After riots, blight and gentrification, jazz remains constant on U Street
By Jen Cooper
Photo credit: Courtesy of Washington Research Library Consortium Jazz Archives
On a small stage in the rear of HR-57 jazz club on 14th Street, 83-year-old Robert McIntosh is belting out the lyrics to “September in the Rain,” a jazz tune once sung by Frank Sinatra.
But McIntosh is no Sinatra.
His white shirt hangs unbuttoned from the belt down. The right leg of his khaki pants bunches at the ankle, caught on the top of his black tennis shoe. He’s wearing a camouflage vest, and as he dances across the small stage, the vest flaps open to reveal a nickel-sized black ink stain on his shirt pocket where his pen has leaked.
It’s early in the night, and there are only about six people in the audience, but McIntosh sings as if he’s performing for thousands. He holds nothing back, and when he opens his mouth wide, the audience can see that he is missing several teeth.
What McIntosh isn’t missing is passion. He knows every word to the song. His timing is perfect.
“He’s off pitch sometimes, he’s off key sometimes, but so what?” said club owner Tony Puesan. “He’s happy as hell when he walks out of here. He floats out of here.”
Puesan said it’s this type of passion for jazz that HR-57 is trying to foster during its jam sessions every Wednesday and Thursday night from 8:30 to midnight. The club provides a house band, but anyone can bring their own instrument or voice and hop on stage for a set.
Aside from providing a venue for community musicians, HR-57 is honoring the long tradition of jazz in the U Street neighborhood while introducing a whole new generation to the music. On a recent Wednesday night, the ever-changing band was as diverse as the audience, a mix of ages and ethnicities.
But during jazz’s heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, the U Street scene looked quite different. In segregated D.C., the neighborhood, anchored by Howard University and the Howard Theater, was the only place where blacks could stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, buy clothes or catch a live show. Jazz historian and writer William Brower said U Street attracted blacks across all sorts of social strata.
“It looked like black people, from ‘high yellow’ to inky black. It looked like everything from doctor to plumber, from school teacher to the unemployed, from preacher to pimp,” he said. “The soundtrack of that life was jazz.”
Many of the greats like Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday performed in the U Street neighborhood. But when the city integrated, the big-name acts began performing downtown and they took the audiences with them, Brower said.
While integration was ultimately a good thing, it undermined the economy of the thriving black community on U Street, he said.
After riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, U Street languished in a period of blight until the mid-1990s. Now, the neighborhood is once again emerging as an entertainment destination in the district. As a vibrant corridor it’s beginning to resemble what it was in its heyday, Brower said.
“Now you can go, you can dance, you can go to restaurants, you can hear jazz, you can just go and walk up and down the streets and see all the people there. You can be gay, you can be a rhinoceros. You can have fun on U Street,” he said.
Allyn Johnson, director of the University of the District of Columbia’s jazz studies program, has been playing jazz on U Street for more than 15 years.
As a musician, arranger, composer and director, Johnson has played in venues all over the country, but U-Street clubs have a special feel to them, he said.
“When I play at Cafe Nema you feel the sense of community because it’s real loose down there,” he said. “People come in and vibe with the music.”
Café Nema, near the corner of U and 14 streets, is known for hosting young but talented musicians eager to perform, Brower said.
Just a few storefronts west of Café Nema, Twins Jazz Club offers live jazz music six nights a week. Club owner Kelly Tesfaye said people come from Virginia, Maryland and Baltimore to hear live jazz.
The changing audience is reflected in the Twins menu, which features a mix of Ethiopian and Caribbean options.
“The kind of crowd we have likes ethnic food,” she said. “Spicy food with the spicy music.”
The menu is not as varied at HR-57, but owner Puesan said his goal is to keep the focus on the music. After all, the club is named after House Continuing Resolution 57, which designated jazz music as a “rare and valuable national American treasure.”
Patrons are allowed to bring their own alcohol to jam sessions, which is a way to honor the past in the present, said drummer Jimmy ‘Junebug’ Jackson.
“That’s the tradition,” he said. “You can have more fun for less.”
Jam sessions have long been a staple of jazz’s history and remain an important way for musicians to network and learn from each other, Jackson said.
“They help foster new talent and older musicians keep their skills tuned up when they don’t have gigs,” he said.
At this jam session, trumpet player Donvonte McCoy coordinates the addition of guest musicians. The stage is a revolving door of woodwind and brass: trumpet, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, trombone. Everyone can have a turn, but McCoy has one rule: “No sheet music.”
“We study a standard repertoire,” he said. “We try to have a good time, but we try to keep the music at a standard level.”
But that doesn’t mean the band isn’t afraid of trying out new songs. On this night, the band debuts a new number called “Passion Dance.”
“We don’t really know what’s going to happen,” McCoy said as he waited for his turn on stage. “It keeps things exciting. Very exciting.”