by Giovanni Russonello
It’s commonly known that U Street’s jazz past shines a little more brightly than its present. Above all, the historic corridor needs more venues. And Jeff Stacey’s way of filling the gap reminds us how easy it can be, if we just start looking for opportunities and thinking creatively.
Earlier this year the jazz lover-cum-impresario launched his U Street Jazz Jam, an instantaneously popular late-night hang on Friday evenings upstairs at Ulah Bistro. The restaurant — just next to the U Street/Cardozo Metro stop — had not previously hosted any jazz, but its location and second-story bar area made it an ideal venue.
This Thursday Stacey launches another venture: Dukem Jazz, a weekly music program at one of U Street’s most popular Ethiopian restaurants. And there’s no cover.
“We’re trying to take issue with the crazy conventional wisdom that jazz is dead, catch on with the millennials, and be a part of the energy on U Street,” Stacey said.
Dukem is a wise choice in part because of its location, and also because it’s already got some logistics in order: Thursday-night performers at Dukem will work from a stage already built into the restaurant. They’ll pick up at 9 and play until midnight. Two strong vocalists are leading the charge: Akua Allrich will perform this Thursday and the one after, then Sharón Clark will play on Dec. 19. After a brief break for the holidays, the jazz will pick back up on Jan. 9.
The U Street Corridor is D.C.’s most historic arts center, thanks in large part to jazz: It’s where Duke Ellington, Dr. Billy Taylor and others learned to ply their trade, and it housed a handful of clubs and theaters throughout the first half of the 20th century. As the area has gentrified over the past 15 years, the strip’s seen a resurgence in its jazz offerings — but it lost three of its most reliable venues over the past three years. (Café Nema, Utopia and HR-57 have all shut down, closed for long-term renovation, or moved away.) The only full-time jazz clubs left on U Street are Bohemian Caverns and Twins Jazz.
Stacey is convinced that if people — especially younger folks looking for evening entertainment — are given the opportunity to hear jazz without having to pay a high cover charge, it could lead to some important discoveries. That, in turn, might help the music find a place of prominence in D.C. again. In Stacey’s case, the only exposure he needed came during graduate school in England. “I lived next door to a fellow student who was a budding jazz pianist. I heard him playing through the wall, and I was like, ‘Hey man, what are you doing over there and how can I get some of that?’”
Stacey’s ventures at Ulah Bistro and Dukem — which earned him a spot in the Washington City Paper‘s recent People Issue — represent a step toward providing points of access for other young people.
Allrich pointed out that it also contributes to bringing the amount of venues in line with the number of talented area musicians who are available to play. “U Street is so poppin’ right now, it begs for more venues to showcase musicians who are really about the music. And that’s who we are: We’re about music and about expanding the music,” she said. “And it’s no cover? You can’t beat that.”