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Ben's Revives Jelly Roll Morton's D.C. Connection

Last week's 50th anniversary bashes for Ben's Chili Bowl were a blast. From Bill Cosby's on-stage quips about the verve with which the servers at Ben's whap the chili onto the half-smoke, to Roberta Flack's still-distinctive stylings, to a gathering of the District's political elite in a tent behind the Lincoln Theater, Ben and Virginia Ali demonstrated yet again that their hot dog stand on U Street NW is the improbable cultural crossroads of the city.

Now comes blogger Mike Licht, whose wealth of info about Washington's past makes his NotionsCapital blog one of the city's most fascinating, with the 411 about the building next door to Ben's, a spot where the Ali family is about to open a somewhat more upscale version of their traditional eatery. At 1211 U Street, Ben's Next Door, as the new place is to be known, will feature Ben's food, plus a liquor license, for a more adult, clubbier atmosphere. And Licht reports that the new establishment will operate in a building that once served as jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton's own Washington club, the Music Box, where Morton was both a partner and an occasional performer.

Licht's plea for the new Ben's to serve jelly rolls isn't terribly likely to produce much change in the Ben's menu--the Alis, thank the heavens, are traditionalists. But it would be great to see some sort of tribute to the room's illustrious past put up on the walls, much as the Lerner family has lined the main walkways in Nats Park with documentations of baseball's history in the District. The story of the Black Broadway, as U Street was known in the early 20th century, is far too little known in this city, and great establishments such as Ben's and the Bohemian Caverns that occupy some of the landmark spaces leftover from those glorious times should take special care to pass along the names, faces and tales of a time before riots, before gentrification, before the seemingly inexorable march of the chain stores.

By Marc Fisher |  August 29, 2008; 8:45 AM ET
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Marc:

Nizam Ali assures me there will be jelly roll on the menu of Ben's Next Door.

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 29, 2008 1:39 PM

Actually, Jelly Roll Morton's stay on U Street was a late, far fromn great chapter in his life. At the point he worked as the pianist and front man of a hole-in-the-wall bar, he was aging,ill, and nearly forgotten. His tenure ended there when he was stabbed by a female patron. Within about 18 months, he was dead of heart disease while likely still in his 50s.

Posted by: peter | August 29, 2008 3:43 PM

Peter:

All true, but it was also the time that Mr. Morton recorded his music, songs, and epic bawdy tales for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress.

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 29, 2008 4:27 PM

Peter:

All true, but it was also the time that Mr. Morton recorded his music, songs, and epic bawdy tales for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress.

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 29, 2008 4:33 PM

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