- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Before the Harlem Renaissance, before the world-famous Ben’s Chili Bowl and long before Michael Jackson gained infamy as the King of Pop, there was U Street.

People the world over have been talking about Jackson’s genius since his passing. A conversation with jazz historian Jamal Muhammad, programmer for the public radio station WPFW (89.3 FM), was no different — until it took a turn at 14th and U streets Northwest.

The “Bowl,” whose founder, Ben Ali, died Oct. 7, remains a point of reference for Washingtonians, newcomers and tourists alike. The Ali family opened Ben’s in 1958, so they are a mainstay of the corridor, which earned the nickname “City in a City.” A celebration of Mr. Ali’s life is scheduled for Friday at his next-door neighbor of 51 years — the Lincoln Theatre, which was called the jewel of U Street when it opened in the early 1920s.

The corridor and its block upon block of post-Civil War architecture was diverse back then — with doctors, lawyers and merchants living among the working class. Families took care of each other and their neighbors. Although segregation outlawed certain social aspects of life, whites and blacks, Christians and Jews lived and worked together.

The music industry was similarly diverse.

Mr. Muhammad, 75, can tell you almost anything you want to know about music genres, and he wandered aloud through the history of clubs, restaurants and other entertainment venues along the 14th Street corridor.

Then and now

There was Club Bali, which now has a sign on it that says “Arena Stage.” There were the Colt Lounge, Brown’s Bar, Republic Gardens, the Bengasi, the Flamingo, (Joe) Turner’s Arena, and Cecelia’s, which later became Evelyn’s and now is the Islander. Farther along U Street, there was the Bohemian Caverns at 11th Street, a venue that first opened in 1926, closed after the 1968 riots and reopened a few years ago. A block south at Vermont Avenue stood Abart’s.

These establishments showcased musicians and vocalists nearly every night to entertain Washingtonians, who always have been lovers of music.

The conversation turned to food and beverages, too - the Pig and Pit at 14th and T was the popular barbecue restaurant, Wings and Things and Brown’s Bar and Ann’s Hot Dogs, which was just across the alley from the now-historic Lincoln Theatre, which was built between 1921 and 1923. There was mention of Odessa Madre’s restaurant at 2201 14th St. NW, where drinks were advertised at 75 cents a shot. The old Minnehaha Theatre, which opened in 1909, is the site of Ben’s Chili Bowl.

After enjoying a show at a club or two, or maybe even three, you could find the restaurants and carryouts packed with folks talking about what a good time they had had.

Mainly, though, the discussion along the walk was about the unforgettable musicians and entertainers who came through the corridor.

U Street became the entertainment mecca during the Great Migration, which began in 1910. By the 1930s and straight through to the 1970s, the regulars included such great musicians, vocalists and dancers as Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Ray Sneed, Harry Belafonte, Lionel Hampton, Bill Harris, Lynn Hope, Buck Clarke, George Craft, Ella Fitzgerald, Maurice Lyles, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Billy Taylor, Sarah Vaughan, Bobby Robinson, Rick Henderson, Buck Hill, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstein, Pearl Bailey, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Lloyd Price, Ramsey Lewis, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, the Clovers, George Shearing, Billy Stewart, Gil Scott-Heron, T.N.T. Tribble, Nap Turner, Mary Jefferson, Shirley Horn, Little Sonny Warner, Don Covey, Bo Diddley, Miles Davis, Little Royal and “Little Leroy” Jackson and way too many more to mention.

Entertainer and jazz lover Bill Cosby, who was in the military and first dined at Ben’s when it opened in 1958, courted wife Camille there and has remained a Ben’s patron ever since.

Several of these celebrities were born in Washington, but many of them adopted the city as their home, including Lloyd “Stagger Lee” Price, “Little Leroy” Jackson and a young blues-playing guitar man named Bobby Parker.

Bluesman Bobby Parker

Bobby Parker, born in Lafayette, La., and raised in Los Angeles, adopted Washington nearly 50 years ago. He has often been compared to great blues guitarists Buddy Guy, Albert King and Jimmy Reed. He played with the doo-wop group Otis Williams and the Charms, who performed very much like the Jackson Five and other now-legendary greats, such as Carlos Santana, Bo Diddley, Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams’ Big Band, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Coasters, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter and the Everly Brothers. He toured what is known as the Chittlin Circuit - New York’s Apollo, Chicago’s Regal, Philadelphia’s Uptown, Baltimore’s Royal and Washington’s historic Howard Theatre.

During the 1950s, Bobby Parker played with small bands and accompanied such artists as Big Joe Turner, Fay Adams, Jimmy Reed, Ruth Brown, Little Willie John and Guitar Slim. These small bands played throughout the South in small clubs and tobacco warehouses. Segregation in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s locked blacks out of the larger venues, and when they were allowed to play, the audiences were not allowed to mix. They also could not stay in hotels. In Washington, the only accommodations available to black entertainers were the Whitelaw Hotel at 1839 13th St. NW, Dunbar Hotel at 15th and U, Pitts Hotel at 14th and Belmont streets Northwest, and the private homes of those who offered room and board.

Mr. Parker has entertained the world over — from the United Kingdom, Amsterdam and Switzerland to Japan, Cuba and Mexico. In the early ‘60s, while appearing at the Howard, he decided to stay in Washington for good and form his own band.

He currently plays Madam’s Organ in Columbia Heights on the fourth Saturday of every month.

When asked why he has remained in Washington, Mr. Parker, 72, says he loves the city and remembers and honors the history created by the many entertainers before him who loved to work the clubs along the 14th and the U Street corridors.

There is no place like Washington to play and work, he says.

“You know that D.C. is a small town with a big-city flavor and there is a warmness that you rarely find in other cities. As a musician and entertainer, I have met and continue to meet many interesting people, and I love the fact that I have played in clubs and halls where such greats as Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. have played.

“I still believe that I can fly, that I can soar and reach for the sky.”

The Bobby Parker Fan Club is proposing that the 1900 block of 14th Street be named Bobby Parker Way.

Back at 14th and U, the nostalgia waned and the conversation returned to the here and now. There are Twins, Marvin’s, Busboys and Poets, Eatonville, HR 57, Utopia, 24-7, Cafe St. Ex, Jin Lounge, Red Lounge, Policy, Ben Kibours and the many art galleries in the area. It was evening, and the corridor rustled and bustled with people doing the same things their predecessors did decades and decades ago.

The diversity was evident in the streets and in the venues, but people weren’t commingling. It appeared that whites were with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos. As the conversation ended, Mr. Muhammad looked around and said, “One day there will be real diversity, and people will frequent the area and color won’t matter.

“We will all just hang out because we have the same interest socially.”

Sandra Butler-Truesdale, proprietor of Emma Mae Gallery, is a writer living in Washington.

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