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.
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