City Paper is not for tourists
The Madame Zenobia Center for the Advancement of Perpetual Grooves hopes to deliver the hippest happenings in town.
Visit the Web site for the Madame Zenobia Center for the Advancement of Perpetual Grooves or talk to its co-founder Wyatt Closs and you’ll learn plenty about Zenobia Clover O. Wilson. Wilson’s colorful life has been something of an inspiration to the 35-year-old Closs, a Logan Circle-based events promoter. Born in Yazoo City, Miss., Wilson was raised in Detroit and later moved to New York City with her saxophonist husband, Ronald Wilson. To make ends meet, Zenobia Wilson took a job managing a small bar in Harlem. When the owner died, she bought the spot and established Madame Zenobia’s Parlour, a restaurant and nightclub that became a must-visit destination for those hungry for down-home food and national blues, jazz, and soul acts.
Zenobia’s grew quickly, expanding from a small bar to a three-floor building that took up almost an entire block. Smaller franchises were launched in SoHo and Brooklyn and, in 1990, New York then-Mayor David Dinkins declared Jan. 12 Madame Zenobia Day. Wilson enjoyed her success for a while, but after Ronald died, in 1989, she became depressed. She took a vacation to Jamaica and never returned. According to Closs, Wilson’s explanation was simple: “‘I just got tired, honey. After Ron died, I just couldn’t handle the business by myself. You know, all those folks wanting me to speak here and there….It was a lot of work.’”
These days, Wilson runs a place in the coastal town of Negril. In a small, brightly painted cottage tucked behind a grove of mango trees, she dishes up fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, mustard greens, and fried cornas well as the best in blues and jazzto locals, tourists, and folks visiting family in the islands. It’s a more modest existence than she enjoyed in New York, but, Closs reports, Wilson seems content and continues to take great pride in making sure her customers are satisfied. And Closs, for his part, does his best to follow her example, serving D.C. with events that he hopes recall Wilson’s legendary hospitality and eclectic style.
“She’s completely fictional,” admits Closs, who created the character of Madame Zenobia to personify the history of African-American music.
“She had some Southern roots, had gone to Detroit, and had a son who was into hiphop. She allowed us to get across the vibe that we wanted to come across…soul, jazz, hiphop, and a little off the beaten path,” says Steven Chavers, 33, who co-founded the Madame Zenobia Center with Closs three years ago, motivated by dissatisfaction with the D.C. club scene.
“I thought [D.C.] was wack on a number of fronts,” explains Closs. Originally from Raleigh, N.C., and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he came to Washington in 1993 to work as a senior staff member with the Service Employees International Union. There, he met Chavers, who works as a senior design coordinator for the SEIU. The two collaborated on conferences and trade events for the union before venturing into entertainment.
“I’d been here for all that time….There were so many different people that I’d come acrosslabor, political, art heads, hiphop folkthat I thought it would be cool to get them together,” Closs says.
In 1998, Closs threw his first public party, at the Eleventh Hour, a restaurant and bar on 14th Street NW. Dubbed “Take Five With Wyatt,” the event was a celebration of Closs’ fifth year of living in Washington and featured food, music, and a diverse mix of peoplejust as Zenobia’s Parlour might have.
“Take Five”‘s performers included local funk/rock group Congregation, WPFW DJ Stephen Gregory, and the D.C.-based DJ collective Grits & Gravy. But the event’s most distinctive touch was its drink specials, named for the different populations present: the SEIU Purple Martini, the Capitol Hill Twist, and an all-juice drink called the Bohemian Rhapsody. “Now, we’d think it was a bit kitschy,” Closs says of the personalized cocktails, “but it was reflective of what we were trying to do, which was to get people to interact in different ways.
“We even had people sign a pledge saying that they would meet three new people that were outside of their little world or clique that they came with and would spend the first five minutes of conversation without asking, ‘Where do you work?’” Closs says. “We had to do something to break the posing and fronting that generally goes on at events like this.”
It would be a year before Closs and Chavers produced another event and officially established the Madame Zenobia Center. On April 7, 1999, “A Bash for Billie,” featuring jazz vocalist Maya Orr and spoken-word artist Quique Aviles, inaugurated both Zenobia’s signature annual event and the center’s now-defunct after-work series Sauce, held on Wednesday nights at the Eleventh Hour.
“We’re just doing this because we don’t see it happening,” says Closs. “The night life in D.C. plays to the lowest common denominator, which makes for a lackluster thing. Lackluster means, musically, spinning what’s being played on radio and, socially, gearing nights by segregationLatin, black, gay, international…as opposed to people night.”
Marc Powers, a doctoral student at Howard University and an events and production consultant for Madame Zenobia and other local promoters, suggests that “Madame Zenobia is that missing demographic that’s missing from radio. They’re too young for jazz, too old for current hiphop, and into modern movements.”
Darrell “naturalaw-dp” Perry, a member of the D.C. hiphop group Poem-cees, believes that the appeal of Madame Zenobia’s events stems from their grab-bag quality. “They got that good cross-pollination going on,” he says. “Bringing together the dance-music/DJ element with the live-band element….I appreciate Madame Zenobia for the simple fact that they value bringing imaginative concepts to life. I dig that.”
Over the past three years, Madame Zenobia has grown from just Closs and Chavers to include 11 other employees as well as a recently established board of directors. Of the members of the board, only Closs and Chavers are District residents; the others, Closs says, are people who “have access to resources which will help Madame Zenobia grow.” Although the organization is currently housed in a one-room office on L Street NW near the SEIU, Closs and Chavers hope to eventually acquire a building to house their “dream” Madame Zenobia Center.
Closs envisions a gallery, theater, cinema, cafe, and recording studio rolled into one, where people from all walks of life could view avant-garde artwork, attend performances, view independent films, debate politics and culture, and even try their hand at music-making. In addition to the center, Closs suggests that Madame Zenobia could become a kind of “urban eclectic conglomerate,” with a magazine, radio show, music-production company, and community-outreach arm. Chavers likens Madame Zenobia’s future configuration to a “think tank” that would be “dedicated to coolness.”
But for the time being, Madame Zenobia is separated into three divisions: the events-oriented Madame Zenobia Moments; the graphic-design concern Zenobialistics, whose clients include the monthly concert series Groove Gumbo, the Blue Room club in Adams Morgan, and the Democratic National Committee; and the Web site MadameZenobia.com, which features articles, events listings, and an online art gallery.
Closs oversees most Moments events, and Chavers, a graduate of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, is responsible for the majority of Zenobialistics’ work; 38-year-old Kris Price, a graphic designer and SEIU colleague, manages MadameZenobia.com, home of the center’s Thangz to Do list. The most visited page on the site, the list is a showcase of Washington-area events that the Madame Zenobia audience might dig, ranging from exhibits by local artists to performances by touring bands.
Thangz evolved from sporadic e-mails sent to selected local hipsters into a full-fledged newsletter. “It took me a while to figure out who in the hell Madame Zenobia was and how she got my e-mail address, but I never was mad at her, ’cause she kept me up on the stuff that uppity D.C. transplants said didn’t exist,” offers Perry. “I have seen them give props and provide lists of quality events that they weren’t even involved with personally,” he continues, “so that the folks on their list are always up on the dopeness.”
Stacy Wiebley, a 26-year-old Delaware native, edits Thangz, which is posted on the Web and delivered to more than 3,500 e-mail addresses every other Thursday. Unlike UrbanHangSuite.com and eVIPlist.com, which offer similar services, Thangz doesn’t require visitors to register in order to view posted events and allows other promoters to list their events free of charge. Closs, however, is quick to point out that “not everything we get sent goes on the list.”
“We’re at a crossroads with the Thangz list,” Closs says. “We’ve built up a substantial database. It’s becoming its own journalistic identity.” Soon, Madame Zenobia hopes to print a hard-copy version of Thangz with, Chavers says, “an old-school ditto machine” so that people will have something to put in their back pockets and to pass on to friends.
“We want to spread coolness throughout the globe, [but] not in an MTV way,” says Closs. “Cool is not just about fashion and hipness.” For the Madame Zenobia crew, cool is more about comfort and accessibility. “There’s so much bling-bling and ‘This is gonna be off the hook’ going on,” Closs continues, “that we wanted to provide a good time that wasn’t about leaning on the bar and sporting your fake Gucci hat.”
“People are always trying to figure out who Madame Zenobia is,” Powers offers. “Is it the character from Uptown Saturday Night? Madame Zenobia is a trip into the arts. They are not strictly into live music. They’re really an arts organization. If it had to be boiled down to one particular designation, the grooves are not just sonic grooves. They’re visual, and they’re always involved in something trippy, like the film series coming up in the fall.”
Other future projects include renovating the Web site and establishing an online “quotes library” of hiphop lyrics. Madame Zenobia is also planning an Independence Day dance marathon and block party to raise funds for performances at the upcoming Adams Morgan Days Festival.
For last year’s festival, Madame Zenobia booked groups such as Congregation, Fertile Ground, and the Hip-Hop Philharmonic, as well as DJs such as Sam “the Man” Burns and DJ Taha. “[It] was a nice set,” Powers recalls. “The DJs brought in the music, the Latin, the Afro-Cuban, the church, the house. The demographic was in flux, and that was nice to see.” Although the festival committee was initially skeptical about including DJs among the performers, the turntablists were so well-received that the organizers asked Madame Zenobia to program a stage for this year’s event as well.
Although Closs and Chavers are excited about the repeat gig, they stress that they don’t want to become predictable. “We’re not going to get too strict about what we’re going to be,” says Closs.
“We want to always be changing, rethinking an idea, progressing. We’re not content with finding a groove and staying in it, because,
if you do that, the groove will become a rut.” CP