Shanika Hopson

Despite being a fixture of Washington, D.C.’s rich and multifaceted history of jazz for almost a century, the Bohemian Caverns finally shut down in the face of financial struggle that had plagued the establishment for decades.

Once a hub for jazz legends in the 20th century like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and the great composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, these smoke-filled clubs in neighborhoods like the U Street Corridor once frequented by these musical giants have closed their doors as a result of higher rents and changing demographics.

Unless the city attempts to rectify the challenges posed by gentrification, it risks losing a part of the city’s culture in which the District had historically distinguished itself through this musical tradition.

‘Great Black Music’
Since the 19th century, D.C. has fostered the development of music born out of the black experience. Uniquely situated as a city with a large free black population before the end of the Civil War, D.C. was home to many black musicians of varying backgrounds. By the beginning of the 20th century, D.C. was the city with the highest percentage of black people, according to Cultural Tourism D.C.

Maurice Jackson, a professor in the history department and African American studies program, discusses the history of jazz in his recently published book, “DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC.” The root of what he refers to as “Great Black music” can be found in the legacy of slavery and its impacts on the black community, according to Jackson.

“Jazz developed in many forms coming from the polyrhythmic notions of African music but also here during slavery,” Jackson said in an interview with The Hoya. “African-Americans sang the slave songs, the negro spirituals, all of this music comes from the African-American experience.”

But jazz also grew from a number of different influences, including classical music, folk songs and even marches, according to Jackson. These influences interacted to create the distinctive form of jazz.

“In philosophy you have concept of the dialectic, where ideas clash, and as they clash they form a higher order, and this happened in jazz,” Jackson said.

National Museum of American History

Because D.C. was segregated until 1953, the growth of jazz was constrained to the predominantly black U Street Corridor and Shaw Neighborhood. Once known as Black Broadway, the area was home to venues like the Howard Theatre on T Street, Lincoln Theatre and the Republic Theatre on U Street that prominently featured black artists.

However, segregation within the city also meant that many black musicians were denied the ability to perform — or watch performances — at certain venues. Notably, the celebrated contralto singer Marian Anderson, who needed a bigger venue for her performance, was not allowed to play at Constitution Hall near the National Mall, run by the women’s service organization Daughters of the American Revolution, in 1939, as they did not allow people of color to perform there.

Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

In Anderson’s case, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt — an ardent supporter of desegregation who wrote a letter of resignation from the DAR after the group prevented Anderson from performing — and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes made it possible for Anderson to perform in a public, integrated setting. Through her performance, Anderson was able to advance the desegregation movement and the development of civil rights.

“Eleanor Roosevelt and the secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, made it possible for [Anderson] to perform on the Lincoln Memorial,” Jackson said. “This was really the first great demonstration on the mall and of course this led to the 1963 civil rights march.”

While D.C. had an extensive jazz community through Black Broadway, segregation posed challenges for performers’ access to the city resources.

D.C. jazz today faces new challenges. As the demographics of traditionally lower-income neighborhoods have changed, D.C. jazz has begun to lose its historic home.

A Changing Tide
Around the end of the 20th century, many former fixtures of the jazz scene in D.C. have closed their doors as many musicians have moved out of the area because of outpricing and gentrification. Once-notable clubs have closed under the pressure of higher rents and changing neighborhood cultures.

On the corner of 11th and U streets, the Bohemian Caverns — which once featured famed musicians like Cab Calloway, Miles Davis and Ellington in the mid-1900s — closed its doors permanently in 2016, citing irreconcilable financial problems as the cause. Many jazz clubs in the U Street Corridor have faced the same fate like the Howard Theatre that closed in the ’80s though it reopened in 2012.

Howard Theatre

Already hampered by rising operation costs, the neighborhoods that were once hotbeds of nightlife have also faced changing cultures because of gentrification. One way that clubs have been replaced is with residential buildings touting names indicative of their past function, like The Ellington, an apartment complex.

As the areas have become more residential, clubs have received backlash from the community, said Anna Celenza, a professor of music in the department of performing arts.

“There was an arts identity in these areas, so people wanted to be a part of that,” Celenza said in an interview with The Hoya. “But the problem with that is when those people come in they think, ‘Oh it’s wonderful, but it’s 10 o’clock at night, and I would like to go to sleep, and I don’t want to hear this anymore.’”

Despite these gentrifying effects on the jazz climate in the District, the city’s leadership has recently made a concerted effort to combat these changes. Celenza is a member of the Music Policy Forum, a public policy organization that advises governments and businesses in their engagement with the music community. The forum had its annual summit Oct. 26 and 27 at Georgetown to explore topics such as D.C.’s music climate.

“We are announcing at the conference this weekend that through funding from the university and funding from the city, we’re doing a census of the music ecosystem in Washington, D.C.,” Celenza said. “We’ll have all this data, and with that data we can really transform the music community.”

While the larger D.C. area has a readily apparent jazz scene, the Georgetown community also has a vibrant and well-established jazz community of its own. Going back many years, the Georgetown jazz program ranges across students, teachers and the larger community to link the University to the D.C. arts setting.

From U Street to University
Founded in 1944, and proclaiming themselves the Georgetown Rhythm Boys, the first official Georgetown jazz dance band started with 14 original members and provided invaluable entertainment for the dwindling student body as students were drafted to serve during the World War II.

The Georgetown Rhythm Boys dissipated in 1947, however, because of failing enrollment only to come back the following fall as a new sect of the Georgetown Band known as the Georgetown Collegians, until eventually also going away in the ’80s. Following these trials, tribulations and tryouts, a new group of young jazz enthusiasts — now the Georgetown Jazz Band — drafted and ratified a constitution that has endured through today, which officially established the band as an independent organization in 1994 with its own director.

Paul Bratcher, a jazz connoisseur and renowned organist hailing from Philadelphia, was hired to direct the jazz band, one of Georgetown’s student music ensembles, for his first semester in September 2018. Already well-situated within the D.C. jazz scene as associate chair of the piano at the Levine School of Music, Bratcher brought his talents to Georgetown to direct the Jazz Band.

“One of the things we try to do is to let younger and new incoming students know about the program before they got there,” Bratcher said. “There are some student leaders who helped us hit the ground running.”

Sean Berman (SFS ’19), one of these student leaders, is a senior saxophonist and four-year veteran of the Georgetown Jazz Ensemble, a group of students dedicated to a love of jazz; he has noticed Bratcher’s effect on the band. “The band has already gotten a million times better,” Berman said.

However, in the age of the all-powerful Spotify Top 50 chart, live jazz music has slipped out of the campus spotlight, especially in comparison to the prominent Georgetown a cappella groups. Berman admitted many listeners prefer vocal performances to the instrumental jams of jazz groups.

“It’s pop music, and it’s words, and the modern ear likes words,” Berman said. “It’s just the way it is, and we try to contend with that.”

And they do contend: Berman is also a member of the New North Collective, a separate student quintet that attempts to bring jazz to the student body by playing intimate shows on campus.

“We’re trying to connect with Georgetown students who maybe don’t think that they like jazz because they’ve never had that exposure to it. They see it as elevator music,” Berman said. “There’s more to it, and I think when you see it live, you get that real connection.”

Julia Alvey/The Hoya

The New North Collective is not the only champion of jazz on campus; Bratcher promised future Jazz Ensemble performances once the spring semester is in swing. The department has also been in contact with dance organizations in the D.C. area to promote jazz District-wide and rekindle the style’s cohesive power.

“Jazz has always been a grassroots experience, from the beginning,” Bratcher said. “We’ve got to create opportunities for people outside the concert hall to experience the music.”

Jackson echoed this sentiment. While institutions like the Kennedy Center and Smithsonian actively support formal concert hall jazz performances, they are not necessarily approachable for the modern listener.

“The city and others have to be willing to open venues and make the music accessible,” Jackson said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but you have to have the will to do it.”

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