The interior of Alice's Jazz and Culture Society.
The interior of Alice's Jazz and Culture Society. Photo courtesy of Chris Grasso.

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At this point in 2020, it’s hard to be surprised by bad news, but Brookland jazz musician and venue owner Deandrey Howard’s Dec. 3 announcement on WPFW-FM was a surprise nonetheless. 

“Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society has been closed [due to the COVID-19 pandemic] and we’re going to stay closed,” Howard said on Aaron Myers’ program Jazz Stories. “My health is getting bad. I’m stressed out and my doctor says I got to be quitting this stuff and live a quiet life until I get better.”

Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society is far from the first jazz venue in D.C. to close during the pandemic; U Street’s popular club Twins, among others, announced its demise in August. But AJACS, known for the colorful mural of jazz musicians on its 12th Street NE facade, looked like it would hold on. 

Opened in 2015, it escaped many of the biggest dangers to live entertainment venues. Rent wasn’t an issue: Its co-owner and namesake, Alice Jamison, also owns the building, and Howard, a retired contractor, both lives upstairs and maintains it. There was no payroll: Besides the owners, everyone else who worked there was a volunteer. No liquor license problems: AJACS is alcohol-free. It is also a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

As late as September, Howard had every intention of riding out quarantine and reopening the venue that was his lifelong dream. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls,” he told this writer then. “With Twins and all those other places shutting down, everybody’s goin’, ‘Are y’all gonna stay open?’ And I say, ‘We should, unless something happens to me.’”

Something did. Since March, Howard has been struck by appendicitis, shingles, and most recently, high blood pressure. He’s been running AJACS on his own since Jamison was sidelined by a major stroke in 2018; now, with his illness, the burden is too heavy.

“I got a good five years out of it,” he told City Paper in a call on the same day he announced the closure. “We built a club, opened it, and made it successful for five years. It’s run its course for me.”

It hasn’t run its course for the community that it created, however. In its short life span, AJACS thrived as a jazz venue that was unlike any other—at least in recent decades. “It reminded me of the places I would go when I first started playing jazz in high school: the old-school, folksy type of neighborhood place,” says saxophonist Paul Carr, a regular presence both on AJACS’s bandstand and in its seats. 

“Folksy” is definitely the word; that’s exactly the attitude that Howard and AJACS wanted to challenge. This was a jazz venue for the people.

Performances happened on Wednesday and Sunday evenings—not nights, evenings—usually starting at 6 p.m. Admission was $5 (with another $5 to buy dinner from a local caterer), and the music was strictly, proudly traditional: straightforward bebop soaked in blues, gospel, and deep swing.  

“It was different from the vibe of Bohemian Caverns or Twins,” says vocalist Lori Williams, one of AJACS’s regular performers. (Howard and Jamison’s populist approach to programming meant that singers were especially prominent on the calendar). “It was more personable. The people there wanted to connect with you, and it made you want to connect with them.” 

That connection was easy to make, too, with a physically close audience. The musical style was similar to that of Westminster Presbyterian Church’s jazz night, though the church could feel cavernous, while AJACS was intimate and homey. “It’s more like somebody’s home,” says Williams.

If Howard had a target audience, it was his neighbors, especially older, working-class Black people. It was for them that he kept the admission low and the music accessible. The building itself was accessible, too: a ground-floor storefront with no steps and plenty of bright lighting, so there was no struggle just to get in. Jamison’s ban on alcohol was intended to make children comfortable, but also helped those in recovery or with medical issues.

Yet the jazz demographic of highbrows and well-offs was welcomed at AJACS along with everyone else. It wasn’t uncommon to walk in on a Wednesday night and find middle-aged suits sharing tables with younger people in t-shirts or elderly folks in their Sunday best. 

“It had a great mix of people of all ages and all types, Black, White, Asian,” says vocalist Coniece Washington, another regular performer who also came to AJACS at least once a month as a paying customer. “Sometimes you’d have whole families there, because it was good, clean entertainment. I never heard anyone cursing, I never heard anyone fighting; everyone respected each other. Everybody was on their best behavior there.”

Moreover, they knew their stuff. “They were informed; they knew when someone was playing well, they knew when someone was shucking and jiving,” says Carr. “That was one of my favorite audiences to play. They really enjoyed the music.”

“The crowd was always appreciative,” agrees singer Maija Rejman. “That’s a great recipe for success, when you have a listening crowd and they’re responsive to you. It’s just wonderful.”

The uniqueness of AJACS and its across-all-divides conception of live jazz means its demise leaves a void. On the other hand, in its short life span, the venue affirmed that there was a demand for such a space.

Even Howard isn’t completely counting himself out. “Who knows? I’ll only be 67 in January,” he says. “I might come back.”