- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2016

Renowned as the home of jazz master Duke Ellington, the District once held currency among aficionados for its jamming jazz joints. City residents and tourists alike would converge in clubs along U Street any night of the week to hear bebop, blues and ballads.

Today, U Street is lined with the darkened husks of once-glowing music halls.

The D.C. Jazz Festival opens Friday, three months after the behemoth Bohemian Caverns club shut down. Now another local jazz spot is facing foreclosure, and the owner of a third popular club is hinting at a move.

“I think Bohemian Caverns is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Harry Schnipper, owner and manager of Blues Alley. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Blues Alley left the District.”

The former commercial real estate salesman gazed into the National Press Club dining room, where he had just finished lunch.

“I’m not upset, I’m not distraught. I’m a business person just like anybody else, and I make decisions based on business opportunities,” Mr. Schnipper said. “I’m not here saying, ‘Gosh, darn it, the local audience didn’t support us.’ I’m not saying that at all.”

SEE ALSO: Brass Connection keeps jazz alive on streets of D.C.

Since 1965, Blues Alley in Georgetown has hosted jazz greats including Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis. If it leaves its nook near M Street, it would continue the trend of a D.C. jazz venue’s closure every year.

HR-57 relocated several times before leaving the club scene in 2014 to become an outdoor performing arts space. The Black Fox Lounge closed last summer, and Bohemian Caverns shut its doors in March.

Earlier this month, Auction Markets issued a foreclosure notice for the 78-year-old building that houses the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club. After several incarnations as a movie theater, the old hall opened its doors as a live music venue just three years ago.

While the club has managed to stay on track with its mortgage payments, according to primary owner Rick Brown, an internal dispute with one of the investors provoked the foreclosure sale that is set for June 29.

Mr. Brown is a major investor in both the club and the building — two separate entities. He said the club would continue to thrive in that location, no matter what happens with its location.

“It’s serious but it’s something that we’re going to work out,” he said. “Almost every club that I know is a tenant. We are simply a tenant and we will continue to be a tenant. Whoever the owner is, is irrelevant.”

Mr. Schnipper, sporting a shiny Blues Alley pin on his lapel, offered a qualified hope for the future of D.C. jazz.

“Jazz is not dead in our nation’s capital,” he said. “However, for-profit jazz is dead.”

HR-57, the Black Fox Lounge and Bohemian Caverns closed because of financial woes, not for a lack of ticket sales or patronage, he said. He pointed out that fans crammed into Bohemian Caverns to hear live music almost any night of the week, just as they do now at Blues Alley.

The problems, Mr. Schnipper said, are rising rents — and politics.

‘The mathematics is not there’

Many club owners do not own their spaces. They rent buildings, starting at reasonable rates. But when the landlords see the large audiences, the rates rise rapidly.

“That’s how you go out of business as a jazz club,” said Mr. Schnipper. “Invariably, landlords or the District of Columbia will get in the way of your ability to try and put jazz programming out there. It’s systemic. We have a very business-unfriendly environment.”

Radio host Askia Muhammad of jazz-formatted WPFW-FM recalls when U Street drew crowds of jazz lovers. He, too, attributes the diminishing music scene to an unsustainable financial model.

“How can you afford to have a top-line artist unless you have three sets and chase everybody out after each set?” said Mr. Muhammad, a radio host for 37 years. “You have 40 people in a room, and how much do they pay in order for you to pay for an artist and a band for a performance? The mathematics is not there.”

Mr. Schnipper sought to purchase a space for Blues Alley and hoped the District would approve the Historic Music Cultural Institutions Expansion Tax Abatement Act of 2013.

The legislation would give a tax abatement to qualified D.C. historic music centers that want to lease or purchase sites to expand their clubs. Although the D.C. Council has approved the bill, neither Mayor Vincent C. Gray nor current Mayor Muriel Bowser has funded it, offering no tax relief for impresarios.

“After the loss of the bill I put out there for three years, I see no reason to remain,” Mr. Schnipper said.

The D.C. Jazz lobby

A shortage of jazz venues in the District impacts one population most dramatically: the performers.

“The only difference about the scene that I have found concerning is that I’ve found less spaces to play,” said jazz singer Aaron Myers, who made his home in Texas, California and other places before moving to the District eight years ago. “We’re not lacking in performers.”

Indeed, a growing number of players and a decreasing list of available spaces tighten competition for D.C. musicians. They fight to be heard among other musicians from the District and elsewhere, including New York, Chicago and Detroit.

“You don’t really have that U Street jazz scene where you can go from club to club and see a number of musicians who are rising up or making a statement on the scene and then being recognized or being propelled,” said WPFW’s Mr. Muhammad. “So how does a musician gain his chops? Or gain the recognition or notoriety among other musicians?”

Competition is tough, and those who do get gigs at local clubs cannot expect much money in return for their talent. Mr. Myers estimated that most musicians earn $50 to $150 per performance.

“I push my tip jars as hard as I can,” he said.

Though he has secured a home base for his music at Mr. Henry’s Restaurant on Capitol Hill, Mr. Myers could not ignore the challenges facing fellow performers. He banded with several local musicians to form the D.C. Jazz Lobby, which pushes for legislation to bolster the musician community and ensure that America’s original art form lives on in the nation’s capital.

The D.C. Jazz Lobby issued a form letter for local residents to send to their council members, asking the city to make more venues available for musicians.

“Over the last few years it has become more and more difficult to (play/enjoy) jazz, due to the lack of venues and/or businesses willing to make live music programming available to local musicians,” the letter reads. “It is also becoming increasingly difficult for Jazz Musicians to afford to live in the District of Columbia.”

The lobbyists celebrated a small victory in early May, when the council passed a resolution recognizing April 30 as International Jazz Day and naming April as Jazz Appreciation Month.

“I don’t think you wait until it’s lost to say, ‘Let’s not lose it,’” said D.C. Council member LaRuby May, the Ward 8 Democrat who sponsored the ceremonial resolution. “You keep it alive while you have it.”

The lobby group is collaborating with Ms. May to endorse legislation that would lighten the burden on venues to host performers.

If the council approves the bill, the city would update its database of local artists. With a more accurate count, the city would be able to better understand how to tax businesses that offer live music. The lobby group also advocates for the use of government buildings and public spaces as music venues.

Mr. Myers emphasized that these measures do not indicate that jazz has died in the District.

“‘Can we save jazz?’ I totally disagree with that assessment because the jazz lives within the players and the players are many,” he said. “It’s [about] doing what we can do to allow the scene to thrive.”

• Faith E. Pinho can be reached at fpinho@washingtontimes.com.

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