April-12th-2012, 01:56 PM
Howard Theatre reopens, Washington D.C.'s historic home for jazz
Today, after standing dormant for more than three-decades, the historic Howard Theatre enjoys a grand reopening, following a $29 million renovation project.
Hopes are high for the Howard. It is opening with a rebuilt stage, a state-of-the-art sound system, walnut paneling, oak floors, new seats, and huge portraits of its magnificent past performers. A 20-foot statue of Washington's own Duke Ellington stands in front of this entertainment palace.
The Howard Theatre opened in 1910, nestled mid-city at the convergence of Florida Avenue, 7th and T streets. This vibrant venue was hailed as the first major theater built to feature black entertainers performing for a predominantly black clientele.
The Howard helped to showcase and further the careers of such stars as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, and, later, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and so many others that just listing them could fill a show business directory.
The Howard Theatre after renovation AP
This splendid stage for show business excellence, however, began to fade in the mid-1960s. After the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the entire Shaw neighborhood suffered disrepair for years. Sadly, a trial reopening of the theater, in 1975 failed. Its 1980 closing rang a resounding death knell for what had been the crown jewel of the Shaw neighborhood.
At today's ribbon-cutting ceremony, Jimi Smooth, who once worked as a teenage usher at the theater, will be appearing with his band. He says that when people see the dazzling new theater, "it will bring back so many good memories of the past."
I have my own memories of the Howard and its wondrous extravaganzas. One show I recall in vivid detail. Permit me to go back to that show and share it as I saw it.
Howard Theatre before renovation
The year is 1964. I am all of 27 years old. Three of my friends and I inch forward in a long line to the box office for a Saturday midnight jazz show which boasts four outstanding acts. Even though we are a conspicuous racial minority, we feel comfortable in this happy setting. The Howard is known as a warm and welcoming place, and jazz has always been a uniting force.
We take seats inside, about row 20 center. An announcer's voice welcomes all to the show: "Please give a Washington Howard Theatre welcome to the Ramsey Lewis Trio featuring Ramsey Lewis on piano, with Red Holt and Eldee Young on drums and bass." The combo provides tasty jazz hits, such as "Carmen," "Black-eyed Peas," and "The In Crowd," a song the trio recorded live a year earlier at Washington's Bohemian Caverns.
Jazz great Nancy Wilson
When they finish their half-hour set, I jump up in jest and shout to my friends, "I got my money's worth, goodnight." They pull me down, laughing, knowing that I am saying that the Ramsey Lewis Trio alone is worth the price of admission.
"And now, ladies and gentleman," the announcer says, "Let's hear it for the Cannonball Adderley Sextet." Tumultuous applause breaks out as the stage is taken over by Julius "Cannonball" on tenor sax; his brother, Nat Adderley, on trumpet; Joe Zawinul at the piano; and Yusef Lateef on flute, soprano sax and sweet potato (or transverse ocarina). The group delivers such diverse songs as, "Work Song," "Primitivo," and "The Jive Samba."
When this coolest of combos finishes to a wave of applause, the announcer says: "And now, a new young powerhouse on the entertainment scene, welcome please, lovely Miss Nancy Wilson." Young Nancy takes center stage and sings a number of pop and jazz standards. Then she steps back into a stage set which looks like a private study in an upscale home.
Behind the desk is a high-backed leather office chair which is turned away from the desk so that one has to imagine that she is singing to her husband, as she begins the introduction to her current hit, a one-act play set to music titled, "Guess Who I Saw Today": "You're so late getting home from the office....As a matter of fact, I've had quite a day too." She tells in song of observing a loving couple at the bar of a restaurant she happened into. Then comes the punch line: "Guess who I saw today . . . I saw you."
Count Basie and Bob Crosby at Howard Theatre 1941
On the word, "you," the chair pivots around, and sitting in it is the headliner of the show, the multi-talented Oscar Brown Jr. He stands, extending his arm toward Nancy, and the crowd goes wild. After she takes her bows, Oscar begins singng his compositions, "Mr. Kicks," "Hazel's Hips," and others, including the tender "Brown Baby."
Just another Saturday night. Just another superb show at the Howard. Just one of the greatest shows I had the pleasure of seeing. And I can say it, and see it ("As I See-Saw It") after all these years.
Some while back, when an article of mine about jazz and the Howard Theatre appeared in the Washington City Paper, I recall bumping into Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP. He took time to read my piece, then said, "You're right. Even during the height of segregation, jazz clubs broke down those barriers. I well remember the Howard Theatre."
The Howard Theatre provided a welcoming presence in the city. So let me say, for myself and thousands of Washingtonians, "Welcome back, Howard Theatre. You've been missed. Welcome back."