“The blues goes to the heart because it comes from the heart,”
-Booker T. Washington.
Blues music conjures up images of smoky bar rooms and soulful voices. And while the Mississippi Delta is known as the birthplace of the blues, D.C. has a history rich with blues music.
Blues music first developed from black field “hollers.” Hollers were songs slaves would call, or holler, to each other as they worked. The blues also grew out of black religious songs, shouts, work songs and game songs. Slaves combined their African heritage with Judeo-Christian influences to produce their music. Blues music was the response of black slaves to the hardships they endured, according to The Blues Foundation Web site.
The blues, which gained popularity after the Civil War, is described as primarily a vocal narrative style featuring solo voice with instrumental accompaniment.
As the popularity of blues music grew, several forms developed. Country blues was the earliest form – it featured a singer accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. Country blues performers were usually men who traveled from town to town singing about love, freedom, sex and the sorrows of life.
Classic blues developed in the 1920s and was performed more exclusively by women. Classic blues usually featured a female singer accompanied by a piano or whole jazz combo. This type of blues music developed out of the migration of rural blacks to urban areas like Memphis and New Orleans. Thus the music combined the southern styles with the styles of the urban areas, which leaned toward gospel and religious music.
Rhythm and blues and electric blues also grew out of the blues tradition. Guitars were added to the music as well as an emphasis on the drums. Musicians such as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton all have blues roots in their music.
Blues music came to the District in the early 1900s. After the black migration from the South, D.C. had the largest proportion of blacks of any city in the United States.
“Where the black man traveled, in those days, most certainly went the blues,” said M. LaVert, vice president of the D.C. Blues Society, according to The Blues Foundation Web site.
In the beginning there were no local theatres or clubs in D.C. The blues were played at house parties, either by live musicians or on the victrola – an old phonograph. A few years later the Howard Theater in the Shaw neighborhood began to feature blues in a jazz-oriented style. Performers included legendary giants like Dinah Washington, Ella Johnson and Joe Williams of Count Basie’s band.
One of D.C.’s greatest blues and jazz music performers arrived on April 28, 1899 with the birth of Duke Ellington. At a young age Ellington began to listen to ragtime pianists in the District. He started taking piano lessons and as he got older he found jobs playing at clubs and cafes in the D.C. area. In 1917 Ellington formed his first group, The Duke’s Serenaders. Ellington became the group’s booking agent. Duke’s Serenaders played throughout the area, including jobs for private society balls and embassy parties.
In 1923, Ellington left D.C. for New York, but he remembered his roots, renaming his band The Washingtonians. The Washingtonians became one of the most popular bands in the United States and the world. In his 50-year career Ellington played all over the world and performed for everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Richard Nixon, but it all began in D.C., according to the Duke Ellington Web site.
Besides Ellington, the blues scene continued to grow in D.C. The Gold Room was opened in 1959 in Northeast D.C. The club’s live entertainment included a variety of blues and jazz music. Since its beginning, the club has been owned and operated by jazz singer Jimmy McPhail. McPhail has performed with Ellington’s band, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. The Gold Room is still open and is now D.C.’s longest running, black-owned club of its kind.
Blues music continues to be alive and well today. The Blues Foundation holds its annual Blues Hall of Fame induction ceremony in D.C. The Blues Hall of Fame honors those individuals who have made the blues timeless through performance, documentation and recording. GW hosted the 2000 induction ceremony at the Lisner Auditorium Feb. 22. Among the performers were Grammy award-winner Ruth Brown, Johnnie Taylor and the North Mississippi All Stars.
Blues music plays on a variety of area radio stations and is prominent in D.C. nightlife. The D.C. Blues Society’s Web site lists more than 20 blues venues in D.C. alone and more than 50 in the area.
The Black Cat, a club that features the blues, is located at 1831 14th St., N.W., in the heart of the historic U Street district where Ellington used to play. Started by musicians, the Black Cat strives to revive the tradition of independent music in D.C.
Blues Alley opened in Georgetown in 1965 and is the nation’s oldest continuing jazz supper club. Artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Nancy Wilson, Grover Washington Jr. and Charlie Byrd have performed at the establishment. Blues Alley has an intimate setting and a unique ambiance reminiscent of jazz clubs of the 1920s and 30s.
Madam’s Organ, a soul-food restaurant and blues bar in Adams Morgan, features some of the hottest blues acts, greatest soul food and funkiest d?cor, according to its Web page. Madam’s Organ features a wide range of acts from national rhythm and blues artists, old time blues legends, jazz greats and even a Wednesday night bluegrass show.
Takoma Station proclaims itself the home of jazz lovers. It has a make-yourself-at-home atmosphere and its performances include some of D.C.’s finest young and not-so-young talent. The club offers live music five nights a week.
HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz & Blues is a non-profit music culture center. The center’s mission is to educate, provide experiences, opportunities and information that traverse the full spectrum of the jazz and blues experience. The center offers lectures, workshops and music lessons for beginning and advanced musicians. Also included in their programming are exhibits, theatre and concerts and an open mic jazz session twice a week.
D.C. is no stranger to blues music. The city’s rich and soulful history will keep the saxophones tooting, the trumpets syncopated and its fans tapping their feet along to the beat.