Jazz Profiles from NPR
Jazzed in D.C.
Produced by Molly Murphy

Historic Lincoln Theatre on U Street  

It's internationally known as the hometown of Duke Ellington, singer and pianist Shirley Horn, pianist Billy Taylor, and saxophonist Frank Wess, but the nation's capitol is seldom recognized as fertile ground for jazz -- at least not like the cities of New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia.

Listen to radio hosts Nap Turner and Jamal Muhammad and saxophonist Andrew White describe D.C.'s historic U Street area

Many of the great jazz musicians from Washington attended the city's Dunbar High School. There, Henry Grant, a renowned musical educator, taught students like Taylor, Wess, and Ellington. Grant is also credited for organizing The National Association of Negro Musicians -- he was the group's first president, serving from 1919-1922.

Listen to saxophonist Frank Wess and pianist Billy Taylor recall attending Dunbar High School

Duke Ellington  

Duke Ellington is perhaps the most well known jazz musician to hail from Washington, D.C. Born on April 29, 1899, he was raised in a middle-class home that valued the arts. He started taking piano lessons as a child, and by the time he was a teenager he was playing at many local functions and venues.

Listen to drummer Sonny Greer talk about growing up with Duke Ellington in Washington, D.C.

Ellington eventually led a group called The Washingtonians that included drummer Sonny Greer. They left Washington, D.C. for Harlem in 1923, getting their big break at the city's legendary Cotton Club. Not surprisingly, Ellington became the role model for every developing jazz artist back home in Washington.

Even though, pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton came from New Orleans, he made history in Washington when he took up residency there in 1935 at a long-forgotten club called The Jungle Inn.

Listen to Taylor and Wess recall the first time they heard Jelly Roll Morton play at The Jungle Inn

Shirley Horn  

The Jungle Inn was on D.C.'s historic U Street. During its heyday it was called Black Broadway due to its bustling club scene. Just one block away was The 7th & T club, another major venue that provided opportunities for jazz artists like pianist and singer Shirley Horn (left).

Listen to Shirley Horn recall hanging out at The 7th & T

Horn played at some of the finest venues in Washington and became internationally known when she played in New York, opening for stars such as Miles Davis. But instead of making New York her home, she returned to D.C. -- part of the reason so many people still aren't familiar with her as they are with other veteran singers like Abbey Lincoln or Carmen McRae.

Listen to saxophonist and educator Davey Yarborough, Taylor, and Muhammad talk about the challenges facing D.C. jazz musicians

Washington was, however, a major tour stop for jazz musicians. Some players like saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lester Young and trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie have even made significant recordings in D.C.

Buck Hill  

The nation's capitol is not associated with a particular style or sound with jazz like New Orleans, Chicago, or Kansas City, but it is known for it's tradition of producing great saxophonists like Frank Wess, Buck Hill (left), Andrew White, Ron Holloway, and Charlie Rouse.

Listen to Turner recall witnessing the meeting of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse

One of Washington's most famous jazz clubs is The Bohemian Caverns. R&B legend Ruth Brown was discovered at the club and it was where pianist Ramsey Lewis' recorded his top-selling The In Crowd album, and the inspiration for the Earl Hines composition "Cavernism."

Listen to saxophonist Andrew White describe the legendary Bohemian Caverns

Sadly, the illustrious U Street strip was devastated by the 1969 riots that ensued in Washington after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Rioters destroyed all the jazz clubs as well as other businesses on U Street and Georgia Avenue.

Listen to Horn and White talk about the 1969 riots

Now 30 years after the riots, U Street has revitalized into a thriving neighborhood, filled with clubs, restaurants, and boutique shops. Unfortunately, the street still lacks the heavy jazz activity of yesteryear.

Listen to Yarborough, Taylor and Wess talk about how D.C. is trying to revive the U Street district

Like in other U.S. cities, jazz struggles to keep its head above water in Washington. Jazz clubs and radio airplay have diminished drastically since the genre's glory days. But through the efforts of Blues Alley, D.C.'s best known jazz club, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and other establishments, jazz still flourishes in D.C.


View Jazz in D.C. show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Duke Ellington's Duke at His Best

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Billy Taylor's Taylor Made

ListenListen to the NPR Jazz CD Review of Shirley Horn's You're My Thrill

ReadRead the the NPR Jazz Web interview with saxophonist Andrew White

BrowseBrowse the Billy Taylor's Jazz at The Kennedy Center online show summary of saxophonist and educator Davey Yarborough's guest appearance

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org