Everyone loves the music, but not everyone knows what Jazz means. “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” – Have your Taste Of Jazz!
The heart of U street is a drag no longer than a mile and a half, filled with dives, restaurants, clubs, mixed with some retail storefronts wrapped in apartments and brownstones. The neighborhood has undergone a full transformation over the years, with luxury condominiums anew filling in and around the commercial district. With that “renaissance” has come a lot of changes, the old café’s and traditional restaurants replaced with nouveau style swanky spots to cater to the newer, more upscale residents. There may have been many changes down on U Street, but one thing remains the same, its jazz roots.
As much as anywhere I’ve spent evenings down on U Street, the one place where my understanding of classic jazz has its genesis. It always amazes me how such a small area can carry its weight on jazz. You see down on U Street there is very little of the soul/R&B jazz I was familiar with. Jazz festivals? Not once. Yet Miles Davis has been down on U Street. Charlie Parker has been down on U Street. Dizzy Gillespie? Shirley Horn? Ella Fitzgerald? Check. Turns out the very place I descended on to quench my entertainment thirst is one of America’s best kept secrets of jazz, rich with history. And at the heart of that history is Duke Ellington, a DC native born just blocks away from U Street. Ellington has been celebrated as one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, the founder of those early rag style sounds that I heard time and time again down on U Street. Rag style jazz makes you want to get up off your feet and jitterbug; and Ellington had a dizzying array of numbers that had me completely mesmerized. The toxic nature of his compositions combined heavy baselines with a full range of percussion instruments in a swing kind of rhythm. Ellington’s pieces were not subjected at one “juke”; rather any spot with a jazz night would’ve been crazy to leave his masterpieces out.
For live jazz the masses flocked down to U-topia. U-topia is a must visit particularly on Friday nights when they had a travelling band showcasing various forms of classic jazz. It is at Utopia that I probably came to understand and appreciate the diversity of jazz the most. Smoky, tight and dark, U-topia felt like old time Harlem jazz joints depicted in classic movies, and hours into a typical set I would imagine living in the old days with a social scene I depict as bands playing dizzying sets late into the night. Couldn’t get enough of jazz at U-topia, and it’s a good thing as it was the only joint open after city mandated 2a.m. closing times, something about an ordinance grandfathered in. By the 5 a.m. closing time I would’ve just about had my fill.\
On the south end of U Street I spent many a Wednesday night at Bohemian Caverns, an oasis of a place with as much history as any other. Bohemian Caverns is definitely down by law; the cave design with the tree trunk tables put you into a trance which I never wanted to come back from. Thought to have been established in the 20’s, I first heard about Poetry and Jazz nights described as the perfect match of two art forms, and with the soft spoken Dehejia MC’ing it in a open mic format, my Wednesday nights would never be the same. Hearing young, emerging poets literary wax poetic over a live band who in turn would show their chops based on the poetry flow was magical. Art personified.
DC boasts of plenty of jazz joints around town, from Twins to Blues Alley to HR-57, but my jazz GPS always led me down on U Street. Whether its Duke’s City or Jojo, there always seemed to be something new going on musically that I could learn from. It’s no wonder U Street has upheld its rich jazz legacy.’