Blues Alley celebrates 50 years at Strathmore event

April 20, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It’s been a fixture of the D.C. music scene for half a century.

Now, Blues Alley of Georgetown is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The celebration began with an event at the Kennedy Center back in April and continues this weekend with a special event Saturday night at The Strathmore in Bethesda.

The show will feature talents like Angela Winbush, who’s played Blues Alley for several decades, Kindred the Family Soul, a husband and wife who cultivated their act at Blues Alley, and violinist Chelsey Green, who got her masters at Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore before receiving a scholarship for her doctorate at University of Maryland, College Park.

April 20, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

“The intimacy of how the venue is set up really allows the artist connect with the audience in a different way,” Green says of Blues Alley, who’s played everywhere from The Strathmore to Verizon Center with Stevie Wonder. “There’s something special about the energy that can pass between artist and audience … that’s what really keeps that magic alive, because the art is so tangible.”

Green is just one of many talented jazz, soul and blues artists to move through Blues Alley over the past 50 years, including legends like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Sarah Vaughan, Wynton Marsalis and Gil Scott-Heron.

She’s now looking forward to playing Saturday’s event at The Strathmore.

“The acoustic is just like butter with honey and syrup in it mixed together,” Green says.

The event begins with a Party on the Patio at 6:30 p.m. featuring food and drink specials. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser will give mayoral proclamation at 7:30 p.m., followed by a concert at 8 p.m.

“When we approached the 50th anniversary, we decided that we would try to interject a great deal of the past performers that have graced the Blues Alley stage over the past 50 years,” Blues Alley owner Harry Schnipper says. “We decided we would curate it in a way in which we would launch a series of four principle performances at The Strathmore and at the Kennedy Center … and we will move on with performances by Chick Corea in the fall, as well as Wynton Marsalis in December.”

Schnipper fully acquired Blues Alley in 2003, after serving as executive director of the nonprofit Blues Alley Jazz Society, which has provided children’s education programming for the past 30 years. 

But his association with the club began by accident as a botched teenage date back in the 1970s.

Schnipper was actually on his way to see another performance at The Cellar Door at 34th and M Street NW. When he discovered that show was sold out, he took his date to Blues Alley instead.

“We were a fun town back in the ’60s and ’70s,” Schnipper says. “In fact, we often thought of Georgetown and its surrounding neighborhood as the Greenwich Village of our nation’s capital. … You could literally roll a bowling ball down M Street and you would hit one club after another, starting at the Cellar Door all the way down to the Etcetera Club at the far-east end.”

The Cellar Door has since closed, and the Georgetown arts scene has changed drastically.

“You had this really indigenous, bohemian club/entertainment atmosphere that is lacking today,” Schnipper says. “Georgetown was the epicenter of nighttime activity and you could stroll from one club to another and literally catch three acts in one night, whereas now you’d be limited and you’d be, ‘oh, I’m going to go from Georgetown to Penn Quarter to Capitol Hill.’ It’s just not the same.”

While Schnipper misses the vibrancy of Georgetown’s music scene, the lack of other clubs provides a unique opportunity for Blues Alley as the last vestige — save for the new Gypsy Sally’s on K Street.

“We have a very loyal and dedicated following that has been with us for five decades,” he says. “It’s everything from ‘I met my wife there’ to ‘I got engaged there.’ One night, I was sitting there not long ago with a octogenarian couple who said they went on one of their first dates 50 years ago to Blues Alley when it was first opening. So that gives you a little perspective when you look back upon your own life. The longevity of the club exceeds multiple generations.”

Tickets range between $44 and $88. Click here for ticket information.

April 20, 2024 | Blues Alley owner Harry Schnipper chats with WTOP's Jason Fraley (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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