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District Jazz

Bohemian Caverns Celebrates 85 Years of Historic Jazz

By Published: December 27, 2011
In 2006, the current owner and operator, Omrao Brown, took over and in just a few short years has transformed the club into the anchor of Washington's jazz community. The Caverns is now where both venerable voices and the young lions of jazz alike come to play. It's become a hub for the city's annual jazz festival and a home to local musicians. And once again, late night jam sessions ignite on a regular basis. Moreover, the club's growing reputation has begun attracting performers of national significance, allowing audiences the pleasure of intimate evenings of music with some of the biggest jazz names in a casual environment rarely available. For example, recent performers include Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
, Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
b.1940
saxophone
, the Heath Brothers, Jacky Terrasson
Jacky Terrasson
Jacky Terrasson
b.1966
piano
, Marc Carey, Roy Hargrove
Roy Hargrove
Roy Hargrove
b.1969
trumpet
, and JD Allen. The club also hosts its own jazz orchestra and regularly features leading local acts.



Achieving this kind of roster was no easy feat and did not happen overnight. It required equal measures of dedication, luck, and smart business planning.

"A jazz club is not what you would open to be a money maker," jokes Brown. "If you think, 'I want to open a business that is going to make a ton of money' no one is going to say a jazz club."

But the son of musician and educator Leonard Brown, Brown, with his partners, were committed to opening a space where they could present live music, particularly jazz. "[My father] produces the John Coltrane memorial concert in Boston, he just put out a book [on Coltrane] that he edited and contributed to. So I had a little of it in my blood to say the least."

The original business plan was not specific to the Caverns or even to Washington, DC. It was, however, always jazz-focused and Brown, living in Boston at the time and working in "corporate America," collaborated with his business partners to identify potential locations. After profiling Washington and U Street, they decided DC was underrepresented in terms of restaurants and venues and fit the profile they were seeking. Still, the final decision was not without risk. At the time, the U-Street revival was still quite nascent.

"It was weird. We felt this vibe was coming-there was not a ton we could point to, or say for sure would take off here. But luckily it did." Brown's gamble proved more prescient than even he imagined at the time. A citywide economic revival and migration from suburbs to city ensued shorty after Brown took occupancy of the Caverns. This, plus the changing profile of DC residents, contributed to the Caverns' early success.

As Brown explains, "I do feel that Washington has an affinity for art that is coming to the city in a younger generation, a younger professional generation...I also think there [is a] dynamic created by recorded music being largely available free and the United States being such a commercial driven society. One of the pastimes of America is how do you spend your money. And if you don't have to spend it on recordings then maybe you start spending it on live music. I think this is one of the more healthy times in the last 30 years for live music."



The early years for the Caverns under Brown were spent rehabilitating the club's image and building its booking roster. At the same time, the revival spirit Brown had sensed when he selected the Caverns exploded faster than expected. All up and down U Street, restaurants began opening and a new, younger generation of Washingtonians began reclaiming U Street, rebuilding areas that had been shuttered for nearly 30 years. This new generation, Brown believes, is particularly open to jazz, though defining just what they have in common is hard to pin down. "I don't know how you could do that with one word, there isn't necessarily a box they fit it," says Brown. "But I do feel there is a commonality between the people that are now coming back to DC-and the appreciation of art forms like jazz is in line with that." Half-jokingly, Brown agrees one might label them a new breed of "bohemian,' open to a cross-section of art and music.

While the Caverns benefited from this overall shift in the DC economy, as well as Brown's smart management, one key turning point came through sheer luck. Brown, attending an event on Capitol Hill, noticed bassist extraordinaire Ron Carter in attendance. At the time, Brown was only able to introduce himself and chat briefly. He must have made a strong impression, however, because months later, when Brown followed up with Carter to inquire about a potential performance at the Caverns, he found Carter unexpectedly responsive. A short while later, Carter made the trip to DC and played three nights at the Caverns. More importantly, Carter offered to repeat the session as often as he could and has since been making semi-regular appearances.


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