Lifting the foundations of jazz from the rubble on R Street.
It was the bricks that did in the Louis Thomas Cabaret building, city officials said. After the structure was razed, when angry neighbors and preservationists denounced the demolition of the joint where Duke Ellington once played, the city blamed the brickwork: Bricks had fallen from the crumbling chimney, threatening passers-by. The building, at 901 R St. NW, had to go before it collapsed.
Even so, Bill Stevens liked the bricks. He went by them, walking his dog, Ella. Stevens is a high-school teacher and amateur-jazz buff who has lived in the surrounding neighborhood of Shaw for about three years. He knew the site’s past, and when he first saw bulldozers, he assumed they were there to refurbish the building.
Instead, they knocked it down. In less than 24 hours, the building—where a young Ellington had honed his chops and had posed, wearing a pinstriped suit, for a photo that appears in his autobiography—was gone. Crews cleared away most of the rubble, leaving a few hundred bricks scattered across the barren lot.
Looking at the remains, Stevens saw more than frustration and loss. He saw a Christmas present. In late November, he and his friends drew names to decide gift-giving assignments for the upcoming holidays. Stevens ended up with his friend Matt, a classically trained jazz performer who teaches music at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.
A month before, Stevens had given Matt a watercolor by Mary Belcher, depicting Ellington’s childhood home at 1212 T St., as a wedding present. The jazz theme had been a success.
So, Stevens says, a few days before Thanksgiving, he walked to the empty Louis Thomas lot, pushed back a corner of the chain-link fence, and picked up a chipped red brick, the only one in reach. “I guess theoretically I could just lie and give him any old brick,” Stevens says. “But it’s cool to have the real thing.”
Brick in hand, Stevens is still contemplating how best to present it. He says he might write up a history of the cabaret to accompany the brick. Or maybe he’ll have the brick mounted. “I could wrap it up in newspaper,” muses Stevens. “Then Matt could unwrap the brick and read your article.”
Viviene Awasum, the property’s owner, says that she put up the fence specifically to keep out trespassers like Stevens. She plans to build condominiums on the site and hopes someday to incorporate the original bricks—if there are any left.
Stevens, for his part, says he wants only the one he has. “Besides my buddy Matt, I doubt anyone else would appreciate a brick for Christmas,” says Stevens. “Maybe my dad. But I doubt I’ll get him one. I don’t want to mass-produce the present, like pieces of the Berlin Wall.” CP