Well before my comedy career and before the comedy revival on U Street was born, U Street was a nationally-recognized, premier place for jazz music. ¬†A personal favorite was Cafe Nema, formerly located where Comedy at Codmother now resides each Wednesday from 7 – 9 pm starting in November 2012.
Below is a piece written back in 2009, in the waning days of Cafe Nema and re-posted now as an (un-edited) tribute and appreciation for the opportunity to put on a show on U Street and what that means to LYGO DC:
If a story can‚Äôt be told full, it‚Äôs best to tell a tale well short. God speaks succinct in verse, rhyme, and rhythm; so I shall try.
Quincy Phillips is the leader and drums behind the Young Lions (clap, clap). He entered Caf√© Nema from the back wearing a black suit and dark tie knotted thick and worn short. He was uncharacteristically late and appeared haggard. My entrance earlier, a mere prequel, was a relative thunder‚Äîto red-eyed musicians, disbelieving regulars, felicitations from former and current staff alike, and an owner‚Äôs embrace.
QP paused to a regular‚Äôs beckoning, but beyond fashion‚Äôs timeliness, his rapid apology toward the stage was compelled. Chris Funn and Ted Baker rolled along as the setup ensued. I immediately recognized something askew, but hadn‚Äôt settled on what it was.
Bass, tom, hat, and snare were present but not much else save two cylinders of wood, leather, and rivets. But wait‚Äî
Have you seen QP? Thelonius-slim with the goat to match‚Ä¶ Spike-meets-Blakey-meets-Mingus‚Ä¶ A grin that pauses just long enough for the next to say, ‚Äúgotcha, and you loved it.‚Äù
Sax and bass set the mood and cued conversation. Then, a tapping emerged‚Äîlike that from a well-intentioned raven. The first song drew to a close. The dimly lit, below-street bar dimmed further and glowed a deeper shade of orange. The stage was set.
Duke peppered forth. And then, that different feeling came to me again. Bawp-bawp‚Ä¶2, 5‚Ä¶ Bop-bawp‚Ä¶ a smattering. It was like discovering a sound as a child: new, natural, something supposed to be found.
Next song; see: drum solo. Four beats of interlude followed by QP‚Äôs old tricks on a truncated setup‚Äîrapid fire and peerless drum magician-ship. On the fifth round the bing-bong-bap got rolling and the whole became seamless, transcendent. Funn and Baker‚Äîapparently unconscious‚Äîfollowed suit and three minutes of magic ensued.
Ecstatic, my jaw-dropped, the drum solo concluded, and the last stanza carried the newfound focus to a conclusion no one wanted: Silence. Five seconds hung in infinity. There was no applause, just a collective stun. One clasp echoed and heavy hands gathered in multitude, moments after. The third-filled tiny jazz club erupted. I heard myself mutter loudly (as one does in a state of shock), ‚Äúyes‚Ä¶ again‚Ä¶ 15 minutes more of that,‚Äù before realizing the same sentiment had rung out from the front table and the table right in front of me just a moment before.
I channeled my trusty-companion to all things jazz and moniker-maker extraordinaire all the way from Romania and thought, ‚Äúthe Mad Genius Drums of U Street.‚Äù I fumbled to my phone to tell him, but was foiled by a time zone differential realization. I turned to my right and told the owner, ‚ÄúHis new name is the Mad Genius Drums of U Street.‚Äù
QP knew what was up and decided to push further. The next song opened and Quincy quickly moved back to the bongos for punctuation, this time harkening what I believe was Dizzy‚Äôs Afro sound. The Mad Genius kept the lid down and the energy simmering for about three minutes, letting loose again on the drum solo.
Each new batch of solo bars brought wider diversions and for each round the company‚Äînow including a guitar‚Äîfollowed. I have no idea how it lasted so long and it‚Äôs a testament to the talent of all because the Mad Genius was conducting two trains, one funk and one jazz, toward one another. HORRIFIC CRASH!
The music stopped, but the beat didn‚Äôt; it just kept going, quieted, humbled‚Ä¶ until it didn‚Äôt. QP stopped to search for survivors. By the open of the next set, all had gathered again, stronger, steely-eyed knowing a collision could recur, and probably not happy QP had gone so far.
I can‚Äôt rationalize the disaster and it felt mostly wrong, but something different had happened and I remain suspicious whether Mad Genius Drums of U Street had duped us all, taught us all, or just gone beyond our feeble music minds.
The next set dazzled in classic Young Lions fashion, but the tension from the events prior remained. To observe these cats gather, especially in Nema‚Äôs intimate setting, is to live vicariously through them. YL shows don‚Äôt give you top-to-bottom album-polish or the controlled perfection of a group of 50-year veterans. Organic and explosive, you don‚Äôt know what to expect. Attempt to anticipate and you might find yourself staring down the bright lights of a locomotive.
Caf√© Nema, D.C.
The Mad Genius Drums of U Street