in-residence program. “Brown saw artists playing as many gigs as possible with as many bands as possible just to get by,” wrote Laura Brienza in her 2015 book Discovering Vintage Washington, D.C. “The artist-in-residence program would give them a steady gig for a month, playing with the same people and allowing them to get ready to go into the studio to record or develop their sound.” The residencies evolved, however, to include elders (like saxophonist Fred Foss) or established artists with new projects (saxophonist Brad Linde, pianist Allyn Johnson).
Brown was generous in giving the plum Friday and Saturday night bookings to local musicians, too. As likely to appear as Pelt or Peterson would be Johnson; tenor saxophonist Tedd Baker; or singers Heidi Martin or Akua Allrich.
Admission is usually around $15 to $20 (though it can go much higher for stars like Carter or Golson), and there’s never a food or drink minimum. “We felt strongly that the [live jazz] audience needed to be expanded,” Brown explains. “So a minimum was something we didn’t want to do. We felt like it was a bar keeping people out of that experience.
“We wanted to be a space where anyone could walk in and feel comfortable,” he adds. “As a young African American and specifically male, there are experiences where you walk into a place and you don’t feel comfortable: Everybody’s looking at you, or somebody says you’re at the wrong bar… We… wanted it to be a place where everybody could walk in and be treated the same.”
“I really feel like Bohemian Caverns became the fulcrum of the D.C. jazz community,” says regular Donnelly. “It was just an organic gathering place for so many different types of people.”
The Caverns’ history is a major selling point. The building at 2001 11th St. NW was constructed in 1922 by Industrial Savings Bank founder John W. Lewis; its original ground-floor tenant was Dr. George Davis’ drugstore. In 1926, the Night Club Bohemia opened in the windowless basement, accessed by an odd corner door leading to a stairway. It doesn’t take a historian to figure out that the place was a speakeasy.
Dan Garrett purchased the building in 1931 and hired architect William Edward St. Cyr Barrington to remodel it. Barrington designed its mock-cave interior, complete with plaster stalactites and “rock” formations in the walls (at the time, all painted white). It opened on Dec. 31, 1931 as Club Crystal Caverns: “Rendezvous of the Socially Elite,” boasts a calling card from the era.
It quickly gained popularity thanks to its floor shows, house band, and headliners. The latter included the cream of the crop: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, and hometown hero Duke Ellington. Pianist Earl Hines and his orchestra had a 1933 hit record, “Cavernism,” that was a tribute to the club.
Several new owners came in over the following decades, including a brief spell by Blanche Calloway (singer and sister of Cab) in the mid ’40s. The new sounds of bebop came to the Caverns during those years as well; biographer Peter Pullman recalls a night on which pianist Bud Powell came in, shoved the onstage pianist out of the way, and took over.
After changing hands a few more times, Tony Taylor and Angelo Alvino purchased the club in 1959 and re-christened it Bohemian Caverns. It quickly became the place in the District for modern jazz. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald all had successful runs. Pianist Ramsey Lewis recorded two live albums there; the second, 1965’s The In Crowd, spawned a massive hit on both the pop and R&B charts with its title track. Another pianist, Les McCann, recorded there in 1967. Locally, the JFK Quintet—a venturesome ensemble led by saxophonist Andrew White—held down a weekly Monday night residency for almost three years in the early ’60s.
Taylor and Alvino maintained U Street’s jazz legacy until the times finally caught up to them in April 1968, when riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination swallowed the city. The street-level building, like most of the neighborhood, was ravaged by fire and looting. Bohemian Caverns limped on for a few more months, but U Street was no longer a destination—particularly among the club’s (majority white) clientele. It closed in September 1968. (Taylor, who later founded jazz nonprofit Lettum Play, died in 1981; Alvino died in 2007.)
The basement flirted with a couple more failed businesses, beginning in 1969 with a pub called Frank’s Cave, while the building above remained abandoned. It was purchased in the 1980s by Eddie Adair, who operated it as a budget motel (and billed the basement as a nightclub, the Underground Café); notoriously, it was actually a front for Adair’s heroin ring, which the FBI broke up in 1986.
From almost the moment he bought Bohemian Caverns and leased its historic space, Brown faced challenges. The contractor working on the new restaurant, Mahogany, disappeared, delaying its opening by a month. Then the liquor license transfer got caught up in red tape, slowing the club’s reopening as well.
Once business finally got up and running in July 2006, Mahogany began breaking even fairly quickly. “It was a white tablecloth concept, which on U Street at the time was a little bit ahead of its time,” Brown notes. “That being said, though, it did OK.” At least until the economic downturn in late 2007, when thinning tips sent staffers to pick up shifts in other restaurants and bars.
Still, Brown was able to turn some of the difficulties to his advantage. When he couldn’t fill the tables on the far side of the club’s stage, he put couches in and turned it into a lounge area instead. (The tables eventually returned as attendance picked up.) He instituted a Friday night happy hour and let patrons stay and watch the night’s first set for free.
By 2008, business and bookings began picking up.
The size of the building allowed Mahogany, LLC to run not two businesses but three—Liv Nightclub, occupying the second and third floors, opened along with Mahogany and the Caverns. Featuring live hip-hop and neo-soul performances and DJ sets, it became successful in its own right—a popular destination during Howard Homecoming, and renowned for its annual Stevie Wonder tribute “Wonder-Full,” at which Wonder himself made a surprise appearance in 2013.
The restaurant struggled a bit more. It went through three incarnations: Mahogany became Hominy in 2009, then Tap & Parlour in 2011. But the last was finally a success.
The good news just kept coming for the Caverns, with wildly successful performances by the likes of keyboardist Robert Glasper and vocalist Jose James (both of whom would soon graduate to larger venues like the Warner and Howard theaters) mixing with special appearances by Carter and Golson. It became an important partner venue for the DC Jazz Festival, bringing in performances like last year’s duet between vocalist Gretchen Parlato and guitarist Lionel Loueke. “That wouldn’t have happened anywhere else,” says DCJF Artistic Director Willard Jenkins. “He did bring people onto the festival lineup that have a lot of resonance and that people wanted to see.”
Brown occasionally received complaints about racial bias in his bookings. Some suggested that he only booked black artists; conversely, others were offended that he’d created a resident big band with no musicians of color. Neither charge, he says, is valid. “I don’t think there’s anything to it. I just don’t pay attention to race at all, when booking… I don’t think there’s been any apologies that need to be made.”
In 2011, the Jazz Journalists Association gave Brown a Jazz Hero award; in 2012 and 2014, Bohemian Caverns placed fourth and third, respectively, in the Best Venue category of JazzTimes magazine’s expanded Critics Poll—the only venue outside of New York to chart.
But the news wasn’t all good. In December 2012, a woman told police she had been sexually assaulted at Tap & Parlour during an after-hours party held illegally by an employee. The Metropolitan Police Department shut all three businesses down for nearly a week until Brown fired the employee and updated security on the premises.
In January of 2015, the woman filed a negligence lawsuit against Mahogany, LLC, seeking $1 million in damages. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff alleges that the company failed to “implement adequate security policies, security measures, and security procedures,” including allowing the employee throw a party after hours. The case is pending.
In October 2013, a driver crashed a car through the kitchen wall in back of the restaurant. This forced a six-week closure of the building and all three businesses while they waited for repairs and inspection. “We could get no communication about when we could expect to open,” Brown recalls. “So literally every Sunday night I would sit down and cancel the following week’s events.”
This, says Brown, was the tipping point. When the Caverns reopened that December, the jazz community rallied to it with a two-night, open-jam-session fundraiser—but it never fully recovered. The increasing congestion of U Street clubs and restaurants was another factor. “We were a community, people knew we were there, and we had regulars,” he says. “We close inexplicably for six weeks—maybe not inexplicably, but with no story as to when we’ll come back—in an area that has that much competition, it kills you. So business has been down since.”
The Caverns wasn’t hurt by gentrification, per se—Brown and company had actually counted on it when they opened for business, as had Afshar before them. “[But] we’re not the type of space where you just walk past, decide to pay $25 to walk into the door and figure out whether you like the band that’s playing downstairs,” says Brown. “And it’s very hard to find parking there; the city has taken away half the parking and made it residential only, until late.” Add the built-in difficulties of running a restaurant or club, let alone both, and of presenting jazz anywhere (outside of New York, where it’s a tourist attraction), and the speed bumps that Brown faced became a mountain.
Crucially, there was one person who never appreciated what Brown had done with Bohemian Caverns: Al Afshar, who’d sold him the business and still owns the building.
In 1998, Afshar, an Iranian-born businessman who owned Georgetown’s Saloun, saw a “For Sale” sign at 11th and U. (After Adair’s arrest, the Justice Department had seized the building and sold it at auction to an investor, who was now looking to liquidate.) The ground-floor damage was so extensive—Adair hadn’t bothered to renovate it—that the realtor wouldn’t even go inside, but Afshar saw potential and bought the building for $427,000. He soon heard from then-Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, a devotee of African-American history.
“After the congratulations and all that, he said, ‘Do you know what this building was? This was one of the most historic places in D.C.,’” Afshar recalls. He did some research, found some old photos, and agreed with Smith’s suggestion to restore the club to its former glory.
“Afshar has succeeded splendidly,” wrote the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher in 2000. “You walk downstairs into a cave, with stalagmites and stalactites, and waterfalls in the walls. Even the john is a cave.”
Afshar maintained a restaurant on the first floor, the music in the basement; both operated together under the name Bohemian Caverns. There were some jazz performances at the reconstituted venue—notably singing legend Shirley Horn, living her final years in D.C.—and some blues, but the booking quickly became dominated by R&B and smooth jazz. Ticket prices were often steep, and the club had a dress code: At least one customer, who’d purchased a ticket but arrived in jeans, was made to enter through the kitchen.
In 2005, after surgery on his neck and back, Afshar felt unable to continue operating the club. Serendipitously, the year before, Brown and his partners had come to town with a business plan for a restaurant and jazz club (to be run as separate spaces). At one location—the Prince Hall Masonic Temple at 10th and U, in the space that now houses CVS—they got as far as architectural designs before things fell through.
But just down the street there was an already-built club and restaurant, one with a historic name and legacy—the identity was already there, waiting for them to run with it. In 2006, Brown and his partners officially took it over.
“The mentality that I had for the Caverns—and they promised that they were going to follow the same thing—was that the place would get respect,” says Afshar. “The Caverns would be preserved as a historic place. That has not happened.”
Afshar also says Mahogany, LLC hasn’t paid the rent and owes more than $100,000; he sued the group in February, and the parties are set to appear in court in April.
Even if they paid the full amount tomorrow, he adds, he wouldn’t extend Mahogany, LLC’s lease past March because of his unhappiness with their stewardship. Afshar personally invested $1.2 million in the restoration—all of his cash, plus loans. Although Afshar sold the business (Brown says the sale involved all intellectual property including the name), it is inextricable from the real estate he owns, and he remains possessive of both.
In particular, Afshar says that the crowds at Bohemian Caverns have gotten out of hand under Brown and his partners—not just in terms of size, but respectability. “At my grand opening, I did not let anyone in without a jacket,” he stresses. But the new owners’ populist approach has, Afshar feels, bred a disreputable clientele—one that had already encroached on his Caverns and helped sour him on the business.
“A certain age, certain kind of people, they are looking for trouble,” he says.
He found Brown unreceptive to his complaints, and sued in 2013 to break the lease; he lost.
Brown won’t comment on any of Afshar’s allegations. “We’ve got outstanding legal issues with our landlord in both directions,” he says. “We prefer to let it play out in court.”
It’s Leap Day, a Monday—BCJO night. Already it’s clear that some managerial details have gone by the wayside. Two of the piano’s keys are dead. The performance wasn’t advertised on the Caverns’ website, and there is an audience of 11 huddling in the sepia panorama at showtime; it will grow to 17 by the end of the first set. There is no baritone sax player tonight, meaning the band is down to 16.
“You always come on the worst nights!” trombonist Shannon Gunn tells me as we pass each other on the stairs.
But the band pulls out a fantastic performance anyway. They’re focusing tonight on the music Thad Jones wrote for the big band he co-led with Mel Lewis. (It’s now known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, or VJO, celebrating its 50th anniversary in residence at New York’s Village Vanguard.) “Pull out everything you have, Thad-wise,” trumpeter/co-leader Joe Herrera, who’s conducting, tells the band.
They do. Even with blown-out keys, pianist Wade Beach is the evening’s MVP, playing solo after sterling solo on “From One to Another,” “In a Pinch,” and “Kids Are Pretty People.” Alto saxophonists Jason Hammers and Brad Linde duel heartily on “Broadway”—it’s close, but Linde has the edge tonight. Everyone in turn solos on the closer, “Little Pixie Tune,” and the audience loves it.
Except for me, it’s likely that nobody here knows what will happen in a month’s time. Nobody at all knows what it will mean for the BCJO. Linde (the band’s other co-leader) takes the opportunity to announce that they’ve booked two VJO members to join them during the DC Jazz Festival in June. That performance may never happen.
“It’s devastating,” says Moran. “But it puts a real charge on those of us who present music in D.C. to pick up the slack, or to start brainstorming as to the next thing—the thing that’s gonna take its place. There’s a lot of energy that Bohemian Caverns generates. What happens to all that energy? Who picks up that steam?”
That’s the big question. Moran, whose Kennedy Center tenure has been marked by adventurous programming, is the obvious choice. (He says he will be having “a long talk with my people there.”) But he has limitations, such as his need to fill the season’s calendar well in advance.
Yet the scene will endure and perhaps rally. It’s lost nerve centers before: One Step Down, in Foggy Bottom, closed in 2000, and the Caverns’ U Street neighbor (and predecessor as the hip jazz spot) Café Nema shut down in 2011. HR-57 moved briefly to H street NE and then closed. The jazz community survived them all. And there are still jazz venues, or venues that will book jazz, nearby. Twins, a few blocks down U Street, is going strong, and once booked some of the artists upon whom Bohemian Caverns later built its reputation. JoJo, a little further on U, seems intent on becoming the new Café Nema. Two others, H Street’s Atlas Performing Arts Center and Bethesda Blues & Jazz, have substantially decreased their jazz bookings—but they’re about to have more opportunities. And over in Brookland, trumpeter Deandrey Howard has just opened the Jazz and Cultural Society, whose whole mission is to provide a home base for local jazz musicians. Ditto the much-beloved jazz program at Southwest’s Westminster Presbyterian Church.
Brown, too, has no intention to quit the D.C. jazz scene entirely. “There are some possibilities in the future to continue to do this,” he says—adding quickly, “We don’t know that that’s the case immediately.”
“Someone will come along and pick up the pieces, and I’m not convinced that Omrao himself is done,” says DCJF’s Jenkins. “When I learned about this, I told Omrao, ‘Listen, let me know your next move, wherever it may be, because I’ll be fully supportive wherever I can. Because I know that this isn’t your last move in this direction.’ So we’ll see.”