Recovering from fire, Blues Alley aims for a quick reopening

Editor’s note, 11.1.22: Blues Alley announced on Sunday that it would reopen Monday evening, less than one week after a fire caused minor damage to the building. The first show back features violinist Dave Kline with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jon Carroll.

A fire broke out Tuesday evening at Blues Alley, Georgetown’s beloved carriage-house jazz club. No injuries were reported, and the impact from the blaze appears to have been minimal, although the full extent of the damage from the smoke, water and other firefighting methods is yet to be determined.

Harry Schnipper, who has operated Blues Alley since 2003, declared that the blaze would not derail the club’s programming for long, estimating that they would be able to return to normal operations by November 1. But that quick turnaround is “dependent on when the District of Columbia certifies our electrical,” he told CapitalBop, referring to damage sustained to the club’s electrical wiring as a result of water used to put out the fire.

The mayor was here, and I emphasized that we need to get sign-offs and any permits [to re-open] as soon as possible,” Schnipper said, referring to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s visit to the club on Wednesday to survey the damage.

The incident occurred just two months after Blues Alley purchased the building from former owners Germar Properties, according to documents accessed via a DC public records search. The building’s ownership has long been a source of consternation for Blues Alley, with rent negotiations sometimes causing worry that the club might move, once in 2007, and again in 2021.

Building ownership is a rare achievement for jazz spaces in D.C. Ownership not only secures a future for clubs in a constantly changing city, but also empowers property holders to enact necessary repairs and renovations without having to secure the blessings of a separate landlord. The fire comes at a time when Blues Alley should be celebrating, rather than worrying about, the structural integrity of the 19th century red-brick building that has served as their home since opening in 1965.

The cause of the blaze remains unconfirmed. Schnipper declined to comment or speculate on its origins, citing an ongoing fire investigation, which is a standard process triggered by every blaze that occurs within city limits. Early estimates, reported by WTOP, placed the damage at around $50,000, though Schnipper told The Washington Post that the number was “a speculative guess.”

Ben Thomas, a D.C.-area bassist who had been scheduled to perform Tuesday night in support of Owen Broder’s record release show, told CapitalBop that Blues Alley already seemed smoky when the band first arrived at the club around 4:30 p.m. This didn’t immediately cause concern among the musicians. “I thought it was just from a smoke machine,” said Thomas. “It had that same smell, that same texture in the air.”

By around 6:30 p.m., dark smoke was visibly billowing from the rooftop, triggering the fire alarm from inside the building. While the club’s manager, Norelco Carroll, called the fire department, the musicians quickly began grabbing as much of their gear as they could and evacuating.

Firefighters arrived shortly before 7 p.m. against a backdrop of a dramatic D.C. sunset and a horde of anxious patrons, passersby, musicians and employees. “It all kind of spiraled pretty quickly,” Thomas said. “There had to be about 15 fire trucks stationed there, all running hoses and water, and there had to be about 50 firemen as well on the scene.”

About two hours later, Thomas, the rest of the band, and club staff were allowed back inside to grab their personal belongings, all of which appeared to have been undamaged. Thomas described a club mostly waterlogged, with major damage being sustained only by the Yamaha grand piano.

The inside of Blues Alley jazz club, with chairs strewn about and some damage visible to the ceiling.
Blues Alley’s interior on Wednesday, after the fire. Courtesy Mark Segraves

Considering the situation, the Yamaha seemed a small loss to Schnipper. “At the end of the day, pianos can be replaced,” he said.

Schnipper said that whenever Blues Alley is able to reopen, the canceled dates for the rest of October will be rescheduled. This means that, at the very least, Owen Broder’s Tuesday night show, Wednesday night’s show from D.C.’s own Cecily, and all of trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’s shows from October 27-30 will be postponed to later dates. “We’re going to reschedule dates. We’re not going to go into the refund business like we were during the pandemic,” Schnipper said.

As Blues Alley is currently the only jazz-focused venue in D.C. city limits with a national profile, fans from around the region and across the country expressed their alarm and continued support for the club. “My heart sunk at this news,” tweeted Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who is both an ardent patron of the club and an occasional performer there. “Blues Alley is my favorite club on the planet.”

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About Abram Mamet

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Abram Mamet is a musician and writer living in Washington, DC. Before the pandemic, you could hear him on the French horn leading a quartet at The Marx Cafe’s Tuesday night jam session.

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