Blues Alley Blues: It took 84 years, but Bohemian Caverns is now the king of D.C. jazz spaces.
Blues Alley Blues: It took 84 years, but Bohemian Caverns is now the king of D.C. jazz spaces. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Move over, Blues Alley: D.C. jazz clubs have a new king. Bohemian Caverns, the U Street NW basement spot that in 2011 celebrates its 85th year, reached full bloom in its 84th—becoming not just a high-caliber talent showcase, but a talent incubator.

The venue has been steadily ascending since Omrao Brown and his partners purchased it in 2005, balancing weekly spoken-word and open-mic nights with a full calendar of jazz legends, lesser-known treasures, and up-and-coming national acts alongside a steady rush of homegrown District talent. It was in 2010, however, that Brown (who also manages the Caverns) introduced both a house big band and an artist-in-residency project—without sacrificing big-name bookings. In the past year, the Caverns has hosted such colossi as bassist Ron Carter, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and saxophonist/composer Benny Golson, as well as rising stars like pianist Robert Glasper and saxophonist J.D. Allen (who recorded live at the club this fall).

Not long ago, Blues Alley was a hungry jazz fan’s only real place to see such elites (aside from the Kennedy Center, which books them sporadically). The Caverns’ newfound attractiveness to stars comes mostly due to its own merits, but champions don’t rise without old ones falling. Harry Schnipper, the Georgetown venue’s owner, prides himself on bringing “all things jazz to Washington”—but the club dilutes its brand with bookings that lean toward smooth jazz and contemporary R&B (smooth guitarist Earl Klugh and neo-soul songstress Yahzarah are both scheduled there). Meanwhile, jazz acts with more adventurous trajectories are often ignored and dismissed, as are many local artists who don’t have the cachet of the national stars.

And while Schnipper obviously believes in disseminating jazz to young people—he sponsors an annual festival for school-age jazz musicians, along with other educational initiatives—that’s not what Blues Alley itself is about. “I am the audience demographic,” he told Washington Business Journal in 2005. “Someone who is 40-something or above and listens to sophisticated music entertainment and does so whether they’re on business or international travel.” In other words, middle-aged professionals, frequently out-of-towners—and, judging by some of Blues Alley’s ticket prices (an appearance by Dave Brubeck next spring is listed at $150 a night, minus the ever-present surcharge and drink minimum), well-off ones.

That’s not what Brown’s after with Bohemian Caverns. He keeps cover charges low; in most cases, prices are in the $15-20 range (the biggest names can run up to about $40), and the club doesn’t levy a surcharge or minimum. As for the talent, “the level of artist we’ve been able to book has absolutely skyrocketed,” he says. “A big part of our development has been in choosing to focus on younger, local musicians. You know, we don’t think of them this way, but once upon a time the big-name guys were the young kids that someone gave a chance to.”

This outlook helped bring about the club’s sponsorship of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, the 17-piece big band that debuted in April and plays every Monday night. The BCJO is one of the city’s most ambitious musical projects, featuring an ever-expanding book of arrangements and original compositions on top of the inherent challenges of putting 17 musicians together: Finding parts and solos for everyone, having backups for no-shows, and maintaining a sound system, stage setup, and equipment for the whole ensemble. Yet the band has been a success. The soloists are some of the most accomplished and imaginative in the city, with a rock-solid rhythm section and ensemble arrangements that are simultaneously pristine and chance-taking. They’ve also generated a steady audience: “There’s never less than 30 people there,” says Brown of the performances. Its consistency says a great deal about the band, but as much about Brown’s willingness to provide them a foundation.

“Omrao is a great supporter,” says Joe Herrera, BCJO’s co-leader. “He doesn’t run the band but he plays a huge role in the big picture. He is about to pay out about $350 for 17 stand lights, for example. And his backing will help ensure that grants, fellowships, commissions will come our way.”

The greats who pass through the Caverns notice the efforts, too. Ron Carter first played the Caverns with Miles Davis in the early ’60s, not returning until 2009—but was so pleased that he himself requested future bookings there. “Management has real concern that everything’s in place,” he says, “for the comfort of the musicians as well as the customers. You don’t know how many places there are where you get there to sound-check, and the piano’s out of tune, and you sit there waiting all day for the piano tuner to show up. At the Caverns, you get there and the piano tuner’s already there, waiting for us to show up.”

“O cares about musicians,” says Nate Jolley, a Washingtonian drummer who now lives in New York, but still performs regularly at the Caverns with his twin brother, pianist Noble Jr. “I’ve never had a problem getting paid. Lots of club owners will try to talk you down if not a lot of people come in to hear you, or give you a percentage of the door, which is nothing if nobody comes. But O makes it a priority to see that the band gets paid, even if that means he himself has to take a loss.

“He allows you to do what you do—gives us freedom to express ourselves,” Jolley adds. “And yeah, it’s a gamble for him to do something like that.”

But under Brown’s stewardship, the Caverns thrived off such gambles in 2010. The BCJO is one example; another is Sylver Logan Sharp. In November and December, the journeywoman R&B singer and District resident became the Caverns’ inaugural artist in residence, performing every Tuesday night. “She isn’t a jazz musician per se, but she does a great live music set,” says Brown. “The idea was to create a four-week time period where, on a night we don’t do great, they can work to develop an audience. It’s kind of gelled. Her last night, while it was cold and rainy, packed the house. We’ve got a laundry list of more jazz-oriented musicians we’d like to work with in the future.”

The club has an even more ambitious agenda for 2011. Brown is filling out the applications to turn the club into a 501(c)(3) non-profit next year, which will allow him to spearhead educational initiatives and apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the like. The club will also begin a Saturday late-night jam session, featuring a rotating cast of four jazz trios. Meantime, Brown is working on a stellar set of bookings that includes Bobby Watson, Charles McPherson, and a return visit by Glasper, whose music explores the intersections of jazz, hip-hop, and electronica. It’s that mindset—a combination of ambition, generosity, and an eye for innovation—that made 2010 the year Bohemian Caverns took over as D.C.’s home for jazz.