The Music That Impacted My Neighborhood – Washington Daily News

I’m sharing one of the most requested columns I’ve written. Enjoy!

I really enjoyed the recent PBS show American Masters starring the legendary Duke Ellington. Born in Washington DC in 1889, he was one of the founders of big band jazz music and an unparalleled giant on the American music scene. Ellington led his band, The Washingtonians, to the top of the fame and music charts for more than fifty years. My parents loved his music and played it often. I remember my Aunt Hattie trying to teach me to dance, to lindy hop to his music.

But at the age of eight, my go-to choice for good music was the collection of polka records I owned. My favorite record, The Andrews Sisters’ Roll Out the Barrel, beat anything Ellington could play. And since I could dance the polka perfectly, there was no need to learn Lindy Hop.

Over the years, The Supremes, Four Tops, Temptations, Len Barry, and The Righteous Brothers replaced polka records.

No other music I’ve heard could be better than it, until I heard my dad sing Dinah Washington’s version of her hit “Teach Me Tonight.” I was amazed that he could sing, and I was amazed that he knew all the songs from artists like Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine and others in this genre that were playing on the car radio when we drove downtown to Ammon’s Bakery. I was really impressed by the songs and borrowed some of his LPs to see Ellington, Bennie Goodman and Louis Armstrong, Della Reese, Artie Shaw or Sarah Vaughn for myself.

I fell in love with Bennie Goodman’s “Stompin’ at The Savoy,” but it was his clarinet rendition of “Begin the Beguine” that made me go to The Ed Sullivan Show to watch people sing the Begine dance, a dance similar to rumba. That’s when I learned that dance is more than lindy hop, polka or cha-cha. This music opened the door for me to learn more about the neighborhoods I grew up in.

My father said Washington used to be a big draw for big bands and jazz music. He showed me many places on Fourth Street where I grew up that were known for music in their day. Although most big bands did not perform in Washington, their music was played on juke boxes. Many of these places have become social meccas of the community. New York jazz and music venues, also popular in Harlem, influenced the naming of many black-owned restaurants, nightclubs, and businesses.

He told me how many of them got their names. Some I had to research after figuring out why they got their names. Some have been dubbed “juke joints.”

The juke joint closest to my house was the Dew Drop Inn on Fourth Street and Van Norden Street. This place was a long time ago, seriously a long time ago, one of many local jazz, big band and music centers in the early 30’s to mid 60’s when the music was played on jukeboxes and radios, not by the actual bands performing. This Dew Drop Inn is named after the famous Dew Drop Inn built in Mandeville, Louisiana in 1895. The Dew Drop Inn in Mandeville was the first black jazz club in America. As jazz spread like wildfire in the mid-20th century, Dew Drop (Do Drop) Inns became popular everywhere! In the late 1930’s there was another place called the Do-Drop-Inn which was on the corner of Fourth and Respess Streets.

The Hollywood Inn, also known as the legendary Pomp Credle’s Restaurant on Fifth and Gladden, was named for the Hollywood Inn Jazz Club in midtown New York City where Duke Ellington performed in 1946.

The Hi-De-Ho Inn was a sandwich shop on Fourth Street and Pierce Street. named for Cab Calloway’s hit 1947 film Hi-De-Ho. (Calloway performed at the New Theater (part of the Historic Turnage Theatre) in 1943.)

The Cameo Inn Restaurant was named after a Harlem restaurant where Ellington performed in 1946.

The Little Caldonia 406 West Fourth Street was named after the popular song (also a short film) recorded by Louis Jordan in 1945.

The Honey Dripper 402 West Fourth Street was named after a very popular song sung by Louis Liggans and The Honey Drippers. The song was so popular that it stayed at the top of the Billboard R&B chart for 18 weeks from September 1945 to January 1946.

The Starlight Club at 227 North Gladden Street was named after a stage scene in a 1934 Louis Armstrong film.

The Starlight Club was one of the few places named in the Green Book, a guide to black businesses in the United States. And the New York Cafe at 303 West Fourth Street was a popular restaurant that my father eventually brought over and turned into Isaac Payton’s Pool Room.

I’m glad I got to know some really good music and the story behind some of the iconic places whose names many people will remember to this day.

A Washington native, Leesa Jones is the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.

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