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It was Friday night at the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe and Frederic Yonnet was warming up the crowd. He cupped his hands over his mouth and broke into a lively harmonica solo. Then, removing the silver rectangle from his lips, he smiled widely. “Is there anybody in the room?” he teased. “Do you want some more? Do you want some more?”
In fact, there were plenty of people in the room that night. The place was packed (it can seat 300) and the audience—-a mix of toddlers, teens, tourists and gray-haired Washingtonians—-clapped and cheered. Wait-times for tables reached upwards of 15 minutes, and at one point, the line snaked out to the museum gift shop nearby.
And yet, despite its popularity, the cafe’s days may be numbered. “The [Smithsonian] Business Ventures office has told us that it will be continuing until the end of June, but its future after that is uncertain,” says Randall Kremer, spokesperson for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “They have called it a financial issue.”
Smithsonian Business Ventures spokesperson Linda St. Thomas admits that the jazz cafe’s fate “is under discussion.” A decision about the program’s future will be made in June and any conclusions on the subject are “premature,” she cautions.
But that hasn’t stopped D.C.’s jazz fans from rallying around the cafe. Harry Schnipper, owner of Blues Alley in Georgetown, says losing the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe would be a blow for D.C.’s entire jazz scene. “It would be a tragedy if they closed. All jazz boats rise in the same water. Jazz competition is good,” he says.
“It’s one of the few places around town where tourists from the museum can bump elbows with federal workers, local hipsters, and musicians,” Larry Appelbaum, a jazz radio show host at WPFW, writes in an e-mail. “It’s also important that they only charge $10 with no minimum. You can easily spend three or four times more than that at the better jazz clubs around town.”
Ali Ryerson, a Connecticut-based flautist who played at the cafe March 16, says the program is highly regarded among jazz musicians. “I think the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe has a really good name in D.C., but its reputation goes well beyond just D.C.” she says. The cafe is especially renowned for its jazz guitar performances, but she says the “casual atmosphere” makes it appealing to a wide variety of artists. “I’ve been hearing about it for many years,” she says.
Appelbaum says he doesn’t understand why Smithsonian Business Ventures is considering pulling the plug on the program. “I realize that every organization needs to balance artistic vision with the bottom line. But every time I’ve been to the jazz cafe, I’ve seen good audience turnout, so I really don’t know what the problem is. Are they really experiencing a loss or do they just want to maximize a profit for that space? In other words, is the problem financial, cultural or political?” he asks.
Schnipper wonders whether the jazz cafe’s problems are reflective of larger troubles at the Smithsonian. “I just think it’s endemic of the Smithsonian Institution in general. I think they’re undergoing a lot of change with the resignation of their director,” he says.
Actually, financial concerns have been brewing for some time, Kremer says. “I can’t speak to why this is not successful financially, but I can speak to why it’s successful at bringing jazz to the people of Washington, D.C….What our goal is [is] to figure out what we need to do to make the jazz cafe continue.”