Talk to any jazz musician on the East Coast, and you may hear stories of Columbia Station. For 22 years, this club was the one place that reliably hosted jazz on one of D.C.’s most popular nightlife strips: 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Jazz greats such as Butch Warren, Fred Foss, Ted Efantis, Lawrence Wheatley and more set up shop beneath in its signature wide French windows, thrown open to the night, proselytizing bop to the tipsy Adams Morgan passersby.
The past few years — a time of upheaval across the D.C. jazz landscape — have brought big changes to the space, and Columbia Station is no more. But in its place, not one, but two new venues have sprung up: Moonlight and Shanklin Hall. Both are run (or co-run) by young and creative Black women, and both are devoted to carrying the music forward.
In early 2020, Columbia Station owner Mehari Woldemariam closed the club at 2325 18th St. NW, where he was renting, and moved the music next door to his Green Island Café, at 2327 18th St., in a three-level building that he owns.
Sandwiched between the dance clubs Heaven (upstairs) and Hell (in the basement), Green Island Café boasted a new sound system and new lighting, but the same music and performers as at Columbia Station. And it was still happening six nights a week. Green Island was one of the first jazz clubs to open up again when COVID restrictions were lifted in D.C., with stalwart Columbia Station house pianist Peter Edelman coming back to lead the jam sessions multiple nights each week, and musicians from all walks of life coming by to sit in, especially on Sundays, after all other gigs in town had ended.
Things shifted slightly about six months ago, when Sabela Behun approached Woldemariam with a proposal: Behun, who goes by Bela, could take over the club’s operations, allowing Woldemariam to retire, and would reorient things to attract younger audiences and a late-night crowd. Woldemariam took the opportunity and handed the reins to Behun, who re-branded all three levels (Heaven, Green Island and Hell) under one name: Moonlight. A swanky-looking sign with the new moniker now hangs next to the “Live Jazz” marquee out front, signaling a new era for jazz on one of D.C.’s most popular nightlife strips.
The musical vibe of Moonlight is similar to Green Island and Columbia Station before that, but the renovations inside have allowed the establishment to continue to positively grow. Fresh paint, re-upholstered seating and a few quirky additions (namely, a cute bear in the bathroom) have created a comfortable and welcoming space.
“The building used to be a Black Panther meeting house,” Behun said proudly in a recent interview, “and we want it to be the best after-party jazz at the end of the night.” Behun is adamant that jazz will continue at Moonlight’s middle level. “Jazz is why people come here,” she said. “They want to hear the music.”
Edelman continues to lead the sessions every Wednesday through Sunday, and the club is now open till 2 a.m. each of those evenings. You will still find Danish musician Knud Jensen, 78, a Columbia Station veteran, playing bebop recorder alongside any musician who comes to sit in. Yes, you read that right: a recorder, the instrument you remember from third-grade music class, spilling out bebop language and lines with a birdlike sound, and backed by a piano trio. (Jensen is a saxophonist, but he recently made the switch due to medical issues.) Musicians pop in throughout the night and give their all, while the audience dances and listens to the music. It is, after all, still a listening club.
On a recent Thursday night at Moonlight, a sultry trombone sound wafted through the air while glasses clinked as listeners intently scoured the band for clues as to the chemistry that was making this improvisation so alluring to the ear. Regulars danced while high-school jazz students observed masters laying down lines.
Another thing that helped the vibe: Right next door, in what used to be Columbia Station, a new pulse was vibrating. At the same time Green Island was reborn as Moonlight, at 2327 18th St., the space at 2325 was also getting a makeover in the hands of new management. It is now Shanklin Hall, a social club with vinyl spinning Wednesdays through Sundays, in addition to live music a few nights a week. Walk in and you will be inspired by the impeccably stylistic decor and works by local artists hanging on the walls.
The bar’s founding ownership is shared between two families, the Shanklins and the Halls — hence the title of the venue. Anyone can come in, but technically this is a membership club, and Shanklin Hall VIPs get a discount on drinks and exclusive access to private events. Over the summer, Thursdays boasted live performances by house band Nag Champa Art Ensemble, followed by a DJ set into the wee hours. Nag Champa’s music — in touch with spiritual jazz, hip-hop, house and go-go influences — set the tone as something different from what you would have heard at Columbia Station. But it’s also different from the canned background beats you’d hear spinning at a typical D.C. bar.
Now you can find two venues, right next door to each other, with no cover and a distinct and surprisingly tasteful vibe. Once again, the large-front French windows are thrown wide open with live music, luring passersby. On one side, at Moonlight, you hear the tradition of swing and bebop language, with lines of musicians waiting to sit in. On the other side, at Shanklin Hall, you hear the evolution of the sound of jazz, with a nod to its funk and groove-based lineage. Ever evolving, the beat goes on.