A Jazz Mecca Celebrates a Cultural Heritage

HR-57 Serves as Both Club and Resource Center

Posted June 19, 2009 at 2:26pm

A soft light falls from the open doorway of jazz club HR-57, casting shadows across the slick pavement on a small stretch of 14th Street. A wiry man stands in the glow, shoulders slightly hunched, eyes bright but distant, a cigar in hand. There’s a smile on his weathered face as he listens to the strains of a Miles Davis tune floating into the rainy night.

“You hear that?— he asks before stubbing out his cigar on the sidewalk. “That’s great.—

Inside, a cluster of men play dominoes, the soundtrack to the game provided by the group of musicians wailing onstage. Among them is Tony Puesan, owner of HR-57. Regulars drop by for a game of chess or dominoes all the time, he says, and the affable but no-nonsense owner is usually happy to oblige.

Puesan, clad in a blue polo shirt and dark, casual pants, sits on a couch in his lounge and affectionately assesses the straggler. The man has made his way into the establishment and stands almost reverently observing the players, lips curled into a smile as he listens to a trumpeter blow.

The man is a “first-timer,— Puesan says, but the newcomer is welcome.

“He is a person who appreciates what’s happening here,— Puesan said. “He may have had a drink or two, but that’s all right.—

What’s happening is a Thursday night jam session, a regular occurrence at HR-57 at 1610 14th St. NW. The establishment, which holds workshops and programs for musicians in addition to being a club, was named after a 1987 House resolution declaring jazz music a national treasure.

It’s one of several U Street spots that offers live music, in keeping with the area’s storied past as a haven for good jazz and blues. Clubs like this make the U Street area once again a place for jazz lovers. Weekend nights at HR-57 are reserved for established acts, but Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings are open to any serious musicians who want to come in and play.

Puesan said many of those who partake are jazz aficionados who have various day jobs but still want to jam. On this particular night, the players are a collection of teachers and music instructors — and one young student from Howard University, Michael Brandon, whose heartbreaking skills on the saxophone belie his age.

Brandon, who is from Alexandria, dropped into HR-57 for a jam session about two years ago and has been coming ever since. Despite his powerful playing, Brandon is soft-spoken and seems to be focused even between sets. He said he appreciates the culture of the venue but also its practical uses.

“It’s vital to me, I guess,— he said. “It’s the only place I can practice after 9.—

[IMGCAP(1)]Jimmy “Junebug— Jackson is the consummate regular. Not only does he play drums frequently during jam sessions, he also is one of those who drops by for a game of dominoes and even helps out setting up for events.

Jackson, a jovial, bearded man, began playing here in October, when he moved to the District from New Jersey. He said he was drawn to the “real— jazz that is played at HR-57.

“It’s not that smooth jazz,— he said. “With real jazz, you have a chance to express yourself more.—

The musicians who play together on this stage “come out and study their craft, and figure out how it goes,— Jackson added. “That’s almost a lost art form.—

The subdued atmosphere, vibrant music and presence of Cuban jazz royalty Chuchito Valdés Jr. eating dinner on a nearby couch seem to hark back to the days when the U Street corridor was filled with jazz luminaries. The neighborhood was once dubbed the “Black Broadway— because of its musical reputation.

The area was home to Duke Ellington, and some of the best-known artists in history played in the bars and clubs that dotted the quarter. In fact, Puesan said that many African-American artists who played at upscale Washington venues found safe havens for performing and lodging in the U Street area, identified as part of the “chitlin circuit— along the East Coast.

Like many once-thriving sections of Washington, D.C., U Street was dealt a blow after the riots in 1968 that followed the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The predominantly black community fell to crime and disrepair for many years. Today, the neighborhood is making a return as a viable place for living and entertainment, although to folks who knew it in its heyday, it must look a bit different than it used to.

Still, Puesan is not worried about U Street losing its distinct African-American history.

“Wherever the African community has been in diaspora, the blues has been there,— he said.

Jazz still permeates U Street, even if it’s not the traditional sounds that were once heard. Bohemian Caverns, which saw the likes of Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and many others perform on its stage, continues to offer live music.

At U-topia, the music is infused with Brazilian and R&B flavor. And, unlike at other venues, the jazz here is meant to complement the food and the art, giving new purpose to U Street’s musical mainstay.

The innovative jazz forms may break with tradition, but U-topia manager Michael Pitetti said the abundance of jazz venues will retain the neighborhood’s authenticity.

“U Street is a historically black community,— he said. “It was known as the Black Broadway. I think jazz will help keep that title.—

And for patrons of all ages and ethnicities, places like HR-57 offer a glimpse into authentic U Street jazz, a fusion of passion, good music and appreciative company.

“A lot of backgrounds converge under the guise of music,— Puesan said. “Sometimes they don’t even speak the language, but they love the music.—