On an early Wednesday evening this summer, drummer Lenny Robinson was deftly steering a remarkable trio, consisting of vibraphonist Chris Barrick and keyboardist Federico González Peña. During their first set at JoJo Restaurant & Bar, they delighted a sparse yet attentive crowd with sparkling renditions of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” and “Tell Me A Bedtime Story,” along with other jazz gems such as Vernon Duke’s “Take a Chance on Love,” Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” and Ivan Lins’ “Setembro.”
Robinson is one of Washington, D.C.’s finest jazz musicians, and for years his bands have been in regular rotation at JoJo, alongside groups led by other esteemed DMV-based jazz artists, such as pianist Colin Chambers and trumpeter Donvonte McCoy, plus the soul-jazz ensemble Sol Roots. For the past two decades, jazz fans have known that they can come to JoJo on any given night between Wednesday and Sunday to eat delicious American-fusion cuisine and listen to quality live music.
This year marks JoJo’s 20th anniversary. In addition to the pandemic, it has survived the District’s rapid gentrification, which has caused other stalwart venues on the U Street corridor to close or transform into something else. Area venues that once provided regular live jazz, such as Utopia Bar & Grill, Twins Jazz, Sotto, Bohemian Caverns and HR-57, have all closed. Other spots have transitioned away from presenting the music.
The venue has always been a joint venture between its owners — chef Ben Kibour and Bethanya Fikre — and the musicians who grace its small stage, which is nestled beneath the front windows that look out on U Street. These days, it is bassist and composer Michael Bowie who books JoJo’s splendid events calendar.
But he shies away from taking sole credit for the fine lineup. He says that Kibour and Fikre also share their input regarding talent. More importantly, JoJo’s ownership has perfected the fine balancing act, providing a place where musicians can play and be respected, and that also feels like a bustling restaurant.
“Their acumen, in terms of where they spend their money and keeping the quality, is amazing,” he said, explaining that JoJo’s longevity can be attributed to its management. “Their food is fantastic. The place could stay open for many years based upon the food alone. But in all, you have to set the right environment. That’s a testament to JoJo’s and its staff.”
Bowie is a world-renowned bassist who’s played with a litany of jazz stars that include Abbey Lincoln, Sarah Vaughan, Abdullah Ibrahim and the Manhattan Transfer. He started working as Jojo’s talent buyer in 2021, on the suggestion of Robinson.
The drummer says that in addition to being a great organizer and musician, Bowie understands the lives of his fellow artists, especially how they navigate last-minute schedule changes. “I think it’s one of the reasons why [Bowie] put one day of the month for all these different folks to play,” Robinson said, explaining how Bowie juggles musicians’ individual schedules to fit them all into a monthly rotation. “Michael is the kind of guy who, if you duck out one too many times out of a gig, you won’t be in the rotation of musicians anymore.”
“One of the things that is important is for both the acts and quality level to be consistent,” Robinson added. “That is one of the reasons why [JoJo] has become what it is for D.C. jazz culture.”
Bowie came onboard in the middle of the pandemic, when many restaurants and venues were on life support, trying to figure out how to remain open while heeding the city ordinances of social distancing. “Just about everything was shut down when I started,” Bowie said. “But it was an opportunity for [JoJo’s owners] to look at the business again and see where they could make some improvements, and to survive. My initial conversations with Ben were about how they could have music in there that was to the city’s code in terms of social distancing and still reaching the people.”
“For a short period of time, he did have [trumpeter] Joe Brotherton and Colin Chambers playing outdoors,” Bowie continued. “That’s when they were building the outside dining area in the parking lane. That helped. Moving forward, Ben asked me to help coordinate the music there.”
Kibour has known Bowie for about 10 years, and praises him as being like a brother. “[Bowie] watches out for us,” Kibour said. “He lets us know when something is going wrong. And he lets us know how to make it a better place.”
Explaining how JoJo creates a tone where patrons feel welcomed to dine and socialize, and musicians feel respected for their craft, Bowie reiterates that it is indeed a restaurant and not a posh performance hall. Expecting people to sit in utter silence during a jazz set there would be laughable.
“The thing is, it’s a restaurant. It’s not a proper or formal music performance space,” he said. “But it’s becoming that.”
“You can’t make these places into Carnegie Hall,” Bowie added. “People will talk — people should talk. They are there to eat. The audiences at JoJo are appreciative of the music, but they will eat and talk. And if musicians turn up the volume of their playing, what are the people going to do? Talk louder.”
Kibour says he had always wanted to establish a venue that delivered both great food and jazz, ever since attending college at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. “I’ve always believed in delivering great customer service,” he said. “Being on U Street was the perfect place to complete this set of food and jazz. We’ve seen plenty of good and bad, being here on U Street. But we have a strong commitment to holding on to jazz.”
“JoJo has been playing jazz since Day 1,” Kibour continued. “Musicians like Lenny have been playing here for years. They are like family. They are the ones that have made JoJo what it is. If it wasn’t for them, we would not be here. This is their home.”