Birthday bash: Bohemian Caverns’ 85th-anniversary celebration heats up with an all-star show

Elijah Jamal Balbed, shown here with the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, will celebrate his 21st birthday with a gig at the Caverns. Giovanni Russonello/CapitalBop

by Giovanni Russonello
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Bohemian Caverns is big again. Duke Ellington played at the club in the 1920s, as did John Coltrane in the ’60s and so many others in between. But it went dark after the urban revolts of 1968, and stayed that way for some of D.C.’s darkest decades.

2011, however, marks the 85th year since the club’s founding (and the 11th since it reopened in 2000) and celebrations are in order.

Elijah Jamal Balbed, D.C.’s young saxophone sensation, is helping to kick off the year’s revelries with a birthday celebration of his own this Thursday: Balbed’s debut as a bandleader at the Caverns comes one day after he turns 21.

If there’s a more fitting way for a D.C. jazz musician to step into adulthood than to lead the biggest gig of his life at Bohemian Caverns, it’s lost on me.

Balbed will perform with New York-via-D.C. trumpeter Alex Norris, pianist Harry Appelman, bassist Michael Bowie and drummer C.V. Dashiell – an all-star cast. “Everybody in this band has been a teacher to me in some way,” Balbed said, pointing out that just a few short years ago Norris was his instructor at Maryland Summer Jazz Camp.

A tribute to the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, this gig should be a swingin’ romp through some of jazz’s greatest tunes (Hubbard penned the classics “Up Jumped Spring” and “Red Clay”), carried off by a top-shelf cast of local stars who are deeply fluent in the dynamic language of hard bop.

“And it’s going to be a crazy year at the Caverns,” Balbed added, so it’s “an absolute pleasure” to be a part of that.

Indeed, Caverns co-owner Omrao Brown has a stocked docket for the subterranean U Street club, which first opened as the Crystal Caverns in 1926. He’s hoping to organize an 85th-anniversary blowout celebration at the Lincoln Theater on U Street this autumn. But in terms of its own performances, the Caverns will be hosting bass legend Ron Carter, poet and jazz historian Amiri Baraka (with his band), saxophone pioneer Pharoah Sanders, renowned hip-hop/jazz fusion act the Robert Glasper Experiment and rising vocal stars Gretchen Parlato and Sachal Vasandani.

Omrao Brown outside the Caverns. Giovanni Russonello/CapitalBop

And that’s just in the easily foreseeable future. There’s “a bunch more coming,” Brown said, admitting that he’s “a little nervous. You know, we’ve never done a program where every weekend’s a heavy-hitter, national or international.”

Welcome to the new Bohemian Caverns. Since taking over the club in 2007, Brown, the only one of three co-owners who lives in D.C., has worked tirelessly to revive the Caverns’ past greatness. And he’s succeeding mightily.

In addition to booking major names like the ones listed above, Brown has spotlighted the local D.C. scene. The Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, a 17-piece resident big band in which Balbed plays first tenor, showcases some of the city’s top talent every Monday night.

The club is also well on its way to achieving nonprofit status. “The bylaws and all that stuff are done, we just really need to file the papers,” Brown said. “We’ve got board members enough to file the papers, for sure.”

And the Caverns is getting due recognition: Washington City Paper jazz writer Michael J. West wrote that the club “reached full bloom” last year, becoming the “new king” of D.C. jazz joints.

There’s plenty to back up that distinction. Other major District joints like Twins Jazz and Blues Alley pad their offerings with smooth jazz or R&B – which, Brown admits, can be more lucrative. But every weekend at the Caverns, there’s something that’s undeniably jazz.

“Part of what we’re doing here is, over time we’ve tried to stick to our guns in terms of what we feel is important and what we present on the weekends,” said Brown, who’s the son of a jazz musician and professor and holds keen views about the music’s vital importance. “We’ve stayed strong to that and that’s shown some results. And the hope is, over time, people just know they can come to Bohemian Caverns.”

Making jazz profitable on the weekdays, however, can be a stretch – and Balbed’s gig on Thursday will be an important experiment. “We are hoping at some point to be five or six nights of jazz a week,” Brown said. “I don’t know how realistic that is; it’s still our goal.”



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  1. Cool related information! I have been searching for some thing like this for a while now. Excellent!

    Royal /
  2. Your father is a very good friend of mine I wish you great success We need more young men like you Thank you for your endevour to keep this music alive I wish i could be there the lineup is supberb Thanks again

    Muminah Abdullah /

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