Takoma Station
Marshall Keys and Paul Carr perform at Takoma Station in 2021; Credit: Takoma Station

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

If you happen to be a regular at Takoma Station—the bar, grill, and music venue tucked into the edge of upper Northwest D.C.—you may have been thrown by the grand piano that took over most of the main floor during the last week of January. It was a temporary installation, brought in from Jordan Kitts Music for D.C. native and New York-based jazz keyboardist Marc Cary to play on Jan. 28. But before it was taken away, the grand instrument stuck around for another night and another nationally known pianist, Philadelphia’s Orrin Evans, on Jan 29. 

The piano departed the next day. But the big names on the calendar will continue. This month, on Feb. 25, esteemed trumpeter Jeremy Pelt graced the bandstand as part of an ensemble led by D.C. bassist Corcoran Holt. Holt is leading (or curating, as the case may be) this series of name-artist performances. Think of it as the club being called up to jazz’s major leagues.

“I wanted to just create something—to put myself in a space where I could inspire and be inspired,” Holt tells City Paper. “And to try to develop something where the local musicians here can be inspired, too.

Takoma Station, which celebrates its 40th-anniversary next year, was one of the District’s most successful and beloved jazz spots in the ’80s and early ’90s. Its founder and owner, Bobby Boyd, loved the music and wouldn’t allow any other genre to be performed in the venue (which was perfectly fine when he could attract the likes of Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis to play the place). But as jazz’s commercial cache faded and Boyd’s sons came of age, the club’s programming evolved in other directions. 

In 2019, Michael Phillips, music director at Takoma Park radio station WOWD-FM and onetime Takoma Station regular, made a deal with the Boyds to bring jazz back one Saturday night a month. Post-pandemic, there was enough demand to upgrade the jazz programming to weekly. It remained successful. But it was, in essence, a regional affair, with nearly all the musicians coming from either the D.C. or Baltimore areas. 

Phillips had ideas about bringing in big name musicians from out of town, but there were complications. “I didn’t have relationships with New York artists,” he says. “Second, I wasn’t sure Takoma Station was capable, yet, of drawing enough audience to cover the higher cost.”

Then, one Saturday night, in came Holt to play with his quintet. A graduate of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Holt spent 17 years in New York, working on the scene and making exactly the sorts of connections Phillips lacked. He wasn’t aware of Phillips’ ambitions for Takoma Station when he approached him after the gig. 

“I said, ‘You know, this is really cool, and I appreciate you having my quintet,’” Holt recalls. “And I was like, ‘What do you think about letting me do a thing once a month where we bring in musicians from New York? Or Boston, or people who are on the East Coast for a certain period of time? It would be a great way to mix things up.’” Phillips was thrilled to accept.

So far, it’s been exactly as the two hoped: Both Cary and Evans easily sold out, and both gigs were also packed with local musicians looking for that same inspiration Holt sought. This writer wasn’t able to see Evans, but Cary’s set, with a hometown trio of bassist Kris Funn and drummer Joe Palmer, was transcendent from end to end.

Phillips says the Holt/Pelt tickets are selling well and they’ll be followed in March with an appearance by New York saxophonist Stacy Dillard, then in April with another Philadelphian: trumpeter and Howard University alum Terell Stafford.

Those musicians are likewise finding inspiration in D.C. “Air! Actually being able to breathe! Trees!” Holt jokes. “Really, though, a lot of the out-of-town cats that I’m bringing in always have loved playing here. It’s a little slower, and there’s a deep, rich history here—and there’s an aspect of community on the scene here. People in Washington, D.C., really want to help the local musicians shine and have a platform. And that is a beautiful thing that shows, that musicians coming in from elsewhere can see and feel.”

It’s also redolent of something else the D.C. jazz community has long been good at: building from the grass roots. Takoma Station is attaining a new level without involving Ticketmaster, or expensive booking and management firms; instead, it’s relying solely on local impresarios. It’s an organic development that, so far, is managing to please everyone who’s interested in the art itself (and even some who are interested in the business).

And, as a small and, perhaps purely symbolic bonus, the venue is finding a way to make arty, sophisticated jazz a kind of “people’s music” after all.

Takoma Jazz with Corcoran Holt Group starts at 7 p.m. on Feb. 25 at Takoma Station. takomastation.com. $25.