- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

I HAVE seen this city in the day and the sun.

I have seen this city in the night and the moon.

And in the night and the moon I have seen a thing this city gave me nothing of in the day and the sun.

— Carl Sandburg, “Smoke and Steel”

By Lisa Rauschart


Those long lines snaking through the grand spaces of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History should be no surprise even to the most casual of visitors. This is, after all, one of the most visited museums in the world. But the folks queuing up so calmly aren’t here for the Hope diamond or the dinosaur bones. They’re here for the music.

Get ready for the Smithsonian’s Imax Jazz Cafe, where the music is hot, the food is fine and the ambience a cross between museum space and supper club. Thought you had seen all there is to see in the nation’s capital?

Washington at night is a whole different story.

Once the sun goes down, the city slips its marble mask to reveal a human face. Sidewalk cafes and evening strollers abound. Whether you are looking to take in the sights, catch a performance or hunker down with a cool drink, the quickening pulse of Washington’s night life can take you from the bustling streets of Georgetown to the quiet serenity of the Potomac waterfront. Venture out in Washington by night, and you’ll never see it the same way during the day.

Jazz takes over on Fridays from 6 to 10 p.m. at the venerable Museum of Natural History. Some of the best local groups have played here, along with national acts like the Statesmen of Jazz and Larry Willis. After all, there’s a certain cachet to playing at the Smithsonian.

“Without a doubt, this is the best jazz scene on the East Coast outside of New York City,” says Randall Kremer, public affairs director for the Museum of Natural History and a jazz guitarist in his own right.

However, you won’t have to listen to that riff in some drafty exhibition hall. By some special sort of Smithsonian magic, staffers transform the daytime cafeteria into something that wouldn’t be out of character in an upscale club. Lights are turned low, real cloths adorn the tables and blue votive candles help to conjure up something of the atmosphere that marks legendary D.C. clubs like Blues Alley and Bohemian Caverns.

And don’t expect the same old pizza and french fries you would get here by day. Instead, there’s beef tenderloin or grilled fish with cilantro shallot butter, and a mezze bar filled with smaller portions.

Just $10 gets you in and allows you a free cocktail. Checking out one of the Imax movies upstairs? That ticket stub will get you in, as well. Children younger than 12 are admitted free. This is one supper club that’s all-inclusive and family friendly.

The real draw, of course, is the music, which is why the Imax Jazz Club has its own following of regulars, who mix easily with out-of-towners and jazz fans. The layout of the space lends itself to all levels of participation, allowing casual listeners to sit on the periphery and hard-core aficionados to set themselves up closer to the stage.

“It’s such a wonderful ambience,” says Elaine Jackson, a Washingtonian who comes to the jazz cafe fairly regularly with a few friends. “The food is good, the prices are affordable, the music is wonderful, and it’s easy to talk to people.”

Dress code? Everything from little black dresses and pearls to jeans and fanny packs. What makes it worth it? That knowledge that everyone feels comfortable, no matter what they’re wearing. You simply can’t feel out of place.

For performance information, go to www.mnh.si.edu/jazz.

If you’re not specifically looking for jazz, but still want to hear some music, then the Kennedy Center is a good bet. Its Millennium Stage, now in its ninth year, offers some of the best folk, classical, international and jazz music, along with dance and filmed performances.

As part of its Performing Arts for Everyone program, the Millennium Stage routinely presents internationally renowned performers — for free. Performances happen every day at 6 p.m.

Past performers have included Norah Jones and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. This summer’s offerings include appearances by the National Symphony’s Youth Fellows and 257th Army Band, as well as a tie-in to the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival starting at the end of June. Other highlights will be violinist Yang Liu, harp-zither master Margaret MacArthur, and saxophonist George Botts performing with his George W. Botts Quartet.

A Millennium Stage performance can be just the beginning to a memorable evening. Afterward, you can take a stroll along the river or walk up to the shops and the cafes of Foggy Bottom and the West End, both nearby neighborhoods that stay up late. If you’re not willing to walk that far, all you have to do is step out onto the Kennedy Center’s balcony, and you can see the lights of Georgetown twinkling in the distance and watch the pleasure craft as they make their way up and down the Potomac.

Dress code: a wide array. Biggest surprise? Seeing that the artists are enjoying performing just as much as the audience is enjoying hearing them.

For more information about the Millennium stage, visit www.kennedy-center.org/programs/millennium.

If you would like to check out some familiar sights from a new angle, there’s nothing like a summer night on the river to do just that. Back in the days before air conditioning, Washingtonians and tourists alike flocked aboard the steamboats on excursions that were among the most popular summer amusements. These days, nighttime two- or three-hour Odyssey excursions along the river come equipped with four-course dinners and the strains of live music.

“It’s truly an entertainment and a celebration destination,” says David Johnson, sales and marketing coordinator for Odyssey. “People are already happy by the time they get onboard.”

Although the Odyssey operates in cities other than the District, Washington’s version is a little different, thanks to the city’s low-slung bridges. To deal with this exigency, the Odyssey here features a low-slung design, making it the only ship of its kind in the United States.

Did you know that the best view of the Lincoln Memorial is actually from the river? Or that those old kilns you might make out as you float by are the remnants of a once-flourishing industry? Sometimes, the allure of the river is as much for what you can see from it as what you can see on it.

With a mix of passengers that includes business groups, special occasion couples and tourists, a trip aboard the Odyssey is a great way to slow yourself down at the end of a long day. Once you’ve been rejuvenated, you can dance; the music gets more upbeat after the dinner hour.

Dress code: Leave your fanny pack behind. Jackets are recommended for men and “cocktail attire” for women. What makes it worth it: Seeing the lighted monuments or the winking lights of Georgetown from the water.

Boats leave from the Gangplank marina at Sixth and Water streets SW at varying times of day, and prices start at $81 per person. Call 888/741-0281 for more information or visit www.odysseycruises.com/ dc/indy/index.html.

Want to get a little closer? Try a nighttime tour by Segway. The exploration of downtown Washington is also offered during the day, but nighttime offers a special twist, says City Segway Tours’ lead tour guide Andy Simon.

“It’s less crowded and more comfortable,” says the 25-year-old licensed tour guide. “And you really get to see things up close. It’s the convenience and comfort of a bus tour combined with the details of a walking tour.”

The Segway HT is a sort of horizontally aligned scooter with handles that has a turning radius so precise it is possible to quite literally stop on a dime. Segway tours are offered in a number of U.S. cities, including Chicago and New Orleans. The D.C. version got off the ground in September.

The four-hour tour takes you from the Willard Hotel past Ford’s Theatre, over to the Capitol and down the Mall toward the new World War II Memorial. Once there, you’ll have a chance to get off your Segway and explore that memorial, along with the Korean and Vietnam War memorials, on foot. Back on your Segway, you’ll make your way past the White House.

“We go where the buses can’t,” says Mr. Simon, who makes a point of talking about the contributions of Pierre L’Enfant in designing what was originally a walking city.

City Segway tours are offered in Washington at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and cost $65 per person.

Segways don’t allow riders younger than 16, and all tour participants must wear helmets. An opening video and practice session in the Willard Hotel’s courtyard will get you ready to roll. Dress code: comfortable. What makes it worth it: Getting more up close and personal with the city without those tired tootsies at the end of the tour.

Visit www.citysegwaytours. com/washington for more information, or call 877/734-8687.

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