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The Bobby Muncy Quartet’s much-praised Wednesday-night stand at U-Topia, the only local jazz gig that featured all original music, ended suddenly at the end of January. It’s tempting to add that it ended without warning, but the actual story is much stranger.
“Anybody else having problems with Utopia?” wrote pianist Gene D’Andrea on Facebook on Monday, Jan. 24. “We were told by [owner Jamal Sahri] 2 weeks ago that the place was closing for renovations and we wouldn’t be playing there, then the manager told us to come back, now we were just replaced with a different group on Wednesday with 2 days notice.”
“It’s absolutely true,” confirmed bandleader Bobby Muncy by phone that evening. According to Muncy, Sahri spent much of the band’s Jan. 19 set conferencing in the U Street NW restaurant’s back office with shift manager Fatah Ladjel, who was giving them a hard time for taking too long between songs. Then, says Muncy, Ladjel (who confirms Muncy’s account) took him aside to say that that night would be the band’s last at U-Topia. Sahri, Ladjel said, would be closing the club to renovate it.
“He, of course, is not,” said Muncy a week later. “He just wanted to get rid of us.” On Jan. 24, Muncy learned from trumpeter Deandrey Howard that Howard’s trio had been engaged for Wednesdays at U-Topia. (Howard’s quintet, Collector’s Edition, also plays there on Friday nights.)
But there were renovations planned, says Ladjel. “They were supposed to start this month,” he says. “I’m not sure why, but they didn’t—so we stayed open.” When asked why the band wasn’t rehired when construction didn’t happen, Ladjel demurs. “I don’t make any of these decisions. I don’t have anything to do with the jazz,” he says. “I just told them what Jamal told me to tell them.”
Sahri, however, tells a different story. Not only did he not tell Ladjel to blame it on renovations, he says, he wasn’t even in the building when the band got fired. “I’ve been out of town for a month; I just got back,” he said on Feb. 5. “I did make the decision to let Bobby go, yes, but I asked Fatah to do it while I was gone. So I don’t know about what he said to them, because I wasn’t there.”
“Yeah—no. He was there,” says Muncy. “He was sitting right there at the bar, and actually said hello to us.” Ladjel, D’Andrea, and drummer Andrew Hare all agree with Muncy: “He was definitely there,” says Hare. “I looked right at him.”
Sahri says there was nothing duplicitous about his firing of Muncy. “I know a lot of people think of this as a jazz club, and it’s OK that they do, but as far as I’m concerned what I run is a restaurant,” he says. “And I have to look at it that way. I have to pay the rent, and the bartender, and the kitchen staff, and the wait staff. On a Wednesday night, I’m not bringing in enough money to pay for all that and Bobby’s band.” Often, Sahri says, the band’s fee was more than half of the total take for the night. Howard’s trio is a cheaper booking.
Muncy is largely taking it in stride. “You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says. “Here’s the basic fact of a gig: Either the club screws over the band, or the band screws over the club. That’s how this business works. So this just means it’s on to the next one, to see whose turn it is to screw over who.”
Muncy doesn’t currently have a next one lined up. Meanwhile, the Deandrey Howard Trio is holding down Wednesday nights at U-Topia.