WASHINGTON, DC– The first time I ever heard of Blues Alley in Washington, DC, was as a performer with the Al Dowe Quintet. Dowe, a Pittsburgh trombonist/bandleader, had performed there and often spoke favorably of the world-famous jazz club.
Thirty years later, on a recent Tuesday night, I finally visited Blues Alley.
The club is quite quaint and holds just about 120 people, comfortably.
On this warm September evening, I caught the first of two shows featuring locally- acclaimed keyboardist, Kevin Toney, formerly of The Blackbyrds.
The club’s menu also provided an unexpected Pittsburgh flavor, including several menu items named for legendary Pittsburgh musicians such as Stanley Turrentine’s crab cakes; Phyllis Hyman’s stuffed shrimp and Ahmad Jamal’s pasta with pesto.
Overall, the club has a uniquely private ambiance reminiscent of famous New York City jazz clubs ala Smalls Paradise, Cecil’s in West Orange and the still-thriving, Blue Note Cafe.
Blues Alley remains one of the nation’s oldest jazz rooms; having opened its doors in 1965 – just three years prior to the riots of 1968, a backlash following the April 4 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Through it all, the club has managed to swing – still booking some of the world’s top-notch jazz musicians. Roy Ayers, Stanley Clarke, Rachelle Farrell, Stanley Jordan and Roy Hargrove are all booked for fall 2013.
The Kevin Toney 3 trio, provided a classical-jazz backdrop, with support of Spyra Gyro members Lee Pearson on drums and Scott Ambush on bass.
Toney remains a DC favorite son, having studied under the late Donald Byrd at Howard University prior to joining Byrd’s Blackbyrds in the early 1970s.
On this humid September night, Toney mostly displayed his classical side, in addition to a moving tribute to Scott Joplin, while performing “The Entertainer.” The group also played “Walkin In Rhythm” for folks (like me) who yearned for little more of a funky groove on a Tuesday evening. Former BET-TV personality Angela Stribling also took in the performance.
Stribling is now a radio deejay on WHUR’s Quiet Storm and a on-air TV personality in the DC market. She also enjoys a career as a jazz vocalist and sings at venues such as The Blue Note and Blues Alley.
In my opinion, however, I still think Kevin Toney should consider offering a more funkier, smooth-jazz set considering his renown background in the funk-fusion realm. I’m certain he’d attract a larger more enthusiastic following should he funkify his set-list, just a tad.
Meanwhile, you should consider making the five-hour drive from Western Pa. on a fall weekend to experience the Georgetown restaurant scene while attending the legendary Blues Alley jazz club, just off the 1700 block of Wisconsin Avenue.
You’ll not be disappointed.