When discussing the conditions at HR-57, local musicians often bring up an old jazz joke. Club director Tony Puesan even tells it himself: “How do you make a million dollars in jazz?” he says. “You invest three million. After you lose two, you quit.”
In 2003, the D.C. government decided it liked that business model. The city’s reSTORE DC initiative awarded HR-57 a $250,000 grant to accompany a $650,000 loan from City First Bank of D.C. to refurbish the place. With today’s construction costs, $900,000 can go quickly, but the HR-57 job has dragged on so long it’s made the Thomas Circle renovation look like a weekend project.
Local jazzbos often compare HR-57 to Smalls, the improv-friendly New York jazz dive. It’s one of those comparisons, though, that is never made the other way around. Smalls feels like a joint aged by years of service to jazz (even though it’s only a decade old). HR-57, on the other hand, has blurred the line between a genuine run-down jazz club and a flat-out dump.
Many of the chairs appear to have been picked up at a flea market; the bench in the rear of the room has only some stretched fabric for a back. Exposed fluorescent lights and stained, middle-school-style tiles make up much of the ceiling, which up until recently gave little protection from the rain. At one of Donvonte McCoy’s regular Wednesday-night jam sessions in August, only one speaker seemed to be operational. It sat to the left of the band and couldn’t handle a guitar solo, buzzing as each note tried to force its way through. The piano was hard to hear. There was no soundboard, and each instrument battled to be heard over the din of the others.
“We could use a sound system,” said McCoy. “The sound system isn’t the worst, but it sure could be better. We’ve got this great piano now with nothing to amplify it.” Puesan says he often hears similar complaints from musicians. In August, he said he was buying a new system by the end of the month. As of this week, that system hadn’t yet been bought. Puesan says it’s still in the works.
A number of less audible problems at HR-57 have been fixed. Buckets are no longer needed to catch the water. A new façade will soon be complemented by outdoor cafe-style seating. Gone is the solitary refrigerator behind the bar: The kitchen’s been redone, complete with an espresso machine and new fryer so the once-popular fried fish can be brought back to the menu, which now stops at fried chicken and a few sides (see sidebar). The bathrooms and drywall are new. The floor toward the front has been raised and redone. But why’d it take three years?
About a year ago, Puesan called deputy mayor Stan Jackson to talk about the slow progress. Jackson’s assistant Cyril Crocker was tasked with moving it along. Crocker says the project had been stalled for two years due to a disagreement between City First and HR-57. Puesan wanted to do the renovations himself, but the community bank wasn’t hip to his DIY rehab. “The city smoothed it out,” says Crocker. “We didn’t want to be at all responsible for it stalling.”
Puesan is a former general contractor and, by all accounts, a stubborn man. He argued that he could do the redevelopment work at a fraction of the standard cost. For three years, while 14th Street NW was a whirl of development, he held firm. Without Crocker’s intervention, Puesan says, the buckets would still be catching rainwater.
Matt Grason, a bassist who regularly plays at HR-57, says he watched Puesan grapple with the bank. “He struggled to renovate it himself,” he says. “The struggle wasn’t doing it himself, the struggle was the bank wouldn’t release the funds to him because they wanted to see invoices and see that he had a general contractor.”
Though Puesan won the $900,000 staring contest, the impasse could have cost the joint thousands in potential revenue that might have been snagged from the gentrified corridor. While most jazz clubs are de facto nonprofits, HR-57—officially the HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz & Blues—is legally designated as one, which means its declared revenue is publicly available.
Puesan and local artists say that pre-9/11, HR-57 was popping, nearly full every night it was open. “In ’99 the place was packed,” says Grason. “I remember a conga line of horn players onstage playing a chorus one time.” But tax returns don’t reflect that popularity. The spot declared only $52,506 in total revenue—that’s before expenses—in the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2001. The next year, the take climbed to around $75,000, then plummeted to less than $39,000 in 2003. Puesan says revenue is now higher. “We made it through the storm,” he says. “[City First] tied things up for two years before Cyril Crocker got involved. Now we have a ground floor, a first floor, and a roof that doesn’t leak.” City First didn’t return phone calls requesting comment.
Puesan says he was able to wait out the bank because he’s not in it for the money, and that’s not impossible to believe. His wife, Denise Puesan, agrees it’s not all about the green. “People ask us not to go Busboys & Poets,” she says, referring to the pricey new gathering spot just up 14th Street. “People don’t wanna be financially intimidated. Some jazz places you have to put 20 bucks to get in and 50 bucks to get back out.”
Her husband says the proof that HR-57 isn’t profit-driven is in the BYOB policy: For an extra three bucks, jazz fans can—and many do—bring their own, just like at Smalls back in the day. “We don’t push liquor, we push music,” he says.
It might not look like a million-dollar renovation, but that’s not what people are looking for at HR-57. “People want to maintain the spirit of the place, comfortable and inviting,” says Denise Puesan, “without the leaks.”—Ryan Grim
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