by Giovanni Russonello
Update (3:10 p.m., 3/30/12): Jamal Sahri, the owner of Utopia, informed CapitalBop that he plans to reopen the restaurant in June 2013, and he said, “Utopia will have jazz…. It’ll be the same thing.”
Almost every night of the week since 1993, crashing cymbals and snarling horns have drifted out the front window at 1418 U St. NW, luring in passersby. Utopia, the beloved Moroccan restaurant and bar, has stood for 20 years as D.C. jazz’s sturdiest monument and meeting place.
But this Sunday
might be the last time jazz is ever played there. will be the last time jazz is played there for at least 14 months.
The restaurant is one of many establishments on the U Street block between 14th and 15th Streets that will be closing in the coming months. It’s all in preparation for a massive construction project that will give rise to Louis at 14th, a luxury apartment building, according to musicians employed by the club. (At least the good people at JBG Companies, which is building the new complex, had the good humor to give their jazz-jettisoning project an ironic name.)
Calls and text messages to Utopia’s management were not returned, but pianist Wayne Wiletnz said that he has been told the restaurant will reopen after renovations are made. “Whether they come back as a jazz club is another story,” he said. Owner Jamal Sahri has confirmed that Utopia has signed a contract that allows it to reopen in June 2013, and he has no plans to stop hosting jazz when Utopia returns. “It’ll be the same thing. Maybe a bit different food, [but] I love my musicians,” he said.
Trumpeter DeAndrey Howard will perform tonight and Saturday, and then Wilentz will play with the Cheryl Jones Trio on Sunday for
what just might be the establishment’s last hurrah as a jazz venue before it reopens. Food will be half-price on Sunday, and the band will be playing all night.
Wilentz has worked at Utopia since the restaurant started having jazz performances a few months after it opened. “It’s been a place where you can walk in without paying a cover and hear good musicians pretty much every night of the week. People of the order of Lyle Link and Tony Martucci and Pam Bricker,” Wilentz said. “You’re talking about some of the best jazz musicians in town, and you can come and see them for free and just have a couple drinks. Where are you going to go to have that now?”
Wilentz also emphasized the club’s importance as a meeting ground and incubator for area jazz talent. “To me, it was a home where I could have the young people come sit in. Elijah [Jamal Balbed] sat in when he was 18, Gavin Fallow when he was 17 or 18,” he said. “It’s been a great experience, as far as the music is concerned.”
Howard, who has played every weekend at Utopia for the past few years, said it was both a local hub and a hotspot for musicians passing through the District. “The bad cats from out of town would come to sit in when they were in D.C.,” he said. “Roy Hargrove came…. Marcus Printup would come whenever he was in town.”
The resurgence of jazz on the U Street corridor, which has been known as the city’s jazz hub since the early days of the 20th century, has been stemmed in the past two years by the closing of Cafe Nema, HR-57 and now Utopia. But it seems that the scene is experiencing a dissolution, rather than a disappearance: HR-57 didn’t vanish, it simply relocated to H Street NE — where the recently revived Atlas Performing Arts Center also began hosting top-notch jazz performances recently. Meanwhile, Howard isn’t fretting over the loss of his weekend gigs: He has plans to open his own venue in Brookland. “It’s going to be a jazz cafe — nothing but jazz,” he said, describing the venue that he plans to open at Franklin Street and 12 Street NE. He says that he has already started to refurbish the property’s interior, and “as soon as the weather breaks we’re going to [renovate] the front…. Hopefully we’ll be open by the end of the summer.”