Right in the heart of the famous U-street corridor, is a music hall which was built only 6 years ago, but boasts feats such as “#10 Best Club in America” (Rolling Stone Magazine, 2013). Contrary to popular belief that the hall’s fame and fortune is due to the artists that play there, it actually has a very interesting history that has shaped both its future and the environment surrounding it. U-street is a musically significant area that was one of the liaison cities to early jazz in the 1940s. It was home to musicians like Louis Armstrong, and it had jazz centers such as the famous Crystal Caverns. This booming music industry was created by an eternal unity that African Americans on Black Broadway created amongst themselves. A certain article from The Washingtonian really describes the inspiring network that was created in U Street during the 20th century. Written by Briana Thomas, The Forgotten History of U Street leads us to uncover the rich history behind this famous street. It all started in the early 1900s and went into the 1950s. African-Americans, subject to Jim Crow laws in other parts of town, were free to own businesses in U Street and build a sort of “city within a city.” It was a place where Black Washingtonians sent their kids to day camp at the country’s first African-American YMCA, worshipped together in numerous neighborhood churches, and launched a movement against segregation from Black Broadway’s many gathering places. In the early part of the 20th century, U Street was known as a ghetto that was the closest to the metropolitan area. All the African Americans would live there, and the central/city rhetoric of the location really placed this community in a position where it could create an eventful, unified neighborhood. This unity and mutuality brought African Americans, which lived around U Street, together. To make up the many gathering places in U Street, African Americans used their heart and soul when it came to unifying people. They believed that by unifying more and more people, racism would cease. Among the many gathering places, they created National treasures like Ben’s Chili Bowl. These treasures were created by average people like Virginia Ali, who worked at Industrial bank before starting Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 with her husband. African Americans in the community started to come up with ideas that they could benefit from, and ideas that the entire community of U Street could benefit from. These ideas even stretched as far as the white house, where William P. and Winifred Lee would arrange bouquets of flowers for the white house in their Lee’s Flower and Card Shop in 1945. The community hummed day and night, using its unity to construct more than 300 black businesses by the 1930s. Edging away from business and money, the African American community of U Street came together on an annual parade called the Capital Classic. The Capital Classic, an annual parade featuring college football games and a beauty pageant
But of course there was not only one year round parade for the entire community. According to Richard Lee, the son of the parents who opened Lee’s Flower Shop, “We used to have parades up and down here almost every Saturday during football season …They would stay up all night sometimes, my mother and father, putting the bouquets together.” Religious leaders such as Bishop CM Grace stood up to unite the community through prayer and song. He constructed the United House of Prayer for All People, which he founded in the late 1920s near Howard University. As you can see the community’s leaders emphasized that the community was a place where people of any race could come together and unite under one street. It was all about creating a network, something that proceeds mortal life and lives on forever. But throughout all the flower shops, churches, and restaurants there was one thing that was instrumental in connecting U Street’s network: Jazz. Jazz is what gave U Street its popular name, and is what created a network that would spread across the entire neighborhood surrounding it. With the upbringing of jazz, names like Duke Ellington brought attention and audience to the street that was once considered an African American ghetto. Jazz clubs like the Crystal Caverns (Bohemian Caverns), Hollywood, or even Club Bali invited the world’s top musicians to U Street. The locations to the biggest jazz caverns on U Street during the early 20th century
In underground basements, that looked like caves on the inside, were people like Louis Armstrong who played the trumpet and filled the Street with the beautiful sound of Jazz. Locals and people from around the country visited the musical sensation of U Street which was also coined as Black Broadway. “There must have been 15, 20 clubs. There were a lot of cats—and here is the thing about Black Broadway: You didn’t come down here looking raggedy. You came down here dressed.” U Street became a sensation, even regarded as DC’s crowned attractions. People were beginning to enjoy the unique musical performances that lit up the street during all times of the night.
Louis Armstrong on Jan 30, 1942 playing the presidential birthday ball at U Street’s Lincoln colonnade.
People came together, spent time in jazz clubs and collaborated to make a U Street not only a booming neighborhood, but also a family which preached unity. Through support, unity, and love the African American community of U Street created a sound of harmonizing jazz that still sounds through the street today. This sound is responsible for the very network of music and entertainment which still echoes through the street. In fact, as many examples show, the eternal unity which jazz created in the 20th century is the reason why U Street is still known for music. It wasn’t until desegregation and gentrification that U Street’s eternal sound faced the true test of time. From the 1970s to the early 21st century, Black Broadway faced many changes that rearranged the structure of its booming jazz scene and famous businesses. Clubs and community centers closed down, people moved to different places, traditions ceased, and people began to forget. The famous community center, The Republic Theater, was closed down in order to create a new metro station. The gem of jazz clubs on U Street, crystal caverns, closed down recently. All that’s left currently are the landmarks like Howard and Lincoln theater that used to house jazz every single night, but now all that’s left is a few jazz gigs a month. U Street music seemed to be dying, but through all the changes and renovations, U Street kept its reputation. Throughout the construction of new office buildings, skyscrapers, and high rises, U Street continued its musical nature. Modern concert halls like the famous U Street music hall continue to draw everyone’s attention to this musical street. Hoards of college students, tourists, and even locals attend the music venues that are open almost every day. At night, nightclubs in and around U Street are packed with anybody over 18 years of age.
Tennyson performing at U Street Music Hall
Some even say that U Street’s modern night life is even more spectacular and crowded as it was before. The only difference is that jazz is not as featured as it used to be. It is of course still sounded through U Street, but the crowd has changed. U Street music hall has many artists that produce music from an array of genres. From country music to electric dance music and even nights like 90s night, U street music hall has welcomed all people from all different musical genres. Not only has the hall picked different types of music, but also it has allowed many local and young artists to perform at their venue in order to make a name for themselves. Just as the family-like community of Black Broadway brought up many local stars like Duke Ellington, so does the contemporary version of U Street. As you can see, the network does not only pertain to musical genre, but also to the upbringing of talent artists and new musical genre. Times and musical tastes have changed, but of course some things are so revolutionary and important that they cannot be ceased. Jazz in modern U Street has still prevailed and still contains an audience that is in attendance every day of the week. At different venues, and small jazz clubs that survived the gentrification, there are jazz gatherings that keep jazz on U Street alive. For tourists and people who just want to know about the jazz listings in dc, the DCist has compiled a list of jazz gatherings happening in clubs such as Twins Jazz, right in the heart of U Street. Even if people, landscape, and modern norms change, something as permanent as music will always exist among the modern community. Many years ago, when U Street was just an African American neighborhood ghetto, ragtime was played in private basements. People that had dreams of famous businesses did not act on those dreams. Everything that U Street was at its peak of success only came to be because of the unity that the African American people strived for. A unity which, with the help of jazz, made sure everyone in the community prospered and succeeded. Black Broadway and the contemporary musical U Street were only possible because of the network that was engraved in the area. What created this network was the togetherness of the African American community in the early 20th century. This network even stretched to different cities like New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans. It inspired the power of music in these places and displayed the harmony of jazz. The connection between people on U Street in the 20th century was so strong that it proves to be something that cannot be forgotten or destroyed.
12, Briana Thomas on February, and 2017. “The Forgotten History of U Street.” Washingtonian, 12 Feb. 2017, https://www.washingtonian.com/2017/02/12/forgotten-history-u-street-black-broadway/.
U Street Jazz – Performers – The Beginnings of Jazz. https://www2.gwu.edu/~jazz/performersb.html. Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.
“U Street’s Unique History.” Washington.org, 21 Mar. 2016, https://washington.org/visit-dc/u-streets-unique-history-washington-dc.