The first night back at Alice's Jazz and Cultural Society, a.k.a. AJACS. AJACS reopens this week.
The first night back at Alice's Jazz and Cultural Society. Credit: Michael J. West

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The seats at 2813 Franklin St. NE were nearly full on Sunday evening, Aug. 8; the room, decked out with African art and photographs of jazz musicians and African American notables, looked (save for a large hole in the black acoustic-tiled ceiling) just as it did in February 2020. Nevertheless, the masked man sitting on the edge of the stage was saying words that his audience had once thought they might never hear again.

“Welcome to Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society,” said Deandrey Howard into a microphone. “We are back!”

The house cheered excitedly, and kept on cheering as Howard, AJACS’ co-founder, co-owner, and operator, announced the members of the Paul Carr Quartet. (Tenor saxophonist Carr, pianist Allyn Johnson, and bassist Amy Shook are all esteemed veterans of the D.C. jazz scene, and of AJACS in particular. Drummer Chris LaTona, a former student of Carr’s, is quickly establishing himself in the District.) The musicians smiled in turn and assumed ready positions at their instruments. Howard finished off his introductions with his catchphrase, which much of the audience repeated along with him: “Jazz. Jazz. Jazz.”

With Carr and the band kicking into an inventive take on the standard “My Shining Hour,” it became official: The Brookland club, which had announced its permanent closure in December, was back from the dead.

“It’s really thrilling to see it back up and running again,” said Rusty Hassan, a WPFW DJ and a longtime regular at AJACS since its opening, in the break between sets, when caterers in the back kitchen served up fried fish they had cooked during the first set. “Because this is the spot. It’s just a delight to be here tonight.”

Like nearly everything else, AJACS had closed in early March of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world. That, it turned out, had been only the beginning of its problems. Between March and November, Howard battled appendicitis, shingles, and high blood pressure. Howard’s partner at AJACS, Dr. Alice Jamison (the club’s namesake), was incapacitated by a major stroke in 2018, leaving the venue a one-man operation. Faced with mounting health issues and the stress of running AJACS by himself, Howard opted to focus on his well-being. He told WPFW’s Aaron Myers that the club would not reopen.

Then two things happened. First, Howard’s health recovered. Late last year, he was visibly ailing, but one would never know it to have seen him on Sunday night: He looked healthy and was vivacious and talkative. 

The real driver of AJACS’ revival, though? “Popular demand,” he says. 

A retired building contractor, Howard is also a popular jazz trumpeter in his own right. Recently, he played gigs with his band Collector’s Edition at Southwest’s Westminster Presbyterian Church and in Takoma Park. Both had high turnouts, and Howard recognized many of the faces in both audiences as his former AJACS regulars. “Everybody was saying, ‘When you gonna open back up?’” he says. 

Since Howard lives on the second floor of the AJACS building, access to the facility wasn’t a problem. However, it needed repairs, which would take time and resources. Some well-meaning folks offered to track down another, larger facility; it was a nonstarter. “I said, ‘If y’all do that, I’ll be out,’” he says. “Jazz is best served in an intimate environment.”

If he was going to reopen AJACS, it was going to be on terms as close to the original as possible. In addition to the same room, it would remain targeted toward the same audience: hyperlocal, less affluent than the patrons at Blues Alley or the Kennedy Center—and, accordingly, less elitist. Howard believes in programming jazz for the people, straightahead and loaded with swing and soul. Just as important, and despite some pleas to the contrary, he was adamant that the club would remain alcohol-free.

“That was the whole thing with Alice’s dream, which I’m trying to keep alive,” he says. “We want kids to be able to come in and have fun, too. Mothers. And people in recovery, that’s a big thing. And then people who just want to listen to the music, not hear glasses and the drunken fool next to them trying to talk them up.”

In other words, a grassroots, community-oriented jazz venue. It was an atmosphere that people found welcoming and that they welcomed it back when it reopened. “It is a local place that has not just live jazz, but local, intelligent people who appreciate jazz,” said Marian O. Williams, a longtime AJACS patron, as she stood in line for some fish on Sunday night. “Everybody should come out and appreciate it.”

The musicians love it too, and they missed it. “I prefer this type of feeling when I play in a club,” said pianist Johnson. “The people are right there in front of you, and they really listen, and check out what you’re doing. This place is special.”

The reopening also served as a fundraiser to fix the broken plumbing that had caused the hole in the ceiling. According to Howard, AJACS took in enough money to get the work done and to host another show next Sunday (if the Delta variant allows it). At 67, however, he’d rather be playing the music himself. He’s working on restoring his embouchure, which deteriorated during his illness, so he can book himself at the club and sit in with other acts. He’s less keen to do the work of maintaining the club itself.

“I think I can give it one or two more years,” he says. “I’m tired, man. It’s worth it to have this place back, and keep me and Alice’s vision happening, but I’m getting to where I feel exhausted. This is my last hurrah.”

For the moment, however, D.C. jazz fans can rejoice: AJACS is back.