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District Jazz

Bohemian Caverns Celebrates 85 Years of Historic Jazz

By Published: December 27, 2011
Commenting on the Caverns, Carter put it in simple terms, "I played here somewhere back in '60 or '63, back when Bohemian Caverns had different management of course... so my experience goes way back to '63. I like this place and we come back here as often as my schedule allows because I like the intent of the management here. I like that they are trying to bring high quality jazz to a great city in a state that hasn't had real quality jazz for a period of time. The atmosphere is comfortable, they have a great kitchen, the service is always good, the piano is always tuned, and I can't say more than that."

Carter's return to the Caverns did more than raise its local profile and bring in audiences. It went a long way to symbolically marking the Caverns' successful rehabilitation to national status.

Nonetheless, Carter's imprimatur alone would not have sufficed to launch Bohemian Caverns' next phase of success. The underlying foundations of the Caverns' success is Brown's straightforward operating philosophy based on community engagement and respect for musicians.

Local artist and rising star Akua Allrich agrees that part of what makes the Caverns successful is how it approaches musicians and the local community. "My experience as a musician has been very special at the Cave...I was certainly spoiled by the wonderful treatment that I received from all of the staff....[Brown]'s always fair and honest, and just overall wonderful to do business with. They just genuinely seem to appreciate the art of music and truly treat musicians with lots of respect."

Allrich expounded on the Caverns' impact on the local scene more broadly. "There seems to always be a push to expose the wonderful talent in the area, from the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra to the various features on the weekends, to the other features on Thursdays and Sundays. They always have something going on at the Cave. There's even an open mic on Wednesdays. There is an opportunity for every type of musician to explore and share their talents and even network with other musicians. They really are pioneers in this awesome renewal of musical energy that is going on all over!"

New York-based saxophonist JD Allen echoed these sentiments, emphasizing that when he comes to DC he often chooses the Caverns as a venue. Allen went as far as to record a live album there in 2010, which is currently set for release under the working title JD Allen Trio: Live at the Caverns.

Allen explained this choice, stating, "The historical significance of Bohemian Caverns holds a dear place in the history of jazz venues. Omrao Brown has been able to successfully rejuvenate the Caverns with seamless effort. Playing there is like playing in your living room-it's just that intimate. There's a freedom that's obtained due to the fact that Brown lets an artist 'search and discover' at no risk of being told what to do. He expects YOU to be YOU. Bohemian Caverns is a jewel."

The comments of these and other artists reflect more than an abstract sensibility or personal approach incidental to Brown's leadership. The goal of creating a sense of community was built right into the business plan established by Brown and his partners, who began by fostering connections to the local musicians and jazz education institutions of DC, including, of course, Howard University.

"We didn't want to become a money sponge," explains Brown. "Our ticket price reflects that. We thought it was extremely important for us to be accessible to kids that are high school or college age. Especially with Howard being right in our backyard, you can't ask some kid to spend $45 and $15 minimum to find out if he likes the music you want them to have an appreciation for."

This open-door approach stands in sharp contrast to the previous owners, who failed to tap the extensive resources of DC's jazz scene. Especially at the beginning, the Caverns benefited greatly from this access to local talent, or as Brown puts it, "I hadn't booked a jazz club before, so you start with a Rolodex of no one. And you have to fill 52 weekends and off nights and all that with good music, which was a concern. So equally important is the local jazz community. It has a ton of excellent jazz musicians, so while we may not have had the biggest names on the billboards for the first couple years, we always had great music downstairs...[T]he musicians' community, the jazz community specifically, has been very supportive, whether that be local, regional, national, [or] international."

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