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DC's Subterranean Jazz Secret

One by one, the landmarks of the Black Broadway, the U Street nightspots and music meccas where jazz had its heyday, are being either restored or rediscovered. After too many decades of neglect, Washington has opened its eyes to a pulsating chapter of its history.

First, the Lincoln Theatre was rehabbed and reopened, alas to poor management and tepid success. Then, the Bohemian Caverns club was restored to its original glory. And the District once again promises that the Howard Theatre, the once-magnificent home to the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Redd Foxx, will be brought back from decades of pathetic neglect.

Now, Mayor Adrian Fenty's government has announced a plan to bring in a developer to create office, retail and possibly housing on the land immediately behind the Lincoln Theatre.

But while there's much to be said for restoring memories of the days when Ellington could, within walking distance of his Shaw home, soak in enough jazz to launch his spectacular career as a performer and composer, the fact is that U Street is becoming a far more affluent and ethnically mixed place than it ever was during Washington's Jazz Age. (Here's my 1999 piece on Ellington's Washington.)

The good side of gentrification is that it is making these restorations possible and keeping clubs such as Bohemian Caverns in business--drawing a very mixed crowd, despite the howls from those who say the economic boom in Shaw is forcing blacks out of a historically black business and entertainment district. The dispiriting side of gentrification is that indeed many longtime homeowners have decided to cash in and move out to the suburbs, and some renters have found themselves priced out and forced to less central neighborhoods.

Through all this change, however, the heavily subsidized Lincoln Theatre has failed to thrive, despite an impressive renovation job. Now the city is trying to reset the business model by adding a development onto the rear of the theater. But Mike Licht, whose blog, NotionsCapital, is a creative blend of local history and politics, reports on a missed opportunity to capitalize on another piece of Lincoln history, the Colonnades, the below-ground nightspot where much of the jazz action really happened.

The solution for the Lincoln Theatre's revenue problem was solved some time ago -- in 1927. That is when new owner Abe Lichtman, employer of most of DC's African American theater managers, put a public ballroom underground, under and behind the theater. This provided the Lincoln with a steady second income stream. This hall, the "Lincoln Colonnade," was arguably more important to Washington's African American community than the theater proper, and most of the stars said to have "packed the theater's 1,200 seats" actually played for dancers in the Colonnade.

Licht found that the underground club, sadly filled in with construction rubble, played host to greats such as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Tiny Bradshaw, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine--many of whom played at debutante balls and gala parties that drew the city's socially prominent black elite.

Licht worked for the D.C. government back when the decision was made to revive the Lincoln. He knew about the Colonnades and writes that he told his superiors "that most successful historic theater restorations would go under if they couldn't rent out their imposing lobbies for weddings and corporate parties, and the Lincoln doesn't have much of a lobby. I strongly suggested considering an underground facility like the Colonnade under the back lot, and recommended consulting the League of Historic American Theatres (then located in Washington) about this issue. I was met with a chorus of shrugs."

But the new plan for construction behind the Lincoln is a chance to right that wrong and dig down to create a new Colonnades. Will developers bite? It may well depend on the parking wars that rage in so many inner city neighborhoods--if developers are forced to provide parking, they will have to look below ground, which could spell doom or opportunity for Colonnades fans.

And someday, Washingtonians rediscovering Ellington's era in the city might be able not only to read about Murray's Casino, Stack O' Lee's, Woodman's Hall, and Eagle's Hall, but actually set foot inside places where the music still echoes, places such as the Howard, the Lincoln and the Bohemian Caverns.

By Marc Fisher |  May 16, 2008; 7:43 AM ET
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Perhaps the Lincoln Theatre might consider showing movies on a regular basis to generate revenue. There are no motion picture theatres in the area.

Posted by: Stephen Jackson | May 16, 2008 10:02 AM

I've lived near the Lincoln for years, and have really wanted to check the place out. Unfortunately, their offerings have never been to my taste. I agree with the above poster, that showing movies, perhaps offering a wider range of concerts, or other events to diversify their offerings would help them tremendously. The restoration of the Lincoln has appeared to rely on the assumption that the audience from 1927 would return. For better or worse, that is no longer the character of the neighborhood.

Posted by: Bloomingdale, DC | May 16, 2008 10:33 AM

I live two blocks north of the Lincoln and would love to bring back something like the Colonnades. Not many of the new folks in my neighborhood are aware of its historic significance. The Theater is a gem and needs to be utilized better. I wholeheartedly support the idea of something along the lines of the Colonnades.

Posted by: 20009 | May 16, 2008 11:43 AM

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