There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When Bohemian Caverns closed in March of last year, it would’ve seemed appropriate that its resident, namesake jazz orchestra would disband, too. Instead, the opposite happened: The Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra regrouped less than a month later to record its first studio album.
In some ways, that recording session helped spark something that many of the band members had been feeling since the Caverns closed. “We were off for a couple of weeks before the recording,” says Brad Linde, “And then it settled in: we started to miss it. Where’s Monday?”
Every Monday night (with the occasional Tuesday night and some Sunday afternoons) the 17-piece big band held court in their U Street NW dungeon from April of 2010 to March 22, 2016—just a few days before the club shuttered for good. The group, co-lead by multi-saxophonist Linde and trumpeter Joe Herrera, evolved from just being the club’s in-house band to becoming one of its main attractions. The Orchestra routinely made Mondays the third best night of the week for business, often hosting guest artists like Warren Wolf, Taurus Mateen, Caroline Davis, and Oliver Lake.
They were a big part of the “sole home of soul jazz,” which for decades served, on and off, as the central and spiritual hub of D.C.’s jazz community. After several years of successful business under the proprietorship of Omrao Brown, the club faced declining profit margins and legal setbacks, as Washington City Paper reported last year. Legends, modern visionaries, and local young lions alike rubbed shoulders while creating a soundtrack for the heart and soul of the local jazz scene.
It’s a fact that still shocks Brown a little. “Even in New York [City],” Brown, who ran the club for its last 10 years, recalls, “People would say to me ‘Oh man, you know I was down in D.C. and I was trying to extend my weekend trip because I always heard about the orchestra on Monday nights.’” Not bad for a band that won the 2012 Mayor’s Arts Award for “Outstanding Emerging Artist” without a single formal rehearsal on the books.
The lack of rehearsals—or more precisely the inability for 17 people to get together to rehearse—is, in fact, one of the things that gave the Orchestra’s Monday night gigs their appeal.
From the beginning, the Orchestra was never intended to be a commercial enterprise. Rather, it was created as another expression of the D.C. music community, in a space central to the city’s musical legacy. “I think the whole thing started for the idea of a community and a hang; almost like a reading band,” Linde says. “We always joked about never having rehearsals but the truth was that we showed up on Monday night and we played.”
With the price of admission for a Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra show at a cool $10, the money each band member ended up making at a given gig was barely enough “just to pay for parking tickets or dinner,” Linde says. As such, the incentive to find time for 17 people to rehearse was fairly low. That meant the band’s Monday gigs were a rare opportunity for audiences to see musicians flourish in the moment, performing unrehearsed and off the cuff.
“Often times the audience would see us ‘workshop’ music,” Herrera says. “I think this type of environment spurs creativity in both the musicians and the audience.”
And those moments often ended up being the most precious. Audiences weren’t paying to see the band recite the classics, they wanted to experience a show come together before their eyes; to be participants in the creative process in some tiny way.
“Part of it was that I wanted them to witness the creative process as humans, as a band, as a resident orchestra,” Linde says. “I used to go hear Mingus’ big band directed by John Stubblefield at the Fez in Manhattan. And they would bring in a new chart and stop in the middle of it, and talk about it.”
The Orchestra has a 400-page book of charts, the entirety of which they can launch into on a whim. To go off the cuff like that takes a level of musicianship that’s not easy to achieve—especially for a large orchestra that has gone through several lineup changes over the years. Luckily, its lineup has included some of the contemporary D.C. jazz scene’s best players, boasting alumni like saxophonists Elijah Jamal Balbed and Leigh Pilzer, trumpeter Donvonte McCoy, pianists Amy Bormet and Tim Whalen, drummer C.V. Dashiell, and trombonist Shannon Gunn, just to name a few.
Beyond needing musicians who could sight read, Herrera and Linde took an almost Duke Ellington-esque approach to organizing the band, trying to find musicians who could contribute not just a texture but a personal statement.
Those threads of individual voices weave together to create a sound that swings with the heat of a Count Basie band, suggests an air of Ellington sophistication, and strolls along with the assured cool of Stan Kenton—all aided by the looseness of the set and setting. The Caverns Orchestra holds a harmonious balance between the body of big band canon and the spirit of post-swing creative music.
The band may not have Mondays at the Caverns anymore—let alone regular Mondays anywhere right now—but that void is what is pushing them forward. Since the Caverns shuttered, the Caverns Orchestra has played together five times, performing special sets at the 2016 DC Jazz Festival, the Kennedy Center, and Blagden Alley, along with its annual Christmas show at the Atlas and a set of Ellingtonia at the Metropolitan Club. Even with months apart between gigs, and still no rehearsals, the music felt as strong as ever to Linde, who admits getting choked up during the gig when all the old players and familiar pieces fell into place.
For those missing Mondays as much as the musicians are, the Orchestra is determined to both carry their own legacy forward as a band and the Cavern’s legacy. The recording they made last year—tentatively titled Bohemia after pianist Dan Robert’s three part suite for the group—is due out later this year.
In the meantime, Linde is also looking to move the band into a new, permanent home. “I’m in talks with at least three different venues about some kind of rotation,” Linde says. “Some kind of steady, predictable venue to play in on a regular basis—on Monday nights, that’s the tradition.”
The Orchestra still flies the Bohemian Caverns’ name and flag, keeping that communal torch for the D.C. jazz scene lit. Although the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra is only part of the Bohemian Caverns’ legacy, it is now a solid fixture of the rapidly vanishing cultural landscape of the District of Columbia.
And, while it lasts, The Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra will be doing what it always does, Linde says: “Just counting off tunes and hoping to God we get there together by the end.”
The Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra performs on Monday, April 3 at Blues Alley. 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $20. bluesalley.com.