Washington, D.C.'s Jazz Scene

By: Renee Tannenbaum


“Jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure.” So states House Resolution 57, which was passed in 1987 and is the namesake of the HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues, at 1610 14th St. NW, a music cultural center in the heart of D.C.'s Greater U Street Historic District. Jazz music has firm roots in this area, which includes the U Street and 14th Street corridors extending from Ninth to 18th streets and south to R Street, and here it continues to thrive to this day.

Before it was nationally recognized as a valid musical art form and the “national treasure” it deserves to be, jazz flourished all over the country, in cities like New Orleans, New York and Chicago, and in neighborhood communities like Washington’s U Street. Jazz was the pulse of the U Street district, and its history is interwoven in the history of the city’s growth and in particular of Washington’s African-American community.

U Street's Historic Venues

U Street has changed for the worse and for the better over the last century. In the first half of the 20th century, an increasingly segregated Washington gave rise to a neighborhood of black-owned businesses and residences. At one time, before the Harlem Renaissance in New York, the U Street area was home to the largest urban African-American community in the United States. Restaurants, theaters, nightclubs and hotels operated by blacks thrived. This entertainment strip became known as “Black Broadway,” being so dubbed by singer and actress Pearl Bailey. U Street was a commercial hub and the center of Washington’s lively music scene, and the many hot spots drew the best black musicians and performers to historic venues like the Lincoln Theatre and the Howard Theatre.

When it opened its doors in the 1920s, the Howard Theatre, at Seventh Street and T Street NW, was the largest African-American theater in the world. In its heyday, it entertained its audience with musicals, vaudeville acts and plays. The legendary Duke Ellington, who grew up in this very neighborhood, performed his big band jazz on this very stage. The Howard Theatre has long since closed its doors, but efforts are now being made to restore it to its former glory, in the name of preserving and celebrating this neighborhood’s rich cultural heritage.

The Lincoln Theatre, at 1215 U St. NW, opened in 1922 as a vaudeville and first-run movie house. At its height in the 1930s and 1940s, the venue hosted Washington’s black middle class, with jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn appearing on its famed stage. The historic landmark has been restored and now hosts dance companies, film festivals and music concerts.

Next door to the Lincoln Theatre is Ben’s Chili Bowl, at 1213 U St. NW. Open until the wee hours of the night, Ben’s is perfect to accompany a late night of jazz listening. Musicians and all sorts of performers have been hanging out and enjoying Ben’s chili half-smokes for half a century. Among Ben's famous patrons: Ellington, Fitzgerald, Calloway, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx and Bill Cosby. Riots in 1968 forced many area businesses to close down, but Ben’s stayed open. And after 50 years, the neighborhood institution is still going strong, with the original booths, original stools and the original chili recipe to satisfy hungry musicians and music lovers alike.

Duke Ellington's Hometown

Musician and bandleader Duke Ellington is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential figures in the development of the musical art form known as jazz. Born in D.C., Ellington grew up at a home on 13th Street between T and S streets and began his musical career playing in neighborhood clubs.

U Street’s most famous resident is honored throughout the community. The Duke Ellington Bridge carries pedestrians and cars into the adjacent Adams Morgan neighborhood and the Duke Ellington Mural by G. Byron Peck overlooks the U Street/Cardozo Metro entrance at 13th Street and U Street NW. Ellington's contribution to the music world is celebrated every day, with jazz still playing on the streets of his youth.

U Street also acknowledges other contributions African-Americans have made to this city and this country. The African American Civil War Memorial, at the corner of Vermont Avenue and U Street NW, with a nearby museum, commemorates the service of the more than 200,000 African-Americans who fought for the Union during the Civil War. The sculpture reads “Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond.”

A Resilient Neighborhood

Since the dark days of the Civil War and the struggle for civil rights, the U Street area has undergone many changes. Violent riots broke out in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and had a devastating effect on the neighborhood. Formerly a fashionable urban center with a bustling commerce serving a largely black community, the area was destroyed during this period of civil unrest. Businesses closed and affluent residents left. The neighborhood declined rapidly and soon became a center of drug-trafficking.

However, efforts have been made since the 1990s to revitalize the U Street corridor. New development, high-end housing and trendy businesses are breathing new life into this historical neighborhood.

In much of Washington, the socio-economic divide is wide. And while many of Washington’s neighborhoods are still distinctly black or white, U Street's racial mix makes it more in line with the city’s diverse demographic makeup. Black, white, brown, rich, poor, whatever: people are drawn to U Street to share a love of music and history and appreciation for Washington’s homegrown musical culture. Jazz continues to bring people together, as it did back in the day.

Many clubs offering live music, most with no cover, still line U and 14th streets. A current-day neighborhood fixture is U-topia, at 1418 U Street NW, where a trio of some of Washington’s best musicians plays hot Brazilian jazz every Thursday night, as they have for over a decade, with local musicians often stopping by to sit in with the band. The backdrop of U Street may be a historical one, but the music scene of the present is a living entity, attracting new musicians and pulsing with the beat of the future.

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