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Bohemian Caverns Celebrates 85 Years of Historic Jazz

Bohemian Caverns Celebrates 85 Years of Historic Jazz
Franz A. Matzner By

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Marking its 85th anniversary as a jazz venue, 2011 was a remarkable year for Washington, DC's Bohemian Caverns, solidifying its renewed reputation as DC's premier jazz club and a venue of national significance. The path to this point, however, was neither easy nor guaranteed.

The smoky clubs, dark corner joints, impromptu lofts, theaters, noisy dinner clubs, and hidden basement bars of jazz are emblazoned in our collective imagination and provide definition to entire genres of film and literature, conjuring instantly lost eras and evoking a powerful sense of place and meaning for modern audiences to this day. Moreover, to the aficionado, the names of particular clubs have become code words for entire musical movements and inspire in some religious-like pilgrimages to those few historic venues still in operation.

At a more basic level, the clubs and theaters of jazz are essential because jazz is an inherently improvisatory art form taking shape in the live venue. Its musicians need a place to play. In short, the physical spaces of jazz have always constituted an integral part of its history, making the reformation of Bohemian Cavern's legacy that much more important an achievement.

Part of that achievement is owed to the philosophy that the Cavern's operator, Omrao Brown, has pursued in his quest to restore the Caverns to its proper place in the pantheon of jazz clubs. Brown and his business partners have approached the task of renewal with a mixture of practicality and respect for tradition, embracing the club's legacy while creating a fully functioning space that supports and brings together today's jazz community.

"We feel like Bohemian Caverns was at one point an integral part of the community and we'd like to bring it back to that point," explains Brown, "[I]t has intrinsic value. It's one of the oldest jazz clubs in the same physical space on the planet. I feel that is an important thing to preserve."

Mirroring the history of its home city and the art form that kindled its beginning, the Caverns has seen both troubled times and periods of great success. Today's Caverns is located in the same space as its original incarnation, the Club Caverns, which opened in 1926 as a basement music venue beneath a local pharmacy. Though not open continuously since that time, this nonetheless makes Bohemian Caverns one of the oldest jazz clubs in existence, and certainly one of the few still housed in its original location.

In its initial incarnation, the Caverns quickly became a hot spot for the vibrant African- American arts scene of the times and showcased the top performers of the era, including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The Caverns also became known for its late night jam sessions (a jazz tradition that Brown has revived at the Caverns), which during prohibition included access to hidden stashes of liquor served discretely alongside a menu of southern staple foods.

As did many other venues across the nation, the Caverns shut down in the 1940s, and then reopened again in the '50s as Crystal Caverns. A few years later, the club underwent its final name change to Bohemian Caverns and came under the ownership of Tony Taylor, a promoter who reshaped the Caverns into a premier jazz venue of the city. Throughout the sixties, the nation's top players performed there, including Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane. By 1968, however, the club was closed again, one of many local establishments to suffer in the aftermath of the riots that swept the U-Street District following Martin Luther King's assassination. It would take decades for the famous U-Street Corridor and surrounding area to recover.

In fact it was not until the late '90s when, buoyed by a more general economic revival throughout Washington, U Street began a rapid resurrection. Amidst this economic revival, the Bohemian Caverns was reopened by Amir Afshar, who while maintaining it as a jazz venue did so largely in name only, failing to genuinely engage with the surrounding jazz community, the club's long history, or the resurgence of interest in jazz music beginning to take hold throughout Washington, DC.

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