Friday, February 1, 2008

Last Saturday, Archie Edwards’ barbershop hosted its last jam — a rollicking yet spiritual gathering filled with tender reflections on a vibrant tradition.

For half-a-century, musicians — the famed and novices alike, some from as far as Japan — found their way to Mr. Edwards’ unadorned storefront shop on Bunker Hill Road Northeast, in the District’s middle-class Woodridge community to hone their chops, trade banter or to sit and pick a spell.

The jam will continue, but its location will change. After a week’s hiatus, the tradition will pick up a week from tomorrow in its new space at HR-57, a jazz club on 14th Street Northwest. The move from Bunker Hill Road became necessary when the new owners of the 1920s vintage property decided to convert it into a dentist’s office.

Like many longtime participants, Jeff Glassie has mixed feelings about the move.

“Coming here has changed my life,” said Mr. Glassie, a board member of the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation (a nonprofit membership organization founded after Mr. Edwards’ death in 1998 that offers classes and stages performances).

“You come for the music, but you also come for the people,” adds Mr. Glassie, a Washington-based attorney who sometimes plays guitar at the jams. “It will be sad to leave here, but I think going to a new place may be like a new lease on life.”

His feelings were widely echoed throughout last week’s final jam at the well-worn shop, where only a few objects from the shop’s interior — Mr. Edwards’ barber’s chair is in storage, and crews removed the mirrors from its pale yellow walls a few weeks ago — remain.

Yet memories of the good times in the storied Northeast shop will endure.

For most of the day and well into the night on Saturday, an overflow crowd of blues musicians, fans and revelers packed the small shop, often spilling onto the sidewalk, where impromptu jam sessions sprang up outside the main event.

Inside, silver platters filled with dainty egg salad sandwiches and brownies — washed down with the bottled water, wine and Yuengling Lager that were close at hand — provided sustenance for the well-wishers.

“For those who are here for the very first time, where have you been?” said Miles Spicer, treasurer of the foundation, his voice filled with the fervor of a Baptist preacher.

The crowd responded with a collective “amen,” as the would-be inner city juke joint temporarily took on the tone of a revival. In the end, many lingered past midnight, when a rendering of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” finally ended the long goodbye.

Mr. Edwards, an unassuming man whose commanding personality belied his 5-foot-5-inch frame, had served in the U.S. Army in World War II before moving to Washington from his native Franklin County, Va. He opened his establishment, formally named the Alpha Tonsorial Parlor, in 1958.

Mr. Edwards’ jam tradition was born, regulars recalled, when business was slow or “Mr. Archie simply declared ‘We’re not cuttin’ any more heads today. We’re gonna play music.’ ”

“Archie was a barber, but that was just a sideline for him,” says foundation President Michel Baytop, a Fort Washington resident and local blues musician who plays guitar, harmonica and bones. “He had his barbershop, and he also drove a cab and worked as a security guard. He didn’t have a partner, it was just him. So when there was downtime, he would play his music.”

A lifelong practitioner of his beloved Piedmont blues — a style characterized by its unique fingerpicking method and older ragtime rhythms that’s more laid-back than its flashier cousin, the Delta blues — Mr. Edwards was also a gifted teacher.

“I found Archie’s after getting lost one time trying to drive home from the bus station. I was trying to get back to Route 50 and wound up there while the jam was going on,” says Jeff Hawkins, 52, a guitarist and a son of flamboyant R&B hit maker Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

“I didn’t have the experience like some of the players and asked what I had to do, or pay, to sit in,” the younger Hawkins remembered last weekend. “They told me ‘All you have to do is breathe.’ ”

On any given Saturday, the jam could attract its share of famous blues artists. Over the years, stars such as Elizabeth Cotton, “Mississippi” John Hurt, “Mother” Esther Mae Scott, John Jackson, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Warner Williams and James “Sparky” Rucker all made the pilgrimage to Mr. Edwards’ shop.

“I met Archie earlier and played with him on many gigs, but, sadly, this is my first time here,” said noted Swedish blues guitarist Robert Lighthouse, one of dozens who came out for the final barbershop jam.

“It’s sad to see it close down,” said Jim Bunch, who plays assorted instruments for local blues band Snakehead Run. “I’ve been coming around here a long time, and I’ve never met a more open group of people. We encourage the good ones [to play], but we don’t discourage the bad ones.”

“This has always been a very welcoming blues jam, not all blues jams are,” concurs Edwards foundation board member Donna Fletcher, a guitarist and policy analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency. “We hope that continues at HR-57, but somehow it won’t be the same. This is a very special place. This is hallowed ground.”

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