Abart’s Internationale was located at 1928 9th Street NW—the current location of Expo Lounge. John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley played residencies there. Andrew White, playing with the JFK Quintet at Bohemian Caverns, would run down to Abart’s between sets to check out the headliners.
Drummer Winard Harper, vocalist Shirley Horn, and organist Jimmy McGriff used to rattle the Y-shaped window bars at Mr. Y’s Gold Room at 16th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE. It was a particular hub of activity for local musicians still cutting their teeth on the scene. Now a brewpub called The Public Option, the front windows still have the Y’s on them.
A tiny but beloved English basement, Harold’s Rogue & Jar was a block south of Dupont Circle (1814 N Street NW). They served drinks in washed-out jelly jars and jazz in instruments local and national. New York alto saxophonist Richie Cole paid tribute to it with his 1979 tune “Harold’s House of Jazz.”
Aside from the obvious, there’s something else that these three defunct jazz clubs have in common: The structures in which they were housed are still standing.Last November, I interviewed Jason Moran for the January/February issue of JazzTimes. One of the topics he discussed was the sense of space that is often overlooked in the music world. Moran has made art installations that evoke the interior of such classic New York jazz venues as the Savoy Ballroom, the Three Deuces, and Slugs’.
“We focus on who it was and what they played, but we have somehow forgotten about where it’s played,” he told me. “When will America think about its relationship to space—about where culture happens? … So part of my art practice now is making sure there’s a relationship to the space. Not just to the musician, the hero, or the music, but also to the space that inspired the pieces they played and where the musician felt comfortable to share them with us.”
He added this point, which didn’t make the final cut of my piece because of length: “I mean right there, in Washington, D.C., Bohemian Caverns sits there empty on U Street. We don’t know what’s going to happen to it, but we know what happened in it, and it was more than what you hear on a recording. That needs to be documented, too.”
This is correct. The Caverns’ future is still up in the air (though it was recently painted and rumors persist that building owner Al Afshar has plans to reinstall jazz there). We should certainly do our best to preserve it—there was a reported effort in 2016 to grant it landmark status, though nothing has yet come of it—but there are other places that once formed part of the city’s jazz ecosystem and need preservation even after the fact. What was once One Step Down, in Foggy Bottom, is now a Subway. It’s still the original building, though, and there is no shortage of photographs and memories of the place. Ditto the Showboat, one of two clubs that were owned by guitar great Charlie Byrd. (The other, Charlie’s Georgetown, was part of the long-demolished row under the Whitehurst Freeway that is now nondescript office complexes.) Songbyrd, which now occupies the Showboat space, is so named in Byrd’s honor.
At least one of these former spaces is officially memorialized as part of the Greater U Street Heritage Trail: Club Bali, the brick palace at 14th and T streets NW that is now Matchbox. Two extant structures, the Caverns and the Lincoln Theatre, are also on the trail; the marker for the latter also mentions the Lincoln Colonnade, the former dance hall and venue behind the Theatre.
Unmentioned, though, is the long-shuttered, long-decaying Republic Gardens, or the current Ben’s Next Door, as historic as the restaurant it annexes. In the ’30s, the building at 1211 U Street NW housed a jazz juke joint that went through various names—the Music Box, the Jungle Inn, the Blue Moon Inn, the Casbah—under the management of its house piano player, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton.
Then there are the places that really are gone forever. Top O’Foolery, which was in the way of GW Hospital’s expansion. Club Bengasi, knocked down to make room for the Reeves Center. Olivia’s Patio Lounge, which gave way to Metro Center. (A series of recordings exists of Lester Young playing there.) Club Kavakos, replaced by the strip mall on H Street NE. (Charlie Parker is on record at that one.)
Once upon a time, a whole cluster of venues existed at H and 14th streets NW—Casino Royal, Benny’s Rebel Room, Blue Mirror. Simply as structures, as spaces, they constituted a culture that is in need of memorializing.
Crescendo in Blue therefore calls upon the DC Preservation League, or the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, or the D.C. government itself, to take steps toward memorializing these places. A relationship to space, as Moran puts it, is an important and underserved part of culture, and with D.C.’s rich jazz heritage it’s one worth taking official steps toward building. In the meantime, consider this space to be the official memorial of those spaces.
And next time you’re knocking one back at The Public Option, or walking past the rowhouse at 1814 N Street NW, pause for a second and listen for the echoes of the swing that once rattled their windows.