Ellington and Beyond: D.C.'s Music

Bryan McCann | Dec 1, 2007

In the early 1920s, when Duke Ellington's first band, Duke's Serenaders, was pounding the pavement looking for gigs, Washington, D.C.'s U Street was known as the "Black Broadway." Its jazz clubs and theaters may not have matched the wattage of their counterparts to the north in Harlem, but more than held their own in terms of invention—U Street was hopping.

The ornate Howard Theater featured the most successful African American performers of the day. The Howard was upscale and luxurious, a velvet, marble, and crystal testament that both audience and performers had arrived. Down the street, the Lincoln Theater, the neighborhood's largest movie house, and the Lincoln Colonnade, a dancehall around the back, were less formal, everyday gathering spots that nonetheless featured the great big bands of the period. Nightclubs like the Crystal Caverns, the Republic Gardens, the Jungle Inn, and dozens of tiny after-hours clubs covered the late shift, offering small bands and comedy acts. Neighborhood churches kept things rolling through Sunday morning. It was entirely possible to stand on the corner of 13th and U for 24 hours and never be out of earshot of live music.

Ellington's genius was to combine the rocking church rhythms, the late-night grinding blues, and the striving orchestral flourishes into a vast body of work that essentially created much of the jazz landscape that would be filled in over subsequent decades.

The 1920s U Street scene that found its most eloquent and triumphant voice in Ellington was D.C.'s first and most enduring transformation of popular music, but by no means its last. Marvin Gaye emerged from a similarly flourishing doo-wop and rhythm & blues scene propelled by groups like the Clovers in the 1950s and 60s. As rhythm & blues evolved into soul over the course of the 1960s, D.C. and neighboring Prince George's County, Maryland, honed their own variation—the funky, percussive, call-and-response style known as Go-Go. In doing so, they provided the backbeat for much of hip-hop's subsequent explosion.

This evolving scene was so fertile that even its never-beens, like Mingering Mike, the imaginary soul superstar invented by local artist Mike Stevens, continue to enchant record buffs and outsider art enthusiasts decades later. Stevens's hand-painted Mingering Mike records from the 1960s are now prized objets d'art.

In certain quarters of D.C., the Reagan years will always be remembered with a soundtrack featuring Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and other local bands that defined the hardcore punk of the 1980s. The 9:30 Club and the Black Cat, mainstays of the scene, still enchant rebellious youth and those trying to remember their rebellious youth decades later.

D.C.'s contemporary music culture is as diverse as you would expect of a global city. Local electronica duo Thievery Corporation best translates that globalism, fusing bossa nova, tabla, and Arabic vocals into smooth triphop. Groups from their Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) label perform frequently in clubs along the Adams Morgan street that gave the label its name.

—Bryan McCann (Georgetown Univ.) is co-chair of the Local Arrangements Committee.


Blues Alley: 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-337-4141
Kennedy Center Jazz Club: 2700 F. St. NW, 800-444-1324
Twins Jazz: 1344 U St. NW, 202-234-0072
Twins Lounge: 5516 Colorado Ave. NW, 202-882-2523
HR 57: 1610 14th St, NW, 202-667-3300
Bohemian Caverns: 2001 11th St. NW, 202-299-0801


Habana Village: 1834 Columbia Rd. NW, 202-462-6310
Bossa Bistro and Lounge: 2463 18th St. NW, 202-667-0088


The Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, 202-667-7960
9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, 202-393-9930


Love Nightclub: 1350 Okie St. NE, 202-636-9030



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