- 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.

Story Continues →