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Endangered Species at Smithsonian Natural History

In the new world of the Smithsonian, a universe in which the quest for profits too often outweighs the missions of science, history and education, it's all about the bottom line. So when word came down that the very popular Smithsonian Jazz Cafe, a Friday-night staple since 2000 at the National Museum of Natural History, was losing money, everyone knew that the death watch had begun. The cafe faces a June 29 closing and is no longer booking artists for dates beyond then.

The Jazz Cafe regularly draws 250 to 350 people to hear top-flight local jazz artists and touring national musicians to a supper club setting where the food is good, the music is swinging, and the Mall--too often a dead zone at night--is suddenly hopping.

But that artistic and popular success is not enough for Smithsonian Business Ventures, the for-profit wing of the nation's greatest cultural institution. SBV runs the shops, mail-order business, movie theaters, eateries and magazines associated with the Institution.

"Smithsonian Business Ventures doesn't want to continue the Jazz Cafe," says Randall Kremer, who runs the cafe for the Natural History museum, where is the public relations director. "This is a labor of love for us, but the Business Ventures folks have not found it to be profitable. This isn't necessarily a natural fit for a science museum."

But in other cities, jazz and other music programs have proven to be a very popular way of bringing people into the museum and keeping them there. It's also a way to expand the museum's audience beyond those who already know and love natural history exhibits. At $10 admission, the Jazz Cafe is an unusual bargain in the music world, and the cafe draws crowds at least as large as those at Blues Alley, the Kennedy Center Jazz Club, and other D.C. jazz venues both commercial and non-profit.

Kremer has not yet given up hope for the cafe's survival. The Natural History museum might keep the program going beyond June if it can find corporate or foundation support for the cafe, which is losing a five-figure amount each year. "If it can only be run at a loss, we want to see if corporations or foundations want to sponsor a program that brings in 350 people a week," Kremer says.

Organizers of the program like to tout it as a more relaxed atmosphere than you might find at a serious jazz venue, such as the Kennedy Center's popular Jazz Club or Blues Alley in Georgetown, both of which view themselves as listening rooms where conversation is frowned upon during the performance. "We don't tell people they can't talk," Kremer says. "The talkers make it possible for the listeners to catch these great stars."

Well, some might argue that the talkers make it impossible for the listeners to hear the stars, but different tunes for different folks, I guess. Whatever the atmospherics, the Jazz Cafe is a terrific program that appeals to tourists and even more so to locals, who make up about three-quarters of the audience. The price can't be beat and the talent is regularly superb, including Bucky Pizarelli this Friday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Children are always admitted free at the cafe.

"It's been a thriving, vibrant addition to the jazz scene in D.C.," says Larry Appelbaum, host of "The Sound of Surprise," one of the best jazz radio shows around, heard Sunday afternoons at 5 p.m. on WPFW (89.3 FM) and jazz specialist at the Library of Congress. "It's great to be able to see and hear great music in a nice room that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. It's also one of the few venues that specializes in jazz guitar," as well as Latin jazz.

For a city without a full-time jazz radio station, maintaining a vibrant performance scene is tough, but the D.C. jazz world is a much more thriving place today than it was 20 years ago, with the Kennedy Center, the Clarice Smith Center at College Park, Twins, Blues Alley and HR-57, among other venues (here's my piece on Jazz Night at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest), serving the audience an increasing variety of music. But the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe fills an important niche, reaching listeners who may not know a lot about jazz but quickly gain an appreciation and love for the music. The cafe deserves a permanent home at the museum.

By Marc Fisher |  April 5, 2007; 7:01 AM ET
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Comments

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Marc, I agree with you more often than not, but on this one I can't help but get the feeling that your lefty instincts are overriding your common sense. You think the money-losing establishment should be kept open as is--but someone has to pay. Who do you think it should be? In the end, I suspect you'd be happy to have every good liberal's favorite sugar daddy--the taxpayer--pick up the tab.

Enough already. Why should private-sector jazz clubs be forced to compete against a taxpayer-subsidized one? If the place on the Mall can't survive as is, then it needs to raise its prices. Not every good idea succeeds, nor is worthy of public funding. Stop looking to the taxpayer for help.

Posted by: Claudius | April 5, 2007 9:31 AM

"The cafe deserves a permanent home at the museum."

Amen.

Posted by: Vincent | April 5, 2007 9:57 AM

This is sad. I've attended the Jazz Cafe a number of times, and I will definitely miss it. It's a great first date spot! Very, very sad. I truly hope they can find a way to keep it going. I think any programs they can host in the evenings, to bring people in, should be supported. There's something magical about being in the museum on a Friday night, wandering around, and then going downstairs for good food and great music.

Posted by: notjoan | April 5, 2007 10:02 AM

I'd rather have my tax money go toward this Jazz Cafe than toward free services for illegal immigrants.

Posted by: Liberal | April 5, 2007 11:19 AM

Shame about the cafe, but there's more profit in selling freeze-dried astronaut ice cream.

Smithsonian Business Ventures is a big-money, for-profit enterprise. Hiding behind the prestige of the national museum, it is in the business of fleecing tourists. Period. It has no need or desire to serve the residents of the DC area. Example: it pays federal tax on an annual gross profit of more than $150 million, but none to the jurisdiction in which it is located -- DC -- and does not even collect sales tax on all that loot.

Posted by: Mike Licht | April 5, 2007 12:01 PM

A five-figure deficit? Fire one SI employee and you've just saved the Jazz Cafe. This isn't rocket surgery.

Posted by: athea | April 5, 2007 2:18 PM

If the deficit is only 5 figures, why not just increase the price of admission so that the program pays for itself? Or is breaking even too hard a concept for the Big Profit Business Venture folks and the NonProfit Artistic Types to agree on--so they'd rather kill it?

Posted by: GJ | April 5, 2007 3:22 PM

Marc I don't understand why you call the SBV jazz cafe "for profit." That's like call the Heart Association gala and benefit auction a "for profit" business. Both are there to raise money for the larger institution. As for athea, the point of the jazz cafe is so the Smithsonian can have one more employee or one more art work. SBV's problem is that they don't actually think like a business. The question is does losing five figures on the cafe bring in more money through increased memberships and donations. Going to the Smithsonian and see the free art/history isn't supporting it, sending them a check is.

Posted by: JJ | April 5, 2007 5:10 PM

Jazz clubs fail virtually every time... because the audience is limited [and notoriously cheap.] Too bad, but that`s life. Now about radio: with HD coming, one of the NPR stations should offer jazz on one of their splits.

Posted by: gitarre | April 5, 2007 6:41 PM

JJ, excellent post! SBV can be compared to the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ). The organization was formed in order to raise money to support the zoo's budget. Jazz lovers may be drawn to the Jazz Cafe and and in turn, become a Smithsonian Associate, make a financial donation, or come back during "tourist" hours and buy merchandise and food.

And don't forget the travel opportunities that the Associates program offers. Pricey, but tempting.

Posted by: Sherri | April 5, 2007 8:28 PM

No surprise. The DC area has always turned its back on jazz. Whether it is the closing of clubs, the shutting of Jazz 90 by the DC government to turn a quick and cheap buck, or the desire of the Smithsonian to see only profits. It is ironic - the Smithsonian will close a venue (arguably the best jazz venue in DC at the moment) dedicated to American music to turn another quick and easy dollar. Sums things up, really...

Posted by: Erik | April 6, 2007 8:42 AM

Let's be real. "250 to 300 people" is not VERY popular in a city with millions of residents.

Posted by: Fellow taxpayer | April 6, 2007 10:15 AM

So...apparently Keith Washington has pulled a gun on ANOTHER person just doing their job in his neighborhood.

Can we put this guy in jail now?

Posted by: shocked dad | April 6, 2007 10:51 AM

Funny, just about every other genere of music thrives in this city except jazz. Must be something wrong with the people, not the music, right?

Posted by: bkp | April 6, 2007 11:28 AM

Funny, just about every other genre of music thrives in this city except jazz. Must be something wrong with the people, not the music, right?

Posted by: bkp | April 6, 2007 11:29 AM

shocked dad, I saw that on the news yesterday evening. PG county just keeps sitting back wishing and hoping the issue will go away on its own. This man is clearly a physco and a danger to everyone around him.

Posted by: FredCo | April 6, 2007 11:39 AM

As much money as the Smithsonian has pissed away on lavish gifts for its ex-chairman, the fact that they think the Jazz Cafe is a waste of money is funny on various levels.

I love upper management, so short sighted and narrow minded.

Posted by: Silver Spring. | April 6, 2007 11:44 AM

Silver Spring, short sighted and narrow minded is the type of management that the federal government has been hiring for the past few years.

Posted by: Gaithersburg | April 6, 2007 12:10 PM

Smithsonian Business Ventures is famous for not making money, hence the recent Inspector General's audit of their revenue recognition practices (and obscene salaries).

Your column says a five-figure deficit is being run on this program. That could be $10,000, or it could be $90,000. (Why this number is kept secret by SBV is a mystery.) But, let's assume that the Jazz program meets 30 times a year and has a $30,000 deficit. That's $1,000 per night. With 300 people, the Smithsonian could simply raise admission by $3, or sell a $1,000 sponsorship opportunity.

In other words, SBV is terminating the program because they don't like it or don't get it, not because it is running a deficit. This is a lack of commitment, not a lack of funds.

Posted by: Carl Malamud | April 7, 2007 11:54 AM

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