The Duke’s Incubator

12 Jun

There is a lot of talk in DC and other big cities about incubators.  And while Affinity Lab and The Hive have had nice write-ups, one of the most important incubators in Washington, DC has had very little press.  It also closed around 1928, and had nothing to do with tech start-ups.

As you surely know by now, the Howard Theatre (640 T Street NW) was transformed in a $29 million renovation that completed and unveiled to the public last Spring.

(After the 1968 riots, the theater fell into disrepair and looked like this:

Howard theatre before

Photo courtesy DC Clubbing.

Howard interior before

The restoration made it look like this:

Howard after exterior

Photo by Tim Cooper courtesy Howard Theatre.

Howard after interior

Photo by Jeff Martin.

Nice.)

Opened in 1910, the Howard Theatre was an important addition to a segregated and centralized, thriving African-American Washington-based throughout the Greater U Street neighborhood and Shaw.

Between 1886 and 1920, the number of African-American owned businesses in the area rose from fifteen to 300, with the bulk of new businesses coming between 1910 and 1920. Entrepreneurs, like John Lewis; local businesses, such as the Murray Brothers Printing Company which published Washington’s most influential African-American newspaper, the Washington Afro-American and Tribune; and national benevolent organizations, such as the United Order of True Reformers, together built the infrastructure necessary to help the African-American community gain its independence from white Washington.*

One of those new businesses started right next door to the Howard just about the same time the theater opened, and it is this, Frank Holliday’s Pool Hall, that became one of the city’s most important incubators of musical talent.

Built in 1879 as two separate 2-story brick row houses, 624 T Street NW spent the first 30 years as residential rental units for local African-Americans.  By 1910, the interior wall had been removed from the first floor and the two buildings combined into a restaurant and billiard establishment.  Frank Holliday’s was a center of black community, drawing crowds from across social and economic classes, including a 14-year-old Duke Ellington.  From Ellington’s autobiography:

It was not a normal, neighborhood-type poolroom.  It was the high spot of billiard parlors where all the kids from all neighborhoods came, and the great pool sharks from all over town.  Some would come from out of town, too, and there would be championship matches.  Guys from all walks of life seemed to converge there: school kids over and under sixteen; college student and graduates, some starting out in law and medicine and science; and lots of Pullman porters and dining-car waiters.  These last had much to say about the places they’d been.  The names of the cities would be very impressive.  You would hear them say, “I just left Chicago,” or “Last night I was in Cleveland.”  You do a lot of listening in a poolroom, and all this sounded very big.

Then there were the professional and amateur gamblers….Interns used to come in, who could cure colds.  And handwriting experts who would enjoy copying somebody’s signature on a check, go out and cash it, and bring back the money to show the cats in the poolroom what artists they were.  They didn’t need the money.  They did it for the kicks…”

Among the professional men was Dr. Charles Drew, who was the first to make plasma work.  Then there were the Curtis brothers.  One eventually became an eye specialist, the other a heart specialist.  Bub Boller and George Hayes were lawyers.  Frank Holliday’s very tight buddy was Clarence Cabiness, whose nickname was “Snake.”  He was the ideal picture of cool – Mr. Cool…”

Duke Ellington and his band, c.1919 (National Archives)

It was this exposure to a strata of society at Frank Holliday’s plus his father’s “color blind” ethos that formed Ellington’s philosophy about life.  But it was the musicians that hung out at the pool hall that incubated Duke Ellington’s talent:

Of course, all the piano players used to hang out there, too.  There was Ralph Green, who never really became a professional piano player.  Claude Hopkins was there.  Shrimp Bronner was another.  Phil Word, who used to play piano at the Howard Theatre, was a good song writer too.  Roscoe Lee, who became a dentist, would be there.  He and Claude Hopkins were reader piano players, like Doc Perry, Louis Brown, and Louis Thomas, who came by from time to time.  Les Dishman was the great left hand.  Then there were Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, and Blind Johnny.  These cats couldn’t read, but there was a wonderful thing, an exchange, which went on between them and the guys who did…

I used to go up to Doc Perry’s house almost every day, sit there in a glow of enchantment, until he’d pause and explain some passage.  Being an educated man of intelligence and tolerance, he had the patience to share with me his theories and observations…He never charged me five cents, and he served food and drink throughout the whole thing.  How does one pay off this type of indebtedness?  Back in those days, if you were a constant listener and hanger-on like I was, any piano player in D.C. was wide open and approachable.  If you were to ask any one of them something like, ‘How did you do that, that you just played?’, they would stop doing whatever they were doing and play it again, while I watched and listened to it and its explanation.  Great people like Lester Dishman, top ear-man Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, Louis Brown, Louis Thomas, Caroline Thornton, Roscoe Lee, Gertie Wells, The Man with a Million Fingers, all of whom had their own individual style…I could ask any one of the D.C. guys, mainly Doc Perry, and he would show me, and he knew what he was doing.  Everyone else there too.  I absorbed everybody and when I found that something I wanted to do was a little too difficult for the yearling that I was then, I would cop-out with something appropriate to my limitations.**

In the right corner of the photo next to Howard Theatre: the building that would house Frank Holliday's

In the right corner of the photo next to Howard Theatre: the building that would house Frank Holliday’s pool hall. (Photo courtesy Prince of Petworth)

By 1923, Ellington had moved to New York City, was soon working at the Cotton Club, and the rest is history.  In 1923, the patrons of Frank Holliday’s narrowly escaped a ceiling collapse, and by 1928, the building was vacant.  Around 1931, the row houses were almost fully knocked down (although a portion of the western wall remains), and a one story building was constructed at 624 T Street.

7th and T Streets NW in 1935, showing the “new” one-story building at 624 T St NW (Photo courtesy Howard Theatre).

7th and T Streets NW in 1935, showing the new one-story building at 624 T Street

Since then, not much has changed on the building, except for its decline, which you can see here:

624 T Street today

Photo courtesy Prince of Petworth.

The last occupant of the space was Café Mawonaj, a music venue and gathering place for political activists from those seeking justice in African countries to anarchists in the United States.  A fire on November 20, 2005 resulted in the cafe’s eviction.

But soon you will be able to visit the site of Frank Holliday’s once again.  As part of the new Progression Place mixed-use development, 624 T Street will be reinvented, this time as the Right Proper Brewing Company slated to open in October.   Owner Thor Cheston‘s first album was the Duke himself, and maybe the venue will become an incubator of the new popular culture in DC…beer.

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