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After a five-month hiatus, the HR-57 jazz club is back in business with a new home on H Street.
The HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues reopened in mid-April in the Atlas District. Its previous location in Logan Circle closed in November.
Though drinks are sold at HR-57, owner Tony Puesan said it is not just a watering hole.
“It’s more of a classroom than a bar. This is a center -— a bar is focused on selling alcohol. We don’t,” he said. “We call it a center simply because it’s a center focused for all musicians in the area to come to.”
The club takes its wonky name from a House resolution passed in 1987 that designated jazz as a “rare and valuable national treasure.” A portrait of bill sponsor Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) hangs on the wall in tribute, alongside jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and hometown hero Duke Ellington.
Founded in 1993 by Puesan and his wife, Denise, HR-57 has had several notable jazz musicians perform on its stage, including Donald Byrd, Hank Jones, Chuchito Valdés, Eric Lewis and Antonio Parker. Some even got their starts playing on its stage.
Puesan said he initially wanted to create a museum commemorating jazz and blues, but his wife suggested he make it more interactive.
At its old location, HR-57 offered educational programs for aspiring musicians, but since the current space is a bit smaller, there aren’t as many offered in the center itself. Still, Puesan said there’s an education to be had almost every night during a jam session or a performance.
“A lot of musicians who come here are actually music teachers in the city, and what they’ll do is they’ll bring their students here and let them interact here, and they get a chance to perform at a venue,” he said.
The club includes a small “soulful food” selection: red beans and rice, greens and chicken wings.
Puesan, 52, was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the U.S. as a child. He grew up in Adams Morgan, which then had a strong Afro-Caribbean bent. But after a neighbor gave him some blues records to play on his father’s turntables, Puesan was hooked.
“I started understanding the blues more than my native language,” he said. “It helped me understand American culture, and it made me a better American; evidently, you have to come from somewhere else to really appreciate what you have.”
Later, Puesan studied saxophone and trumpet, learning informally from musicians around him. After working in contracting, Puesan decided to open HR-57 to support the local jazz culture.
“I had to make a choice, and my choice was either be totally involved with the music and support it, or try to play the music, and I quickly found out it can’t be done,” he said. “Either you’re put here to be the infrastructure for the support of other musicians, or you’re here for your own self-indulgence, and I chose to support musicians and support the venue, rather than support myself as a musician.”
Before finding its current home, HR-57 was in three different spaces. The roofs at two of the previous buildings caved in, forcing the center to move, and the final move came after the lease was up.
Although initially skeptical of H Street, Puesan realized during a walk through the neighborhood that it was similar to the Adams Morgan of his childhood.
“There was music in the air and a feel of a neighborhood” on H Street, he said. “It’s one of the last neighborhoods left in the city — a true neighborhood.”