There are famous centers for jazz in America. Cities where almost the whole basis of the culture was influenced by jazz and its musicians. Washington DC may not be the first city you think of when you think of jazz and jazz clubs. But you may be surprised at what it offers.
Jazz arrived in the “Roaring Twenties.” But, even before then, Washington was home to a range of music styles. And, at the time, you could experience all of them. The same applies today. So, we’re going to look at the best jazz clubs in Washington D.C.
Through the twenties and the thirties, America, and particularly Washington, was a segregated city. ‘U’ Street was famous for its racially diverse entertainment, but it didn’t come without its legal risks.
Artists came from other cities, and some made their mark on the music, especially the jazz culture. But, generally speaking, Washington DC struggled up to the time of the Civil Rights Movement and even after.
This was a time when America had an openly racist President, Roosevelt, based in the city. He wouldn’t even allow Jesse Owens, after winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, to enter with white athletes to a celebratory bash.
Owens had to go round the back of the hotel to enter and up in the goods lift. Nice. It wasn’t Hitler that snubbed him, as some like to believe. It was his own president.
So, if Jesse Owens was subject to it, what chance would the African-American musicians have? Washington always seems to have had a difficult time with itself and its history. However, it had plenty of connections with jazz, and that can still be seen today.
An Important Jazz City
It may not have the historical significance of New Orleans. And it might not have the sheer volume and quality of New York, but there is still a Washington DC jazz scene that thrives.
The legend that is Duke Ellington was born in Washington and initially made his name there. You can’t ignore his contribution to jazz all over the world. Stevie Wonder even wrote a song about him called “Sir Duke.”
But plenty of other jazz musicians called it home…
For one, Shirley Horn, a great jazz pianist, as you can hear on the album, You Won’t Forget Me. Jazz drummer Sonny Greer is best known for his work first with Fats Waller and then with Duke Ellington.
And, most notably, the rhythm section he created with bass player Jimmy Blanton that drummers and bass players today still study. Hear for yourself in “Chocolate Shake.”
And another legendary Washington jazz pianist Billy Taylor. You could say there was a lot of jazz going on.
You don’t get the musicians flooding to places where nothing is happening. But, Washington DC came into people’s consciousness as a jazz city when pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton went to live there in 1935. He had a residency at the Jungle Inn.
So, there was a range of jazz styles developing. Morton’s Southern Blues style of jazz one night, Ellington’s big band swing the next. And then, you had the Dixieland and Blues clubs. It is still very much the same today.
From this range of different styles, you can see that Washington DC jazz clubs are diverse with something for everyone. So, let’s look a little closer at what you can get these days in Washington DC.
Top 5 Best Jazz Clubs In Washington D.C.
Takoma Station Tavern
Location: 6914, 4th Street NW, Washington, DC.
This is one of those clubs I mentioned with a variety of entertainment options. Each week the Takoma is packed with multiple events. They host comedy open mic nights, and at weekends there are special sports options. But Friday night is jazz night for both local and national jazz musicians.
Opening Early on Friday Night
On Fridays, the club opens its doors at 4 pm to allow people in to get a great spot. Expect a range of styles of jazz here. You might hear anything from ultra-cool laid-back jazz to a frantic fusion, reminiscent of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in their prime.
The food is tailored to keep you going and includes a special called the “Charlie Parker wings basket.”
JoJo Restaurant & Bar
Location: 1518 ‘U’ Street NW, Washington, DC.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in jazz in the ‘U’ Street area of the city, and JoJo’s has been one of the reasons. They have created a very 1920s feel to the club with real wood furnishings in a style that resembles those 20s decors we see in films.
And they haven’t ignored the jazz from the period. So, you can expect some serious Swing Jazz mixed in with newer styles. And, to encourage you to come down, they serve some great food.
The JoJo Restaurant & Bar holds over 100 people and is open six days every week. The shows start soon after the doors open at 5 pm.
Location: 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA
The Birchmere has had an interesting history and has seen some changes since it opened in 1966. That date, over 50 years ago, makes it one of the oldest jazz clubs in Washington DC that is still open.
Originally, it was a place where people went to hear Bluegrass music…
Since then, the genres have expanded to include a variety of influences that reflect the local culture. But, The Birchmere is far more than just “another” club.
Ray Charles, Lyle Lovett, and Buddy Guy all appeared here. You can learn all about its illustrious history from the book, All Roads Lead to The Birchmere: America’s Legendary Music Hall.
Today, you will find Jazz rubbing shoulders with Blues, singer-songwriters, and Hip-Hop. Although, it should be said that Jazz and Blues are still at the forefront of the music served up.
There are two rooms inside. The Music Hall is seated and operated on a first-come-first-served basis. There is also what is known as the Flex Stage, which is standing-only. The Music Hall holds about 100 people.
The ticket office opens at 5 pm, and seats will be available from 6 pm. The shows start at about 7:30. You can order some food while you are waiting.
Location: 601 Penn Ave SE, Washington, DC
Mr. Henry’s, and Washington DC will forever be associated with Roberta Flack. Furthermore, she could lay claim to ensuring the club didn’t close when it was having problems. More on that later.
Roberta Flack was a high school teacher in Washington who also taught piano. Her music career started to develop when she sang at The Tivoli Club backing opera singers. In the intervals, she would sing her own Blues and Folk repertoire.
A Reputation Was Established
She went from there to the 1520 Club. In addition, she modified her material to become more Pop-oriented, and her reputation grew. She was offered a residency at Mr. Henrys in 1968, and things took off.
People pouring in to see her was the savior of a club that was in some trouble. Four years later, she released “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which was quite popular. Just a bit, you might say.
The club had opened in 1966 as a sudden interest in jazz, and other music seemed to inspire potential club owners. Today, it is a venue that includes a range of genres.
Jazz, of course, is prominent…
However, you’ll also find Bebop and Swing artists. You will also get some upbeat modern jazz styles based on Rock music.
It is an intimate venue that holds a maximum of 90 people in comfort. Shows start nightly at about 7.30 pm.
Best Jazz Clubs In Washington D.C. – Honorable Mentions
Before we move on to my final choice on this list of the best jazz venues in Washington DC, some should get mentioned.
- Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society – Wednesday and Sunday, no alcohol. Cover charge to enter. Not-for-profit club located at 2813 12th St NE, Washington, DC.
- Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club – Housed in a historically listed building. Good food and a variety of genres accommodated, including jazz. Located at 7719 Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda.
- The Quadrant – Live jazz on Saturday with food. Cozy sofas and a real fire give this club a different feel. Located at The Ritz-Carlton, 1150 22nd St NW, Washington, DC.
And so to the last choice…
Another club that opened in the mid-60s was the famous Blues Alley. This club is not only famous in Washington but is also known throughout the jazz world. It opened the year before The Birchmere and has played host to some of the biggest names in jazz.
There have been some epic performances captured in live recordings. The late and very impressive Eva Cassidy is a good example with her album, Live At Blues Alley. Of course, you also have Wynton Marsalis, Ramsey Lewis, and The Taylor Fidyk Big Band.
And you can add to that list Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, and also Tony Bennett. Very impressive.
A Supper Club
It is known as a jazz ‘supper club.’ And it might be the oldest jazz ‘supper club’ in America. It holds about 125 people in an intimate environment.
Ticket prices can be a little expensive, as are the drinks and the food. Especially the gumbo. Although, most people don’t complain about prices. The club and its acts are just too good to worry about the prices.
Go to Blues Alley, and you will hear the more traditional styles of jazz in a “cool” setting. Outside of New Orleans and New York, this is one of the jazz clubs to visit.
An Extra – The Washington D.C. Jazz Festival
Always worth a visit if you are in the city in April. It is a week of great jazz with teaching clinics and educational programs for young jazz students and enthusiasts.
Are You a Big Jazz Fan?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Jazz Clubs in New Orleans, the Best Chicago Jazz Clubs, the Best Jazz Clubs in Atlanta, Georgia, the Best Jazz Songs, the Best Jazz Albums of All Time, as well as the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time for more great Jazz venues and listening selections.
And, if you’re looking to play some jazz music, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Jazz Guitars, the Best Jazz Drum Sets, the Best Saxophone Reeds for Jazz, the Best Saxophone Mouthpieces For Jazz, and the Best Portable Keyboard Pianos you can buy in 2023.
Best Jazz Clubs In Washington D.C. – Final Thoughts
As with most cities, jazz clubs tend to be located in a couple of areas. The jazz scene used to be focused on what was known as the Bohemian Caverns located on ‘U’ street.
It was an important club in the city and was open until the 1990s. And it was the springboard for many jazz careers. The “Street” has remained important in the city for jazz and its clubs, many of whom introduce new artists.
But it isn’t the only area…
The Georgetown area of the city in northwest Washington has famous venues like Blues Alley and the now-closed One Step Down club. These days, it is the most popular area for jazz in Washington, DC.
Having said that, city infrastructure improvements have seen a resurgence in the ‘U’ street area, which is good.
Like most cities in America…
There is an association with jazz, and there are plenty of clubs worth the visit. They all have their own style, atmosphere, and culture. And, musically, some give you other options. I have given you just a brief list of what is on offer. There are plenty more to seek out.
Until next time, have fun, and happy listening.