Bohemian Rhapsody The District’s jazz hub moved from Georgetown to U Street, with the ascent of Bohemian Caverns

Blues Alley Blues: It took 84 years, but Bohemian Caverns is now the king of D.C. jazz spaces.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Move over, Blues Alley: D.C. jazz clubs have a new king. Bohemian Caverns, the U Street NW basement spot that in 2011 celebrates its 85th year, reached full bloom in its 84th—becoming not just a high-caliber talent showcase, but a talent incubator.

The venue has been steadily ascending since Omrao Brown and his partners purchased it in 2005, balancing weekly spoken-word and open-mic nights with a full calendar of jazz legends, lesser-known treasures, and up-and-coming national acts alongside a steady rush of homegrown District talent. It was in 2010, however, that Brown (who also manages the Caverns) introduced both a house big band and an artist-in-residency project—without sacrificing big-name bookings. In the past year, the Caverns has hosted such colossi as bassist Ron Carter, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and saxophonist/composer Benny Golson, as well as rising stars like pianist Robert Glasper and saxophonist J.D. Allen (who recorded live at the club this fall).

Not long ago, Blues Alley was a hungry jazz fan’s only real place to see such elites (aside from the Kennedy Center, which books them sporadically). The Caverns’ newfound attractiveness to stars comes mostly due to its own merits, but champions don’t rise without old ones falling. Harry Schnipper, the Georgetown venue’s owner, prides himself on bringing “all things jazz to Washington”—but the club dilutes its brand with bookings that lean toward smooth jazz and contemporary R&B (smooth guitarist Earl Klugh and neo-soul songstress Yahzarah are both scheduled there). Meanwhile, jazz acts with more adventurous trajectories are often ignored and dismissed, as are many local artists who don’t have the cachet of the national stars.

And while Schnipper obviously believes in disseminating jazz to young people—he sponsors an annual festival for school-age jazz musicians, along with other educational initiatives—that’s not what Blues Alley itself is about. “I am the audience demographic,” he told Washington Business Journal in 2005. “Someone who is 40-something or above and listens to sophisticated music entertainment and does so whether they’re on business or international travel.” In other words, middle-aged professionals, frequently out-of-towners—and, judging by some of Blues Alley’s ticket prices (an appearance by Dave Brubeck next spring is listed at $150 a night, minus the ever-present surcharge and drink minimum), well-off ones.

That’s not what Brown’s after with Bohemian Caverns. He keeps cover charges low; in most cases, prices are in the $15-20 range (the biggest names can run up to about $40), and the club doesn’t levy a surcharge or minimum. As for the talent, “the level of artist we’ve been able to book has absolutely skyrocketed,” he says. “A big part of our development has been in choosing to focus on younger, local musicians. You know, we don’t think of them this way, but once upon a time the big-name guys were the young kids that someone gave a chance to.”

This outlook helped bring about the club’s sponsorship of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, the 17-piece big band that debuted in April and plays every Monday night. The BCJO is one of the city’s most ambitious musical projects, featuring an ever-expanding book of arrangements and original compositions on top of the inherent challenges of putting 17 musicians together: Finding parts and solos for everyone, having backups for no-shows, and maintaining a sound system, stage setup, and equipment for the whole ensemble. Yet the band has been a success. The soloists are some of the most accomplished and imaginative in the city, with a rock-solid rhythm section and ensemble arrangements that are simultaneously pristine and chance-taking. They’ve also generated a steady audience: “There’s never less than 30 people there,” says Brown of the performances. Its consistency says a great deal about the band, but as much about Brown’s willingness to provide them a foundation.

“Omrao is a great supporter,” says Joe Herrera, BCJO’s co-leader. “He doesn’t run the band but he plays a huge role in the big picture. He is about to pay out about $350 for 17 stand lights, for example. And his backing will help ensure that grants, fellowships, commissions will come our way.”

The greats who pass through the Caverns notice the efforts, too. Ron Carter first played the Caverns with Miles Davis in the early ’60s, not returning until 2009—but was so pleased that he himself requested future bookings there. “Management has real concern that everything’s in place,” he says, “for the comfort of the musicians as well as the customers. You don’t know how many places there are where you get there to sound-check, and the piano’s out of tune, and you sit there waiting all day for the piano tuner to show up. At the Caverns, you get there and the piano tuner’s already there, waiting for us to show up.”

“O cares about musicians,” says Nate Jolley, a Washingtonian drummer who now lives in New York, but still performs regularly at the Caverns with his twin brother, pianist Noble Jr. “I’ve never had a problem getting paid. Lots of club owners will try to talk you down if not a lot of people come in to hear you, or give you a percentage of the door, which is nothing if nobody comes. But O makes it a priority to see that the band gets paid, even if that means he himself has to take a loss.

“He allows you to do what you do—gives us freedom to express ourselves,” Jolley adds. “And yeah, it’s a gamble for him to do something like that.”

But under Brown’s stewardship, the Caverns thrived off such gambles in 2010. The BCJO is one example; another is Sylver Logan Sharp. In November and December, the journeywoman R&B singer and District resident became the Caverns’ inaugural artist in residence, performing every Tuesday night. “She isn’t a jazz musician per se, but she does a great live music set,” says Brown. “The idea was to create a four-week time period where, on a night we don’t do great, they can work to develop an audience. It’s kind of gelled. Her last night, while it was cold and rainy, packed the house. We’ve got a laundry list of more jazz-oriented musicians we’d like to work with in the future.”

The club has an even more ambitious agenda for 2011. Brown is filling out the applications to turn the club into a 501(c)(3) non-profit next year, which will allow him to spearhead educational initiatives and apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the like. The club will also begin a Saturday late-night jam session, featuring a rotating cast of four jazz trios. Meantime, Brown is working on a stellar set of bookings that includes Bobby Watson, Charles McPherson, and a return visit by Glasper, whose music explores the intersections of jazz, hip-hop, and electronica. It’s that mindset—a combination of ambition, generosity, and an eye for innovation—that made 2010 the year Bohemian Caverns took over as D.C.’s home for jazz.

VIDEO: The Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra at Bohemian Caverns

Our Readers Say

Obviously this is great for the DC jazz scene (especially for the local jazz fan into national acts), but every single national act you mentioned in this article is black. And I've tried to study their booking policy as closely as I can and it seems their criteria for what is real jazz today is racial authenticity. As the character on SNL says, "Oooooo-weeee what's up with fhat? What's up with that?"

Where do Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, Brian Lynch, John Patitucci, Dave Holland, Aaron Parks, Brad Mehldau, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and The Bad Plus fit into this picture. Let alone Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson, Tony Malaby, Miguel Zenon, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Danilo Perez, Theo Bleckmann, Ben Monder, Of course I know there is the KC Jazz Club, Library of Congress and The Historic Sixth & I St Synagogue as well as Strathmore Hall and Clarice Smith at University of Maryland. But these are all performing arts centers with very limited jazz seasons unlike a jazz club that books jazz acts year-round week-in and week out.

Has anyone noticed a trend here in the booking policy/patterns? Am I alone here? Those types of acts aren't playing at Blues Alley anymore either.

Twins Jazz is black-owned as well and they present plenty of non-black artists. So what's the deal with Bohemian Caverns?

You are alone there.

I have seen many acts and BC that were not black or all black. I have played there many times. Race has nothing to do with their booking. Give them the respect that they deserve for being a great, fair club that cares about the music. It is the only one space in DC that puts the music first. I know, I have played in ALL of them.

Let the music speak for itself.
Since Mark says "every single national act you mentioned in this article is black," I'll mention that up until the final edit of this article it mentioned Darcy James Argue, who is white; BC was hoping to host him next month, but it didn't work out and DJA will play at another venue.
I have to agree that Blues Alley was way overpriced and the minimums are ridiculous. One thing I do like about Blues alley is the diversity of the crowd. Young / old etc.

I don't know who you are, but I do know that every act that is booked at the caverns is booked on merit and a mutually beneficial premise, NOT race. Your implication is fallacious and un-vetted. And for your information, the artist Joe Herrera, quoted in the article, is not black. Additionally, the band leader of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra that performs there EVERY Monday (more than any other band) and named after the caverns itself, also happens to be NOT black.

So again, you ARE alone! Bohemian Caverns is a phenomenal establishment for Jazz PERIOD!

oh dear Mark...your sooo off. & clearly did NO research before venting in this public forum... Not even going to go down the list of non black performers that have graced the cave with their gifts...but let me say, there are many!!! Local & national!! Quite a few are my pals @ that. Not sure what your angle is buddy. But you got the wrong venue..
I'll be there with my group in January featuring a band of white and black guys. And I'm right in between. Don't be so judgemental, music is music.

It's a good thing you speak out so that you can draw out of others the truth you need to hear. I speak for no one but myself. The "Black Acts" that happen to be "National Acts" were chosen based more on them being Elders than being National! Ron Carter, Cedar Walton, Benny Golson, Even JD Allen is the youngest elder I have heard play there. They share a rich History and Literacy that not everyone that says they love and support Jazz are even aware of. And therefore they have at times and still can be replaced by other national acts that are not steeped in the culture or language of Jazz. I love that the owner of Bohemian Caverns knows the difference and supports the culture of elders and listeners alike by hiring these musicians. They have given most of their life and love to this music.

Now as for my political side...before it was hip to head down to U street and ELEVENTH!!! Whites didn't even venture out passed 16th! let alone live down there and head down to hear Jazz in this area of DC. I know I am a complainer but can't my people wait say 400 years before they start complaining about the injustices they feel as Jazz Musicians cuz they can't get a gig...or was this just your analitical mind gone wild "noticing" an inequality between the races?
Yikes. I've been playing music there for over a year. I hope they don't realize I'm white!
There's space in this city for more than one but it seems to me your comparing apples to oranges in this article, both fruits but not the same by any means. Blues Alley and Bohemian Caverns have completely different business models. BA presents live entertainment with dinner available at your table 7 days a week, Bohemian Caverns has a separate restuarant presenting live music 3 maybe 4 nights. BC has the Caverns, Liv nightclub and the restuarant to generate revenue, BA only the club. BC pays U street rent/tax, BA Georgetown, and the Caverns are applying for "Non-Profit" status wich will decrease their tax assesment even further. I'm sure there are more differences but these are a few. Also ALL of the artists mentioned in this article have played Blues Alley in the past and most in the past 12 months. And lastly, if I'm not mistaken smooth and contemporary would be different genres of jazz like bebop, free and fusion, all falling under "all things jazz". Blues Alley has been all things jazz while still offering blues, R&B, and spoken word.

Seems like Mr. West's article has more of an axe to grind with Blues Alley than to promote the great things Bohemian Caverns is doing.
. . . and why is there a video of Thad Wilson included in this article? I have to question Mike West's motives. It seems there is more to the story than written.
It might also be noted that the BCJO is Co-Lead by Joe Herrera and Brad Linde.
Brad Linde is amazing! Looking forward to seeing him with the orchestra for the Christmas Special!!! Huge fan of BC :) Thank you for bringing out the younger crowd, who appreciates music and isnt looking just to get smashed in a club every weekend!!!

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