‘It’s swingin’, y’know?’: Young musicians pay tribute to big bands in tiny DC nightclub

Big Bands were among the acts at the tiny Cellar Door

Jazz pianist Finn Murphy never saw a performance at the legendary Cellar Door nightclub at 34th and M streets in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood — in fact, his parents weren’t even of drinking age when the tiny club closed its doors in January of 1982.

Finn Murphy never saw a show at the Cellar Door, at 34th and M Streets. But on Saturday, he'll perform in a tribute to acts that played there, with the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra. (Courtesy Cora Murphy)

But the freshman at McLean High School knows the music that was made in the 163-seat club — including full big bands and orchestras that somehow crammed onto the Cellar Door stage.

On Saturday night, Murphy and fellow musicians in the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra will be among the performers saluting acts that played the cozy corner club near the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge, which now houses a Starbucks, in “A Tribute to The Cellar Door,” at The Hamilton Live.

“They didn’t feature a lot of big bands, but they had a couple of notable engagements,” including Count Basie and His Orchestra, said musician and promoter Ronnie Newmeyer. “They had one that I happened to attend myself — 1970, with the Buddy Rich big band.”

Cellar Door exterior
1970, photo by Dave Nuttycombe

Rich played a six-night stand at the Cellar Door in January of 1970.

“The big band boss of the drums has come to town for a week, with his hard beat and 15 young extroverts who lay down some of the most dynamic big-band jazz sounds the city has heard in years,” wrote Washington Evening Star music and nightlife columnist John Segraves.

Segraves’ son, Mark, a reporter with NBC4 Washington and co-founder of After Dark Productions, is orchestrating the show with Newmeyer’s production company, Newmeyer Flyer.

When asked why he chose to play music that was popular during the swing era from the early 1930s until the late 1940s rather than more contemporary music, Murphy shrugged.

“I started getting into it when I was a lot younger,” said 15-year-old Murphy, referring to when he was 12, according to his mother, Cora.

“I felt like with classical piano, I wasn’t able to adequately express myself musically,” said Murphy. “So when I started listening to jazz I was kind of like, ‘Oh my God, I have to do this.'”

Murphy got his first taste of playing the music he was drawn to at the Blues Alley Jazz Society Summer Camp.

As he learned, Murphy said he wasn’t focused on written notes in sheet music.

“With jazz, it’s mainly about listening to the people who did know what they were doing,” Murphy said. “Listening to great recordings, transcribing solos, copying what they’re playing, really studying their technique.”

Now, when he listens to and plays music played by Count Basie and Buddy Rich, he has a new appreciation.

“It’s very present, very in the moment. It works great in front of a crowd,” said Murphy. “It’s swingin,’ y’know?”

“Jazz music, a lot of it was dance music,” Murphy added. “All that feel was really about getting a crowd to dance.”

At The Hamilton Live, which has a capacity of 525 people, Murphy will be channeling the intimacy big band jazz musicians felt at the Cellar Door.

When he solos, Murphy said he challenges himself. “Can I get the audience to dance. Even if they’re just sitting and listening — can I get them to dance?”

The Blues Alley Youth Orchestra will perform at 'A Tribute to the Cellar Door'

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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