Photo: Prince of Petworth.
“We finally got it open!” Drummer Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson exclaimed to applause when he hit the stage Friday, sitting in on a number during HR-57’s soft re-opening.
Once inside, this writer knew it was a mistake not to have brought a camera. The new H Street location of HR-57 is quite different from the spacious neighborhood hang that it occupied on 14th Street NW. This is a small room, and looks much more like an intimate little restaurant than the mental-health clinic it once was. The bar is big and prominent—-and it’s an actual bar, as opposed to a small deli counter where you’re handed bottles of Heineken and expected to move along—-and the bandstand takes up a much bigger proportion of the total space, its blue stage light dominating the club’s atmosphere. Those who remember the old building’s long front chamber, one step removed from the music, might not even recognize a relationship between it and the building you see in the photo above at 816 H Street NE. For jazz fans, though, the new location is a better one in almost every respect.
It’s a far smaller room; there were about 40 people there for Antonio Parker‘s first set on Friday night, and it was crowded. (There were maybe a half-dozen empty two-top tables scattered throughout the place). The furthest table from the stage there is still closer than the ones just outside the old location’s back room, and there are seats at the bar to be filled with easy view of the stage from any one of them. My wife once compared the atmosphere at 14th Street to “a thrift store with a bandstand”; I thought of it as a coffeehouse, a social hangout where the music was often ignored by the talkative patrons. By contrast, the new place was every inch a jazz club, where everything from the sound to the band’s presence was stepped up from its predecessor.
Even what seemed the most awkward element of the place turned out to be perfectly fine. The bathrooms are situated in the back, such that one has to walk around and behind the stage to get to them. It seemed almost designed to create a distraction. Not at all, it turns out: The placement of the grand piano (brand new, from the looks of it) and drum rostrum, combined with the shadowy backdrop that the blue stage light creates, almost entirely conceals patrons coming and going back there. You won’t see them unless you’re looking.
There’s one curious facet to HR-57, though, that will be interesting to watch develop. On 14th Street, the club was far more social than any other; there were even board games available in the front room. Certainly some of the regulars of the old location (and there were many in the audience on Friday) will expect that same environment, and may try to re-create it on some level. Will they be dissatisfied in a room where social chatting is harder and less catered to, and move on to let the club build a new crowd? Will there be a tug-of-war between the music lovers and the talkers? Will the talkers win? We shall see.