Can musicians make Washington a jazz mecca again?
Perry Stein | 5/3/2016, 1:40 p.m. | Updated on 5/3/2016, 1:40 p.m.
Washington D.C WASHINGTON (AP) – A walk down U Street reveals relics of the strip’s jazz-rich history.
There’s the mural in the pizza shop alley that reads “Black Broadway,” a tribute to the hallowed corridor’s once well-known nickname. The Ellington apartment building is an ode to District of Columbia native Duke Ellington. And there’s the shuttered Bohemian Caverns, whose distinctive saxophone-adorned façade still stands.
But contemporary artists are realizing the city’s rich history isn’t enough to sustain jazz in a 21st-century Washington. They’re scrambling to save what has been called America’s original art form in a city where it’s fading from the culture.
For a genre that sprung from African Americans telling stories of oppression, the musicians are seeking help from unlikely sources: D.C. government and city institutions.
Advocates are lobbying city agencies and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce to support the cause. They want vacant, city-owned space to be transformed into pop-up jazz venues and are pushing for subsidized housing for artists so the city can retain talent.
“You do not have D.C. or any other forms of music if you did not have jazz,” said Aaron Myers II, a D.C.-based jazz musician leading the effort. “If you lose jazz, you lose the authenticity of Washington.”
Hiring a solo DJ is cheaper for a business than hiring a full jazz group, so artists are asking the city to consider offering incentives to hotels and bars that host live music.
“When I moved back to D.C., nearly all the places that I grew up listening to music were closed,” said saxophonist Herb Scott. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to maintain an art form like this because it’s simple math. It’s just easier to get a DJ, one person, than a quartet.”
City officials say that while they generally support the idea, policies and programs to revive the genre haven’t been fully developed.
A spokesperson for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said members of his staff met with musicians, but he doesn’t yet have an opinion on the feasibility of such an incentive.
Councilmember Brandon T. Todd said he created the Ward 4 Advisory Committee on Arts and Humanities so his office could better determine what resources and opportunities artists in his ward need, but he didn’t comment on musicians’ specific requests.
Many would argue that jazz has simply passed its heyday. Musicians concede that a gentrifying District changes the landscape of jazz but insist that demand for the music is still there. The city is flush with new Washingtonians who know little about jazz history, and they say it needs marketing muscle like never before.
Places such as Blues Alley in Georgetown, Twins Jazz on U Street and Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill are still hosting live jazz, but the scene has taken some recent hits. The legendary Bohemian Caverns on U Street shuttered last month. Cafe Nema closed its doors in 2010. HR-57, an old-school jazz venue, closed on H Street NE in 2014.
The historic Howard Theatre’s finances are foundering, and WPFW-FM, which bills itself as D.C.’s “jazz and justice” radio station, is having a fundraising campaign to keep it afloat. The radio station has been ground zero for organizing efforts, and musicians say its airwaves are a crucial platform for them.