I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into Jojo Restaurant and Bar, but it was everything one would hope for in a jazz club — low-hanging ceilings and dim lighting, walls of dusty red brick dotted with black-and-white photos of jazz legends and ornate gilded mirrors, and a trio situated in an alcove of windows cloaked with heavy antique curtains. After searching online for hours to find places in D.C. offering live jazz again and finding far too many “permanently closed” notices for my liking, it was a privilege simply to be there.
Jojo’s has gradually been reintroducing live, indoor jazz over the past couple of months, owner and manager Ben told The American Spectator. While they’ve had a rough time through the financial hit, he said they now have a steady lineup of performers Wednesday through Sunday. He was enthusiastic about reclaiming live jazz: “Oh my goodness, live music is … we’ve been here 20 years; live music is our bread and butter. A lot of our customers and local artists are really looking forward to getting their jam back.”
“It’s like someone opened the barn gates — they’ve been coming out, believe me! They’ve been coming out. People are dying for the live music,” said Lorraine Campbell.
But while Jojo’s managed to weather the rough storm of seemingly endless COVID-related restrictions — which included a complete ban on live entertainment and limiting restaurants to 25 percent capacity for months — other local jazz hotspots weren’t so lucky. Eighteenth Street Lounge joined 18 other popular nightclubs in D.C. in formally requesting legislative aids such as rent relief and lease protections to save their businesses, but the club was ultimately forced to close after 25 years.
So too, was Twins Jazz, a restaurant started in 1987 by twin sisters who immigrated from Ethiopia as students. Twins featured well-known jazz legends from New York and elsewhere such as trumpeter Bobby Sanchez, vocalist Michael Bowie, and numerous others, but it also prioritized helping local talents get their start. They have shut their doors, along with Sotto, Bohemian Caverns, and Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society.
“Clubs that seem like they’ve always been around started announcing that they were closing … but no one was thinking that it would be forever. Now you have places like the Twins club and Bohemian Caverns that just aren’t there anymore,” saxophonist Charlie Young III told The American Spectator.
A Virginia native with strong, enduring ties to the jazz club scene in D.C., Young is renowned in the jazz world in the U.S. and abroad as a performer, conductor, and professor. Currently the Coordinator of Instrumental Jazz Studies at Howard University, Young has experienced the pandemic difficulties facing professional musicians and educators around the nation.
Although he found transitioning to a virtual world uncomfortable, Young characterized the changes musicians have endured due to COVID-19 restrictions more as “differences” than “losses.” Fumbling with the new technology to record performances, teach students, and communicate with colleagues was initially frustrating, but, he explained, “I embrace it now as another part of my toolbox. We got busy with technology.… It was an opportunity to embrace the world community as your performance stage. Instead of being focused as a local musician, you can become an international musician through virtual platforms.”
COVID-19 hasn’t diminished the relevance or significance of jazz in Young’s eyes. Throughout the pandemic, he continued work in his role as Artistic Director and Conductor of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra to tell America’s story through jazz and craft the narrative surrounding the music. “Art is an outgrowth of culture and society,” he explained. “It’s inspired by the artist’s personal experiences in the ever-evolving world.”
He continued, “Living beings are endowed by their Creator with an amazing gift — the ability to hear and interpret sound with personal meaning is almost magical. It inspires us to act and react; it causes certain emotions.… We have the opportunity to be more human through music, and jazz is a part of that — it’s one of the languages of music.”
Young emphasized the role of jazz clubs in providing supportive locations that nurture artistic communities, something fundamental that is irretrievably changed with the shutdowns: “Humans are born into families; they create who we are. And similarly, these clubs create and support communities. As we engage in like-minded activities, these communities greatly influence our lives, help validate our lives. Those connections to people are paramount … audience and performers alike.”
Sharing Young’s passion for music, saxophonist Gabe Wallace had an easy, friendly demeanor when we chatted during his break at Jojo’s. A professional musician of 10 years, Wallace explained that he and many other jazz musicians survived the pandemic by teaching students online: “Occasionally I’d have a socially distanced gig outdoors. But when you’re a freelance musician you kind of have to take the work when it comes.”
Wallace feels that online teaching, however, is not conducive to truly learning music: “What you’re hopefully experiencing here [at Jojo’s] — the best way to experience music is organically, where you can feel the sound of the instrument.” This kind of holistic, sensory engagement has been all but impossible since the shutdowns, and Wallace was enthusiastic about the increase of in-person gigs over the last couple of months.
“What I love about classical music is the structure.… but what I love about jazz and improvisational music is the freedom,” Wallace remarked. “I get to take all of those concepts from classical music and be exciting and interesting and make it up on the spot.”
D.C. lifted capacity limits for restaurants on May 21, and restrictions on bars and nightclubs will be lifted on June 11, which means that live music venues in D.C. are beginning to open again. Lorraine Campbell from JV’s Restaurant said they’ve been operating at 50 percent capacity the last few months, but since the government began allowing full capacity, “It’s like someone opened the barn gates — they’ve been coming out, believe me! They’ve been coming out. People are dying for the live music,” Campbell told The American Spectator. Jazz will be starting up again at Mr. Henry’s and Blues Alley in the next couple weeks as well.
There is something special about jazz. It strikes me, at times, as the dry wit of music. The sly look in the corner of the drummer’s eye, the surprise stop, the teasing harmonies and melodic jumps; it has the delicious effect of an inside joke told between those who know to listen for it. Sneaky or sultry, upbeat or soulful, jazz is delightfully human.
Sitting at Jojo’s as the fullness of the music danced around me, I was reminded anew of that fact and of the privilege of experiencing music that we too often underrate. Listening to a jazz performance brings us out of the frenetic daily schedule of deadlines and to-do lists to a place that is transcendent and beyond ourselves, a place where we can revel in the pure joy of music without thought for utilitarian ends.
Pandemic restrictions and lockdowns hit the performance world hard, and special venues have been lost to the jazz scene for good. But even as musicians begin to chart exciting new territory in the virtual world, here’s hoping that the essential human-ness of making and sharing music together is not forgotten and that we will return to these physical, communal spaces to play and listen once more.